Frantz FANON
Paulette NARDAL
Price MARS
Jacques-Stephen ALEXIS
Léon-Gontran DAMAS
Edouard Jacques MAUNICK
Saint-John PERSE
Maximilien LAROCHE
Aude-Emmanuelle HOAREAU



In the capsule version of the Barack Obama story,
his mother is simply the white woman from Kansas.
The phrase comes coupled alliteratively to its
counterpart, the black father from Kenya. On the
campaign trail, he has called her his “single
mom.” But neither description begins to capture
the unconventional life of Stanley Ann Dunham
Soetoro, the parent who most shaped Mr. Obama.

Kansas was merely a way station in her childhood,
wheeling westward in the slipstream of her
furniture-salesman father. In Hawaii, she married
an African student at age 18. Then she married an
Indonesian, moved to Jakarta, became an
anthropologist, wrote an 800-page dissertation on
peasant blacksmithing in Java, worked for the
Ford Foundation, championed women’s work and
helped bring microcredit to the world’s poor.

She had high expectations for her children. In
Indonesia, she would wake her son at 4 a.m. for
correspondence courses in English before school;
she brought home recordings of Mahalia Jackson,
speeches by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
And when Mr. Obama asked to stay in Hawaii for
high school rather than return to Asia, she
accepted living apart — a decision her daughter
says was one of the hardest in Ms. Soetoro’s

“She felt that somehow, wandering through
uncharted territory, we might stumble upon
something that will, in an instant, seem to
represent who we are at the core,” said Maya
Soetoro-Ng, Mr. Obama’s half-sister. “That was
very much her philosophy of life — to not be
limited by fear or narrow definitions, to not
build walls around ourselves and to do our best
to find kinship and beauty in unexpected places.”

Ms. Soetoro, who died of ovarian cancer in 1995,
was the parent who raised Mr. Obama, the Illinois
senator running for the Democratic presidential
nomination. He barely saw his father after the
age of 2. Though it is impossible to pinpoint the
imprint of a parent on the life of a grown child,
people who knew Ms. Soetoro well say they see her
influence unmistakably in Mr. Obama.

They were close, her friends and his half-sister
say, though they spent much of their lives with
oceans or continents between them. He would not
be where he is today, he has said, had it not
been for her. Yet he has also made some different
choices — marrying into a tightly knit
African-American family rooted in the South Side
of Chicago, becoming a churchgoing Christian,
publicly recounting his search for his identity
as a black man.

Some of what he has said about his mother seems
tinged with a mix of love and regret. He has said
his biggest mistake was not being at her bedside
when she died. And when The Associated Press
asked the candidates about “prized keepsakes” —
others mentioned signed baseballs, a pocket
watch, a “trophy wife” — Mr. Obama said his was a
photograph of the cliffs of the South Shore of
Oahu in Hawaii where his mother’s ashes were

“I think sometimes that had I known she would not
survive her illness, I might have written a
different book — less a meditation on the absent
parent, more a celebration of the one who was the
single constant in my life,” he wrote in the
preface to his memoir, “Dreams From My Father.”
He added, “I know that she was the kindest, most
generous spirit I have ever known, and that what
is best in me I owe to her.”

In a campaign in which Senator John McCain, the
presumptive Republican nominee, has made liberal
use of his globe-trotting 96-year-old mother to
answer suspicions that he might be an antique at
71, Mr. Obama, who declined to be interviewed for
this article, invokes his mother’s memory
sparingly. In one television advertisement, she
appears fleetingly — porcelain-skinned,
raven-haired and holding her toddler son. “My
mother died of cancer at 53,” he says in the ad,
which focuses on health care. “In those last
painful months, she was more worried about paying
her medical bills than getting well.”

‘A Very, Very Big Thinker’

He has described her as a teenage mother, a
single mother, a mother who worked, went to
school and raised children at the same time. He
has credited her with giving him a great
education and confidence in his ability to do the
right thing. But, in interviews, friends and
colleagues of Ms. Soetoro shed light on a side of
her that is less well known.

“She was a very, very big thinker,” said Nancy
Barry, a former president of Women’s World
Banking, an international network of microfinance
providers, where Ms. Soetoro worked in New York
City in the early 1990s. “I think she was not at
all personally ambitious, I think she cared about
the core issues, and I think she was not afraid
to speak truth to power.”

Her parents were from Kansas — her mother from
Augusta, her father from El Dorado, a place Mr.
Obama first visited in a campaign stop in
January. Stanley Ann (her father wanted a boy so
he gave her his name) was born on an Army base
during World War II. The family moved to
California, Kansas, Texas and Washington in
restless pursuit of opportunity before landing in
Honolulu in 1960.

In a Russian class at the University of Hawaii,
she met the college’s first African student,
Barack Obama. They married and had a son in
August 1961, in an era when interracial marriage
was rare in the United States. Her parents were
upset, Senator Obama learned years later from his
mother, but they adapted. “I am a little dubious
of the things that people from foreign countries
tell me,” the senator’s grandmother told an
interviewer several years ago.

The marriage was brief. In 1963, Mr. Obama left
for Harvard, leaving his wife and child. She then
married Lolo Soetoro, an Indonesian student. When
he was summoned home in 1966 after the turmoil
surrounding the rise of Suharto, Ms. Soetoro and
Barack followed.

Those choices were not entirely surprising, said
several high school friends of Ms. Soetoro, whom
they remembered as unusually intelligent, curious
and open. She never dated “the crew-cut white
boys,” said one friend, Susan Blake: “She had a
world view, even as a young girl. It was
embracing the different, rather than that
ethnocentric thing of shunning the different.
That was where her mind took her.”

Her second marriage faded, too, in the 1970s. Ms.
Soetoro wanted to work, one friend said, and Mr.
Soetoro wanted more children. He became more
American, she once said, as she became more
Javanese. “There’s a Javanese belief that if
you’re married to someone and it doesn’t work, it
will make you sick,” said Alice G. Dewey, an
anthropologist and friend. “It’s just stupid to
stay married.”

That both unions ended is beside the point, some
friends suggested. Ms. Soetoro remained loyal to
both husbands and encouraged her children to feel
connected to their fathers. (In reading drafts of
her son’s memoir, Mr. Obama has said, she did not
comment upon his depiction of her but was “quick
to explain or defend the less flattering aspects
of my father’s character.”)

“She always felt that marriage as an institution
was not particularly essential or important,”
said Nina Nayar, who later became a close friend
of Ms. Soetoro. What mattered to her, Ms. Nayar
said, was to have loved deeply.

By 1974, Ms. Soetoro was back in Honolulu, a
graduate student and raising Barack and Maya,
nine years younger. Barack was on scholarship at
a prestigious prep school, Punahou. When Ms.
Soetoro decided to return to Indonesia three
years later for her field work, Barack chose not
to go.

“I doubted what Indonesia now had to offer and
wearied of being new all over again,” he wrote in
his memoir. “More than that, I’d arrived at an
unspoken pact with my grandparents: I could live
with them and they’d leave me alone so long as I
kept my trouble out of sight.” During those
years, he was “engaged in a fitful interior
struggle. I was trying to raise myself to be a
black man in America.” Ms. Soetoro-Ng recalled
her mother’s quandary. “She wanted him to be with
her,” Ms. Soetoro-Ng said. But she added:
“Although it was painful to be separated from him
for his last four years of high school, she
recognized that it was perhaps the best thing for
him. And she had to go to Indonesia at that

That time apart was hard for both mother and son.

“She longed for him,” said Georgia McCauley, who
became a friend of Ms. Soetoro in Jakarta. Barack
spent summers and Christmas vacations with his
mother; they communicated by letters, his
illustrated with cartoons. Her first topic of
conversation was always her son, her female
friends said. As for him, he was grappling with
questions of racial identity, alienation and

“There were certainly times in his life in those
four years when he could have used her presence
on a more daily basis,” Ms. Soetoro-Ng said. “But
I think he did all right for himself.”

Fluent in Indonesian, Ms. Soetoro moved with Maya
first to Yogyakarta, the center of Javanese
handicrafts. A weaver in college, she was
fascinated with what Ms. Soetoro-Ng calls “life’s
gorgeous minutiae.” That interest inspired her
study of village industries, which became the
basis of her 1992 doctoral dissertation.

“She loved living in Java,” said Dr. Dewey, who
recalled accompanying Ms. Soetoro to a
metalworking village. “People said: ‘Hi! How are
you?’ She said: ‘How’s your wife? Did your
daughter have the baby?’ They were friends. Then
she’d whip out her notebook and she’d say: ‘How
many of you have electricity? Are you having
trouble getting iron?’ ”

She became a consultant for the United States
Agency for International Development on setting
up a village credit program, then a Ford
Foundation program officer in Jakarta
specializing in women’s work. Later, she was a
consultant in Pakistan, then joined Indonesia’s
oldest bank to work on what is described as the
world’s largest sustainable microfinance program,
creating services like credit and savings for the

Visitors flowed constantly through her Ford
Foundation office in downtown Jakarta and through
her house in a neighborhood to the south, where
papaya and banana trees grew in the front yard
and Javanese dishes like opor ayam were served
for dinner. Her guests were leaders in the
Indonesian human rights movement, people from
women’s organizations, representatives of
community groups doing grass-roots development.

“I didn’t know a lot of them and would often ask
after, ‘Who was that?’ ” said David S. McCauley,
now an environmental economist at the Asian
Development Bank in Manila, who had the office
next door. “You’d find out it was the head of
some big organization in with thousands of
members from central Java or someplace, somebody
that she had met some time ago, and they would
make a point of coming to see her when they came
to Jakarta.”

An Exacting Idealist

As a mother, Ms. Soetoro was both idealistic and
exacting. Friends describe her as variously
informal and intense, humorous and hardheaded.
She preached to her young son the importance of
honesty, straight talk, independent judgment.
When he balked at her early-morning home
schooling, she retorted, “This is no picnic for
me either, buster.”

When Barack was in high school, she confronted
him about his seeming lack of ambition, Mr. Obama
wrote. He could get into any college in the
country, she told him, with just a little effort.
(“Remember what that’s like? Effort?”) He says he
looked at her, so earnest and sure of his
destiny: “I suddenly felt like puncturing that
certainty of hers, letting her know that her
experiment with me had failed.”

Ms. Soetoro-Ng, who herself became an
anthropologist, remembers conversations with her
mother about philosophy or politics, books,
esoteric Indonesian woodworking motifs. One
Christmas in Indonesia, Ms. Soetoro found a
scrawny tree and decorated it with red and green
chili peppers and popcorn balls.

“She gave us a very broad understanding of the
world,” her daughter said. “She hated bigotry.
She was very determined to be remembered for a
life of service and thought that service was
really the true measure of a life.” Many of her
friends see her legacy in Mr. Obama — in his
self-assurance and drive, his boundary bridging,
even his apparent comfort with strong women. Some
say she changed them, too.

“I feel she taught me how to live,” said Ms.
Nayar, who was in her 20s when she met Ms.
Soetoro at Women’s World Banking. “She was not
particularly concerned about what society would
say about working women, single women, women
marrying outside their culture, women who were
fearless and who dreamed big.”

The Final Months

After her diagnosis, Ms. Soetoro spent the last
months of her life in Hawaii, near her mother.
(Her father had died.) Mr. Obama has recalled
talking with her in her hospital bed about her
fears of ending up broke. She was not ready to
die, he has said. Even so, she helped him and
Maya “push on with our lives, despite our dread,
our denials, our sudden constrictions of the

She died in November 1995, as Mr. Obama was
starting his first campaign for public office.
After a memorial service at the University of
Hawaii, one friend said, a small group of friends
drove to the South Shore in Oahu. With the wind
whipping the waves onto the rocks, Mr. Obama and
Ms. Soetoro-Ng placed their mother’s ashes in the
Pacific, sending them off in the direction of


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