The poster, now sitting on my mantelpiece, beckons me as I sit down with a steaming cup of tea every morning. In it, I look like an ordinary mother, yet the picture is not ordinary. The bikini itself tells a story, hints at an unusual life lived by a woman from a culture where many women are still behind the purdah.
It makes me think of my mother, who longed for an unusual life but who was denied it. I bemoan the fact that I had not had much contact with her in the last thirty years of her life. Now that she is gone, I wonder, what did she think of her successful daughter, who crossed the seven seas, who embraced other worlds, who rarely returned? Did she pine for her long-lost child? Did she wish she had a more traditional and less successful daughter? I contemplate tradeoffs between personal achievement and family relationships. I sacrificed India and proximity to family for broader horizons, but I am glad that my sons are around, that I can still see them, if not daily, then at least weekly.
I scrutinize the poster for hidden colors. And I think of mothers. Reading a review of the biography of Stanley Ann Durham, I wonder about the President and his mother. Here was a powerful woman who made unusual choices, who was a strong feminist, but whose life was not properly celebrated.
When I read Dreams from My Father, Obama’s 1995 memoir, his mother did not jump out of the pages like his African father did. The one episode that stayed with me was of Barack going with his mother to see the movie Black Orpheus, a rendition of the Orpheus and Eurydice tale by a Brazilian cast. I recall him being embarrassed by his mother’s naiveté in romanticizing the idealized images of blacks. The young Barack patronized his teenage white mother in that narrative and that image stuck.
But perhaps Barack, only 34 then, was like all young people who must at some stage scorn their parents. As I read bits and pieces about Ann Dunham’s life now, more than two years into Obama’s presidency, a different image emerges, of an early feminist who broke barriers, who ventured where few women dared, a woman who was revolutionary and courageous.
Yes, she was a romantic. Who isn’t at seventeen? But behind her romanticism was a world view that, in 1961, was unusual and fresh and radical and world-embracing. She was perhaps the original global villager.
I can see her now, a young girl in Hawaii. Her Hawaii was not that of condos and tourists, of white women in bikinis frolicking in the sands of Waikiki while natives languished in rundown shacks. Her Hawaii was of the Manoa Valley where the University was starting the first American experiment in East-West connections, by establishing the East West Center. In fact, the Center was founded the very year Ann Dunham met Barack Senior.
I would not make it to the Manoa Valley and the East West Center for another twenty years, but the idealism of that era still pervaded the landscape of University of Hawaii when I landed a job there in 1980. In those days, globalization had not become a catch phrase, China was not the world’s biggest factory, and few students from Asia and the Pacific made it across the seven seas to America. So, yes, there were plenty of young girls who were fascinated by dark-skinned men at the University and the Center, but behind their passion lay an alternative world view which at the time was controversial. More so in 1960, when Ann Dunham was on campus. Jim Crowe laws persisted in the South then and a large part of the world was dismissed by many Americans with labels like “third world.”
For a woman to marry an African, to raise a biracial child, to work in a place like Indonesia was not easy. To be a single mother was perhaps even harder. I am not even sure what her ancestors in Kansas thought of Ann Dunham’s choices, or whether she deliberately went to a place like Indonesia because she did not feel at home in the white bred culture of America of the sixties and the seventies. But to dismiss her simply as a young girl who fell in love with a black man would be to undermine her achievements drastically. She had a vision few possess, of a life unbounded by territories or cultures or ethnicities. Her life seems ordinary to us now because we live in an era when such things are commonplace.
The one moving vignette of Ann Dunham’s life I came across is that when someone mentioned that the young Barack must want to become President if he was trying to be a community organizer, his mother wept. In that singular moment is encapsulated her sense of loss of her son, as well as her pain at the lack of recognition for raising a brilliant, compassionate leader.
The “birther” controversy Republicans concocted did little to enhance the image of Ann Dunham, who simply became a negative footnote to Obama’s life. The right wing successfully cast her image as a suspect single mother who would lie about her son’s birth.
Last summer, I returned to the East West Center and the Manoa Valley to traverse the same streets I might have encountered a young Barack on. I felt the magic of the place of rainbows and liquid sunshine that shaped America’s first biracial President and his mother.
As I contemplated Ann Dunham’s life, I was struck by her hardship, her challenges, her struggles. I realized I had more in common with her than many of my contemporaries or compatriots, perhaps because the radical direction of my life began on the same lanais, the same Japanese gardens, the same lecture halls that influenced her. Like her, I, too, was seduced by a vision of an international life. Like her, I too became a global villager, traveling to the end of the world to live and work in New Zealand. Like her, I too forged a life that was not easy but true to my ideals and my heart.
Happy Mother’s Day, Ann Dunham. I wish you were here to see the biggest achievement of your life.
Sarita Sarvate writes commentaries for Pacific News Service and KQED. Visit www.saritasarvate.com