The Real Story of Obama's Mom

The New York Times Magazine covers Ann Dunham's move to Indonesia with her son

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Stanley Ann Dunham is the overshadowed parent in histories of President Obama's childhood, ignored as a boring white lady from Kansas compared to Barack Obama Sr. of Kenya. The elder Obama, subject of the president's first memoir, is flashier, but The New York Times' Janny Scott argues Dunham might be the more interesting half of that short-lived couple. Scott took two and a half years off from her newspaper job to research Dunham, conducting 200 interviews in the process. The resulting book, A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mother, has been adapted for Sunday's Times Magazine. Here are the most interesting details of Dunham and baby Obama's time overseas:

On what Jakarta was like when Dunham arrived in 1967 with 6-year-old "Barry" to rejoin her husband, Lolo Soetoro, who'd been called back to his homeland a year earlier as Indonesia was ravaged by civil war:

Narrow alleys disappeared into warrens of tile-roofed houses in the rambling urban hamlets called kampungs. Squatter colonies lined the canals, which served as public baths, laundry facilities and sewers, all in one. During the long rainy season from November through March, ca­nals overflowed, saturating cardboard shanties and flooding much of the city. Residents traveled mostly on foot or by bicycle or bicycle-propelled rickshaws called becaks. ... Westerners were rare, black people even rarer. Western women got a lot of attention. ... Foreigners endured all manner of gas­trointestinal upsets. Deworming was de rigueur. ...

For anyone of no interest to government security forces, life was simple. For a foreigner, it was possible to arrive in Indonesia in 1967 largely ignorant of the horror of just two years before.

On the casual racism that followed Obama everywhere in Indonesia:

"I worked at the U.S. Embassy in Dja­karta for 2 horrible years," [Dunham] wrote to a friend. ... Occasionally, she took Barry to work. Joseph Sigit, an Indonesian who worked as the office manager at the time, told me, "Our staff here sometimes made a joke of him because he looked different--the color of his skin."

Joked with him--or about him? I asked.

"With and about him," Sigit said, with no evident embarrassment.

On how Dunham taught Obama to deal with the casual racism common in Indonesia:

After lunch, the group took a walk, with Barry running ahead. A flock of Indonesian children began lobbing rocks in his direction. They ducked behind a wall and shouted racial epithets. He seemed unfazed, dancing around as though playing dodge ball "with unseen players," [fellow American and friend Elizabeth] Bryant said. Ann did not react. Assuming she must not have understood the words, Bryant offered to intervene. "No, he’s O.K.," Ann said. "He's used to it."

"We were floored that she'd bring a half-black child to Indonesia, knowing the disrespect they have for blacks," Bryant said. At the same time, she admired Ann for teaching her boy to be fearless. A child in Indonesia needed to be raised that way--for self-preservation, Bryant decided.

On how Indonesia's tradition of household servants gave Dunham a more modern life than many of her American peers:

Like the households of other Indonesians who could afford it, [Dunham and Soetoro's home] had a sizable domestic staff. Two female servants shared a bed­room; two men--a cook and a houseboy--slept mostly on the floor of the house or in the garden. The staff freed Ann from domestic obligations to a degree that would have been almost impossible in the United States. There were people to clean the house, prepare meals, buy groceries and look after her children--enabling her to work, pursue her inter­ests and come and go as she wanted. The domestic staff made it possible, too, for Ann and Lolo to cultivate their own professional and social circles, which did not necessarily overlap.

On the conditions in the hospital when Obama's sister was born:

...Ann gave birth to Maya Kassandra Soetoro at Saint Carolus Hospital, a Catholic hospital thought by Westerners at that time to be the best in Jakarta. When Halimah Brugger gave birth in the same hospital two years later, she told me, the doctor delivered her baby without the luxury of a stethoscope, gloves or gown. "When the baby was born, the doctor asked my husband for his handkerchief," Brugger said. "Then she stuffed it in my mouth and gave me 11 stitches without any anesthesia."

On how Obama became cool:

The Java­nese, especially the Central Javanese, place an enormous emphasis on self-control. Even to sneeze was to exhibit an untoward lack of self-control, said Michael Dove, who got to know Ann when they were both anthropologists working in Java in the 1980s. "You demonstrate an inner strength by not betraying emotion, not speaking loudly, not moving jerkily," he said. Self-control is inculcated through a culture of teasing, Kay Ikrana­gara told me. Her husband, known only as Ikrana­gara, said, "People tease about skin color all the time." If a child allows the teasing to bother him, he is teased more. If he ignores it, it stops. "Our ambassador said this was where Barack learned to be cool," Kay told me. "If you get mad and react, you lose. If you learn to laugh and take it without any reaction, you win."

On how all that moving--Obama was shipped back to Hawaii alone when he was 10, and his mom only joined him for three years--affected the president as a kid:

"I think that was harder on a 10-year-old boy than he’d care to admit at the time," Obama said, sitting in a chair in the Oval Of­fice and speaking about his mother with a mix of affection and critical distance. "When we were separated again during high school, at that point I was old enough to say, 'This is my choice, my decision.' But being a parent now and looking back at that, I could see--you know what?--that would be hard on a kid."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.