Guided by a mother's values

Tue, Jan 13, 2009, 00:00

LOOKING BACK, I’m not sure that Lolo ever fully understood what my mother was going through during these years, why the things he was working so hard to provide for her seemed only to increase the distance between them. He was not a man to ask himself such questions. Instead, he maintained his concentration, and over the period that we lived in Indonesia, he proceeded to climb. With the help of his brother-in-law, he landed a new job in the government relations office of an American oil company. We moved to a house in a better neighbourhood; a car replaced the motorcycle; a television and hi-fi replaced the crocodiles and Tata, the ape; Lolo could sign for our dinners at a company club. Sometimes I would overhear him and my mother arguing in their bedroom, usually about her refusal to attend his company dinner parties, where American businessmen from Texas and Louisiana would slap Lolo’s back and boast about the palms they had greased to obtain the new offshore drilling rights, while their wives complained to my mother about the quality of Indonesian help. He would ask her how it would look for him to go alone, and remind her that these were her own people, and my mother’s voice would rise to almost a shout.

They are not my people.

Such arguments were rare, though; my mother and Lolo would remain cordial through the birth of my sister, Maya, through the separation and eventual divorce, up until the last time I saw Lolo, 10 years later, when my mother helped him travel to Los Angeles to treat a liver ailment that would kill him at the age of 51. What tension I noticed had mainly to do with the gradual shift in my mother’s attitude toward me. She had always encouraged my rapid acculturation in Indonesia: It had made me relatively self-sufficient, undemanding on a tight budget, and extremely well mannered when compared to other American children.

She had taught me to disdain the blend of ignorance and arrogance that too often characterised Americans abroad. But she now had learned, just as Lolo had learned, the chasm that separated the life changes of an American from those of an Indonesian. She knew which side of the divide she wanted her child to be on. I was an American, she decided, and my true life lay elsewhere.

Her initial efforts centred on education. Without the money to send me to the International School, where most of Djakarta’s foreign children went, she had arranged from the moment of our arrival to supplement my Indonesian schooling with lessons from a US correspondence course.

Her efforts now redoubled. Five days a week, she came into my room at four in the morning, force-fed me breakfast, and proceeded to teach me my English lessons for three hours before I left for school and she went to work. I offered stiff resistance to this regimen, but in response to every strategy I concocted, whether unconvincing (“My stomach hurts”) or indisputably true (my eyes kept closing every five minutes), she would patiently repeat her most powerful defence:

“This is no picnic for me either, buster”.

Then there were the periodic concerns with my safety, the voice of my grandmother ascendant. I remember coming home after dark one day to find a large search party of neighbours that had been assembled in our yard. My mother didn’t look happy, but she was so relieved to see me that it took her several minutes to notice a wet sock, brown with mud, wrapped around my forearm.

“What’s that?”


“That. Why do you have a sock wrapped around your arm?”

“I cut myself.”

“Let’s see.”

“It’s not that bad.”

“Barry. Let me see it.”

I unwrapped the sock, exposing a long gash that ran from my wrist to my elbow. It had missed the vein by an inch, but ran deeper at the muscle, where pinkish flesh pulsed out from under the skin. Hoping to calm her down, I explained what had happened: A friend and I had hitchhiked out to his family’s farm, and it started to rain, and on the farm was a terrific place to mudslide, and there was this barbed wire that marked the farm’s boundaries, and . . .


My mother laughs at this point when she tells this story, the laughter of a mother forgiving her child those sins that have passed. But her tone alters slightly as she remembers that Lolo suggested we wait until morning to get me stitched up, and that she had to browbeat our only neighbour with a car to drive us to the hospital. She remembers that most of the lights were out at the hospital when we arrived, with no receptionist in sight; she recalls the sound of her frantic footsteps echoing through the hallway until she finally found two young men in boxer shorts playing dominoes in a small room in the back.

When she asked them where the doctors were, the men cheerfully replied “We are the doctors” and went on to finish their game before slipping on their trousers and giving me 20 stitches that would leave an ugly scar.

And through it all was the pervading sense that her child’s life might slip away when she wasn’t looking, that everyone else around her would be too busy trying to survive to notice – that, when it counted, she would have plenty of sympathy, but no one beside her who believed in fighting against a threatening fate.

It was those sorts of issues, I realise now, less tangible than school transcripts or medical services, that became the focus of her lessons with me. “If you want to grow into a human being,” she would say to me, “you’re going to need some values.”

Honesty – Lolo should not have hidden the refrigerator in the storage room when the tax officials came, even if everyone else, including the tax officials, expected such things.

Fairness – the parents of wealthier students should not give television sets to the teachers during Ramadan, and their children could take no pride in the higher marks they might have received. Straight talk – if you didn’t like the shirt I bought you for your birthday, you should have just said so instead of keeping it wadded up at the bottom of your closet.

Independent judgment – just because the other children tease the poor boy about his haircut doesn’t mean you have to do it too.

It was as if, by travelling halfway around the globe, away from the smugness and hypocrisy that familiarity had disclosed, my mother could give voice to the virtues of her midwestern past and offer them up in distilled form. The problem was that she had few reinforcements; whenever she took me aside for such commentary, I would dutifully nod my assent, but she must have known that many of her ideas seemed rather impractical.

Lolo had merely explained the poverty, the corruption, the constant scramble for security; he hadn’t created it. It remained all around me and bred a relentless scepticism.

My mother’s confidence in needlepoint virtues depended on a faith I didn’t possess, a faith that she would refuse to describe as religious; that, in fact, her experience told her was sacrilegious: a faith that rational, thoughtful people could shape their own destiny. In a land where fatalism remained a necessary tool for enduring hardship, where ultimate truths were kept separate from day-to-day realities, she was a lonely witness for secular humanism, a soldier for New Deal, Peace Corps, position-paper liberalism.

She had only one ally in all this, and that was the distant authority of my father. Increasingly, she would remind me of his story, how he had grown up poor, in a poor country, in a poor continent; how his life had been hard, as hard as anything that Lolo might have known. He hadn’t cut corners, though, or played all the angles.

He was diligent and honest, no matter what it cost him. He had led his life according to principles that demanded a different kind of toughness, principles that promised a higher form of power. I would follow his example, my mother decided. I had no choice. It was in the genes.

“You have me to thank for your eyebrows . . . your father has these little wispy eyebrows that don’t amount to much. But your brains, your character, you got from him.”

Her message came to embrace black people generally. She would come home with books on the civil rights movement, the recordings of Mahalia Jackson, the speeches of Dr King.

When she told me stories of schoolchildren in the South who were forced to read books handed down from wealthier white schools but who went on to become doctors and lawyers and scientists, I felt chastened by my reluctance to wake up and study in the mornings. If I told her about the goose-stepping demonstrations my Indonesian Boy Scout troop performed in front of the president, she might mention a different kind of march, a march of children no older than me, a march for freedom.

Every black man was Thurgood Marshall or Sidney Poitier; every black woman Fannie Lou Hamer or Lena Horne. To be black was to be the beneficiary of a great inheritance, a special destiny, glorious burdens that only we were strong enough to bear.

Burdens we were to carry with style. More than once, my mother would point out: “Harry Belafonte is the best-looking man on the planet.”

It was in this context that I came across the picture in Life magazine of the black man who had tried to peel off his skin. I imagine other black children, then and now, undergoing similar moments of revelation.

Perhaps it comes sooner for most – the parents’ warning not to cross the boundaries of a particular neighbourhood, or the frustration of not having hair like Barbie no matter how long you tease and comb, or the tale of a father’s or grandfather’s humiliation at the hands of an employer or a cop, overheard while you’re supposed to be asleep.

Maybe it’s easier for a child to receive the bad news in small doses, allowing for a system of defences to build up – although I suspect I was one of the luckier ones, having been given a stretch of childhood free from self-doubt.

I know that seeing that article was violent for me, an ambush attack. My mother had warned me about bigots – they were ignorant, uneducated people one should avoid. If I could not yet consider my own mortality, Lolo had helped me understand the potential of disease to cripple, or accidents to maim, of fortunes to decline. I could correctly identify common greed or cruelty in others, and sometimes even in myself. But that one photograph had told me something else: that there was a hidden enemy out there, one that could reach me without anyone’s knowledge, not even my own. When I got home that night from the embassy library, I went into the bathroom and stood in front of the mirror with all my senses and limbs seemingly intact, looking as I had always looked, and wondered if something was wrong with me. The alternative seemed no less frightening – that the adults around me lived in the midst of madness.

The initial flush of anxiety would pass, and I would spend my remaining year in Indonesia much as I had before. I retained a confidence that was not always justified and an irrepressible talent for mischief. But my vision had been permanently altered.

On the imported television shows that had started running in the evenings, I began to notice that Cosby never got the girl on I Spy, that the black man on Mission Impossible spent all his time underground. I noticed that there was nobody like me in the Sears, Roebuck Christmas catalogue that Toot and Gramps sent us, and that Santa was a white man.

I kept these observations to myself, deciding that either my mother didn’t see them or she was trying to protect me, and that I shouldn’t expose her efforts as having failed.

I still trusted my mother’s love – but I now faced the prospect that her account of the world, and my father’s place in it, was somehow incomplete.

Tomorrrow: Chicago beckons and a career amongst the city’s southside urban poor as a community organiser seeking a fairer deal from City Hall.

IN 1963, Barack Obama’s mother, Ann Dunham, and his Kenyan father, Barack snr, separated. Two years later in Hawaii, Ann Dunham met an Indonesian student, Lolo Soetoro, whom she married. Eventually, they and the young Obama moved to Djakarta where he attended two schools, Besuki Public School, a state-run elementary school, and St Francis of Assisi School, a Roman Catholic-run school, until he was 10-years-old.

In this second extract from his memoir of his early life, Dreams from My Father, Obama writes about those years and, specifically, the values instilled in him at that time by his mother.