Obama’s mother

I’ve just started reading Barack Obama’s 1995 autobiography, “Dreams From My Father”, and already it’s taking me in unexpected directions. It details his “personal, interior journey — a boy’s search for his father, and through that search a workable meaning for his life as a black American”. The first surprise for me happens in the preface (updated in 2004) where BO writes a moving tribute to his mother, who died the year after the book was published:

“I think sometimes that had I known she would not survive her illness, I might have written a different book — less a meditation on an absent parent, more a celebration of the one who was the single constant in my life. In my daughters I see her every day, her joy, her capacity for wonder. … 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.”

Could any mother wish for a better tribute than that? But just stop for a minute and think what would have happened if BO had written a book about his mother instead of his father. Would he have been labelled a mommy’s boy? Would people have said that he was denying his black heritage and trying to ingratiate himself with whites (as he says himself):

… some people have a hard time taking me at face value. When people who don’t know me well, black or white, discover my background (and it is usually a discovery, for I ceased to advertise my mother’s race at the age of twelve or thirteen, when I began to suspect that by doing so I was ingratiating myself to whites), I see the split-second adjustments they have to make, the searching of my eyes for some tell-tale sign.

I suspect that it is BO’s ability to bridge both black and white (and to combine the best of his parents’ respective heritages) that is an essential ingredient of his success. If he was white he wouldn’t be as interesting as he is, and if he was “black black” he would be too different from mainstream America. Of course the issue of race is not a straightforward one. But as slow reads points out, people see in BO what they want to see. They can identify with him, see themselves in him. My BO is not the same as your BO.

I think BO’s comment on his mother was such a powerful one for me because it was unexpected and yet it made so much sense. It has become a cliché to say that mothers are the unsung heroes of our lives but I see it every day in my work. We need to take mothers for granted because that enables us to make our ways in the world. If we are constantly looking over our shoulders to see that mother is OK, then we’re always held back. What I liked in BO’s short tribute was the recognition that the best in him comes from his mother’s love. For me it recalls Auden: “he was my North, my South, my East, my West” and also Shakespeare: “love is an ever-fixed mark … whose depth’s unknown though its height be taken”.

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7 Responses to Obama’s mother

  1. Emily says:

    a good mother is usually taken for granted, to be sure. thanks for this post.

  2. Natalian says:

    I found the first sentence of his tribute very interesting. Why is it that we search for that which we do not have and miss what is standing before us? Many who come from families with ‘absent parents’ tend to focus on that parent in a quest to understand where they come from and how to identify with that person to gain their own sense of self. Obama’s tribute does sum it up – it is not down to genetics but down to the love of his mother who was the ‘single constant’ in his life.

  3. Pete says:

    Emily – I think I’m always a bit in awe of good mothers. How do they do it? My guess is that they muddle through like the rest of us, but it seems to be an all-consuming job. And of course by “good mothers” we have to include those fathers who take on mothering as well.

    Natalian – To be fair to BO, I see from the rest of Part 1 that he does talk about his mother quite a bit. But it is clearly his identity as a black man in America that concerns him most in this book. I’m impressed with how he’s handling in thus far. And of course it’s fun to read with the knowledge of how it turns out in the end. His first speech is hilarious – he speaks for two minutes at an anti-apartheid rally and is then dragged from the stage by two guys dressed up as SA policemen (as part of the act).

  4. Litlove says:

    I like your post better than mine! What intrigued me about Obama’s mother is how determined/pushy she is, making him get up at four in the morning to study. And then when he’s older, what he recounts is the way she would pester him to keep his grades up. I rather feared young men resented this kind of behaviour, but maybe I’ve got it all wrong and in fact it makes them feel loved and valued. In any case, Obama’s respect for her never seems to falter, despite her tangled love life and the absences they have from one another.

  5. Pete says:

    Hi Litlove – Thanks, but I think your post is perhaps a bit more nuanced than mine. I think the young Barack did resent being pestered by his mom to work early in the morning and to keep his grades up. And I think that probably contributed to his decision to go off and embrace his black identity. But he always seems to have retained a sense of balance, and to have kept that respect for her as you say. I’m halfway through now and I’m still wondering how he gets from frustrated community organiser to President of the USA!

  6. Novalis says:

    Just found your blog, like it a lot. Maybe I’m pointing out the obvious here, but it seems to me that Obama’s ambivalence toward his mother may have more to do with the fact that for a good part of his childhood she was in fact an ocean away, and that his grandmother was as much of a mother figure, if not more so, than his mother.

  7. Pete says:

    Novalis – Welcome! I think you’re right about Obama’s Toot (his granny) and while it is obvious in retrospect, I didn’t mention it. I’ve just finished Dreams From My Father and it’s interesting that he talks about how his wife Michelle reminded him a lot of Toot. Thanks for the comment.

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