The Story of Barack Obama's Mother

(Left to right): Jim Cole / AP; Maxine Boxer
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Ann Dunham Sutoro
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. "She kept a certain part of herself aloof or removed," says Mary Zurbuchen, a friend from Jakarta. "I think maybe in some way this was how she managed to cross so many boundaries."

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In Indonesia, Ann joked to friends that her son seemed interested only in basketball. "She despaired of him ever having a social conscience," remembers Richard Patten, a colleague. After her divorce, Ann started using the more modern spelling of her name, Sutoro. She took a big job as the program officer for women and employment at the Ford Foundation, and she spoke up forcefully at staff meetings. Unlike many other expats, she had spent a lot of time with villagers, learning their priorities and problems, with a special focus on women's work. "She was influenced by hanging out in the Javanese marketplace," Zurbuchen says, "where she would see women with heavy baskets on their backs who got up at 3 in the morning to walk to the market and sell their produce." 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 had, compared with other foundation colleagues, a much more eclectic circle," Zurbuchen says. "She brought unlikely conversation partners together."

Obama's mother cared deeply about helping poor women, and she had two biracial children. But neither of them remembers her talking about sexism or racism. "She spoke mostly in positive terms: what we are trying to do and what we can do," says Soetoro-Ng, who is now a history teacher at a girls' high school in Honolulu. "She wasn't ideological," notes Obama. "I inherited that, I think, from her. She was suspicious of cant." He remembers her joking that she wanted to get paid as much as a man, but it didn't mean she would stop shaving her legs. In his recent Philadelphia speech on race, in which he acknowledged the grievances of blacks and whites, Obama was consciously channeling his mother. "When I was writing that speech," he told nbc News, "her memory loomed over me. Is this something that she would trust?" When it came to race, Obama told me, "I don't think she was entirely comfortable with the more aggressive or militant approaches to African-American politics."

In the expat community of Asia in the 1980s, single mothers were rare, and Ann stood out. She was by then a rather large woman with frizzy black hair. But Indonesia was an uncommonly tolerant place. "For someone like Ann, who had a big personality and was a big presence," says Zurbuchen, "Indonesia was very accepting. It gave her a sense of fitting in." At home, Ann wore the traditional housecoat, the batik daster. She loved simple, traditional restaurants. Friends remember sharing bakso bola tenis, or noodles with tennis-ball-size meatballs, from a roadside stand.

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, her friends say. "She wasn't stereotypical at all," says Nancy Peluso, a friend and an environmental sociologist. "But she didn't make a big deal out of it."

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