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Raising Obama
Raising Obama
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How His Mother Made Him Who He Is.


Raising Obama

"What is best in me I owe to her"

Barack Obama, Dreams from my Father.

Each of us lives a life of contradictory truths. We are not one thing or another. Barack Obama's Mother was at least a dozen things. S. Ann Soetoro was a teen Mother who later got a Ph. D in Anthropology; A White woman from the Midwest who was more comfortable in Indonesia; a natural born Mother obsessed with her work; a romantic pragmatist, if such a thing is possible. "When I think about my Mother, I think that there was a certain combination of being very grounded in who she was, what she believed in. But also a certain recklessness. I think she was always searching for something. She wasn't comfortable seeing her life confined to a certain box".

Today Obama is partly a product of what his Mother was not. Where as she swept her children off to unfamiliar lands and lived apart from her son when he was a teenager, Obama has tried to ground his children in the Midwest. "my choosing to put down roots in Chicago and marry a woman who is very rooted in one place probably indicates a desire for stability that maybe I was missing". Ironically, the person who matter most in Obama's life is the one we know the least about, maybe because being partly African in America is still a pre-occupation above almost all else. But Obama is his Mothers son. In his wide-open rhetoric about what can be instead of what was, you see a hint of his Mothers credibility. When Obama get donations from people who have never believed in politics before, they're responding to his ability passed down from his Mother to make a powerful argument (that happens to be very liberal) without using a trace of ideology.

On a good day, when he figures out how to move a crowed of thousands of people very different from himself, it has something to do with having had a parent who gazed at different cultures the way other people study gems. It turns out that Obama's nascent career peddling hope is a family business. he inherited it. And while it is true that he has not been profoundly tested, he was raised by someone who was. In most elections, the deceased mother of a candidate in the primaries is not the subject of a magazine profile. But Ann Soetoro was not like most mothers. Born in 1942, Obama's mother came into an America constrained by war, segregation and a distrust of difference. Her parents named her Stanley Ann Soetoro, Stanley because her Father wanted a boy. She endured the expected teasing over this indignity, but dutifully lugged the name through High School, apologizing for it each time she introduced herself in a new town.

During her life, she was known by four different names, each representing a distinct chapter. Her family moved more than five times- from Kansas to California to Texas as to Washington, before her 18th Birthday. Her father, a furniture salesman, had a restlessness that she inherited. She spent her High School years on a small Island in Washington, taking advanced classes in philosophy and visiting coffee shops in Seattle. Although Stanley was accepted early by the University of Chicago, her father wouldn't let her go. She was too young to be off on her own, he said, unaware, as fathers tend to be, of what could happen when she lived in his house.

After she finished High School, her father whisked the family away again-this time to Honolulu, after he heard about a big new furniture store there. Hawaii had just become a state, and it was the new frontier. Stanley grudgingly went along yet again, enrolling in the University of Hawaii as a freshman. Stanley had started introducing herself as Ann. She met Barack Obama Sr. in a Russian-language class. He was one of the first Africans to attend the University of Hawaii and focus of great curiosity."He had this magnetic personality", remembers Neil Abercrombie, a member of congress from Hawaii who was friends with Obama Sr. in college."Everything was oratory from him, even the most common place Observation".

When Ann told her parents about the African student at school, they invited him over for dinner. Her father didn't notice when his daughter reached out to hold his hand, according to Obamas book. Her mother thought its best not to cause a scene. In the early 60s black people made up less than 1% of the states population. And while interracial marriage was legal there, it was banned in half the other states. On February 2,1961, several months after they met, Obama's parents got married in Maui. Ann was three months pregnant with Barack Obama II. Friends did not learn of the wedding until afterward. "nobody was invited", the motivation behind the marriage remains a mystery, even to Obama. Even by the standards of 1961, she was young to be married. At 18, she dropped out of college after one semester.

Then when Obama almost one, his father left for Harvard to get a Ph.D in economics's. He had also been accepted to the New school in New York City, with a more generous Scholarship that would have allowed his family to join him. But he decided to go to Harvard."How can I refuse the best education?" He told Ann, according to Obama's book. Obama's father had an agenda: to return to his home country and help reinvent Kenya. He wanted to take his new family with him. In the end, Ann decided not to follow him. "She was under no illusions," He was a man of his time, from a very patriarchal society. Ann filed for divorce in Honolulu in January 1964. Citing "grievous mental suffering", the reason given in most divorces at the time. Ann had already done things most woman of her generation had not: She had married an African, had their baby and gotten divorced.

At this juncture, her life could have become narrower. A young, marginalized woman focused on paying her rent and raising a child on her own. She could have filled her son's head with well-founded resentment for his absent father. But that is not what happened.

When her son was almost 2, Ann returned to College. Money was tight . She collected food stamps and relied on her parents to help take care of young Barack. She would get her bachelor's degree four years later. In the meantime, she met another foreign student, Lolo Soltoro, at the University Of Hawii. He was easy going, happily devoting hours to playing chess with Ann's father and wresting with her son. Lolo proposed in 1967, mother and son spent months preparing to follow him to Indonesia, getting shots, passports and plane tickets. Until then neither had left the country. After a long journey, they landed in unrecognizable place."Walking off the plane, the tarmac rippling with heat, the sun bright as furnace." Obama later wrote, "I clutch her hand, determined to protect her."

Lolo's house, on the outskirts of Jakerta, was a long way from the high-rises of Honolulu. There was no electricity, and the streets were not paved. Inflation was running at 600%, and everything was scarce. Obama attended a Catholic School called Franciscus Assisi Primary school. He attracted attention since he was not only a foreigner but also chubbier than a lot of the locals. But he seemed to shrug of teasing, eating tofu and tempheh like all the other kids, playing soccer and picking guavas from trees. He didn't seem to mind that the other children called him "Negro", remembers a former neighbor.

As Ann became more intrigued by Indonesia, her husband became more western. He rose through the ranks of an American oil company and moved the family to a nicer neighborhood. She was bored by the dinner parties he took her to, where men talked about golf scores and wives complained about their Indonesian servants. The couple fought rarely but had less and less in common. "She wasn't prepared for the loneliness," It was constant, like a shortness of breath. Ann took a job teaching English at the U.S. Embassy. She woke up well before dawn throughout her life. Now she went into her sons room everyday at 4:00 am to give him English lessons from a U.S. Correspondent course. She couldn't afford the elite international school and worried he wasn't challenged enough.

In her own way, Ann tried to compensate for the absence of black people in her sons life. At night, she came home from work with books on the civil rights movement and recordings of Mahalia Jackson. Her aspirations for racial harmony were simplistic. She was very much of the early Dr. King era. She believed that people were all basically the same under their skin, that bigotry of any sort was wrong and that the goal was then to treat everyone as unique individuals. In 1971, when Obama was 10, Ann sent him back to live with her parents and attend Punahou, an elite prep school that he'd gotten into on a scholarship. With help from his grand parents. A year later, Ann followed Obama back to Hawaii, as promised, taking her daughter but leaving her husband behind. She enrolled in a masters program at the University of Hawaii to study the anthropology of Indonesia. Around this time, Ann began to find her voice. People who knew her before describe her as quiet and smart; those who met her afterward use words like forthright and passionate.

Ann's husband visited Hawaii frequently, but they never lived together again. Ann filed for divorce in 1980."But she was not someone who would take the detritus of those divorces and make judgments about men in general or love or allow herself to grow pessimistic." With each failed marriage, Ann gained a child and in one case, a country as well. After three years of living with her children in a small apartment in Honolulu, subsisting on student grants, Ann decided to go back to Indonesia to do fieldwork for her Ph. D. Obama, then about 14, told her he would stay behind. He was tired of being new, and he appreciated the autonomy his grandparents gave him. Ann did not argue with him.

After her divorce, Ann started using the modern spelling of her name, Sutoro. She took a big job as the program officer for woman and employment at the Ford Foundation, and she spoke up forcefully at staff meetings. She spent a lot of time Villagers, learning their priorities and problems, with a special focus on womans work. Ann thought the Ford Foundation should get closer to the people and further from the government, just as she had. Her home became a gathering spot for the powerful and the marginalized; Politicians, Filmmakers, Musicians and Labor Organizers. She brought unlikely conversation partners together. Obama's mother cared deeply about helping poor woman, and she had two biracial children. But neither of them remembers her talking about sexism or racism. She spoke mostly in positive terms.

In the ex pat community of Asia in the 1980's, single mothers were rare and Ann stood out. She was by then a rather large woman with frizzy hair. But Indonesia was an uncommonly tolerant place, very accepting, it gave her a sense of fitting. Today Ann would not be so unusual in the U.S., A single mother of biracial children pursuing a career, She foreshadowed, in some ways, what more of America would look like. But she did so without comment. She wasn't stereotypical at all, but she didn't make a big deal out of it. Ann's most lasting professional legacy was to help build the micro-finance program in Indonesia, which she did from 1988 to 1992- before the practice of granting tiny loans to credit-poor entrepreneurs was an established success story.

Ann's anthropological research into how real people worked, helped inform the policies set by the Bank Rakyat Indonesia, Say's Patten, an economist who worked there. Today Indonesia's micro-finance is No.1 in the world in terms of savers, with 31 million members, according to Micro-finance information exchange Inc. While his mother was helping the poor in Indonesia, Obama was trying to do something similar 7,000 miles away in Chicago, as a community organizer. Ann was delighted by his career move and started every conversation with an update of her children's lives. Every so often, Ann would leave Indonesia to live in Hawaii, New York or even Pakistan in the mid 1980's for her job. She and her daughter sometimes lived in garage apartments and spare rooms of friends.

She collected treasures from her travels-exquisite things with stories she understood. Antique daggers with an odd number of curves, as required by Javanese tradition; unusual batiks; rice paddy hats. Before returning to Hawaii in 1984, Ann wrote her friend Dewey, that she and her daughter would probably need a camel caravan and an elephant or two to load all our bags on the plane, and I'm sure you don't want to see all those airline agents weeping and rendering their garments. Obama has his mothers arrowhead collection from Kansas-along with trunks full of batiks that we really don't know what to do with.

In 1992, Obama's mother finally finished her Ph.D. Dissertation, which she had worked on, between jobs, for almost two decades. The thesis is 1,000 pages, a meticulous analysis of peasant black smithing in Indonesia. The glossary, which she describes as "far from complete,"is 24 pages. She dedicated the tome to her mother; to Dewey, her adviser; and to Barack and Maya, who seldom complained when their mother was in the field.

In the fall of 1994, Ann was having dinner at a friends house in Jakaita when she felt pain in her stomach. A local doctor diagnosed indigestion. When Ann returned to Hawaii several months later, she learned it was ovarian cancer. She died on November 7th 1995, at 52. Before her death, Ann read a draft of her son's memoir, which is almost entirely about his father, she just said it was something he had to work out.

Raising Obama

By Amanda Ripley

Time magazine, April 21,2008
Entered by: Debbie Verzura

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