In The Beginning, Was A Girl Named Stan: The story of Barack Obama is a saga that starts with a wide-eyed young woman from Kansas named Stanley, and ends with the first “black” President in the American White House. In between are the towering and overarching figures of Madelyn and Stanley Dunham – two white grandparents who after the fact, bucked pride and prejudice by throwing caution to the wind and following in the halting steps of their young daughter. In 1961 this meant accepting the marriage of their daughter to a Kenyan student whose skin was blacker than Djimon Hounsou’s noggin. And after the fact it also meant accepting the mixed-race child that would soon follow, and raising him as if he was their own. In daring to live their life as it unfolded, the Dunhams forged a newer meme for race relations that will reverberate long after Barack Obama is gone. In this sense the difference is not so much in what they did, but the retro visibility of it and its potential for catalyzing the public consciousness even further.
The heuristic irony of this story is that it is told in pictures most of which are etched in black and white. Among the photos that pop up when you Google Barack Obama, is an intriguing one that shows Ann Stanley (Barack’s then mother to be), Stanley Dunham and Madelyn Dunham lounging on a couch at home, blissfully unaware of the history gestating around them.
Madelyn “The Rock” Who Loved Barack: Two days before the Christmas of 2008, President-Elect, Barack Obama, scattered the ashes of his maternal grandmother, Madelyn Dunham, whom he lovingly referred to as “Toot”. The woman who Barack had described as the cornerstone “of our family” had died of cancer in her Honolulu high-rise apartment, two days before Barack had been elected the first black President of the United States. (The synchronicity of two days is kind of interesting here.)
Madelyn, described by Barack as “the rock of our family,” is less of a mystery because of the many obituaries that have been written about her following her death on November 2, from cancer. A product of stern Methodist upbringing in the Midwest, Madelyn grew into a studious young woman who enjoyed big band music on the side. Earlier reports describe Madelyn as hard-working and reserved. Later in life she is described as hardworking, “fiercely independent and opinionated”. Madelyn who had retired from the Bank of Hawaii in 1986, had been one of the first women vice-presidents of a local bank in 1970. Wikipedia quotes acquaintances who described her as a “tough boss” who could make you “sink or swim”, but had a “soft spot for those willing to work hard.” She had a love for university education.
Like A Bridge Over Troubled Waters: Stanley Dunham, the other half of Madelyn, was a strong, burly fella who could throw a good punch when he needed it. A Wikipedia entry relates a story of how he punched out his high school principal and got himself expelled from school. Unlike Madelyn, Stanley hailed from a troubled blue collar background. His mother had committed suicide when he was 8 years old. Stanley and his brother had been raised by their maternal grandmother. Throughout all this he somehow found a way to rise above his circumstances and develop a tender side that would later nurture and protect a daughter and a grandson who broke the molds of his own upbringing. Stanley Dunham blossomed into something of a larger than life character described by people as “gregarious, friendly, impetuous, challenging and loud”. Adds a Wikipedia entry: ” He was a furniture salesman “who could charm the legs off a couch.”
Madelyn fell for said charms and the alchemy that would forge them into a family, and in time include their daughter Ann, began to assert itself. Stanley Ann had a knack for venturing into waters that were often deeper than her ability to negotiate them, to put it mildly. And without a father like Stanley, the Dunham family history may have taken turns that might have made the Obama story highly unlikely ….. at least in the form that we have come to know it. Stanley Dunham made things possible by being protective of his daughter while giving her room to express her rambunctious individuality.
“Greater love hath no man ….”
From this vantage point it would appear that it was his personal resilience and earthy gregariousness, not to mention his ability to live in the moment that created part of the bridge over which Barack Obama would walk towards his own destiny; a fact which would then make Stanley Dunham the hidden ubermenschen of the Obama story.
Stanley Dunham’s gregarioussness combined with his acceptance of a baby girl, at a time he was expecting a boy, must have paved the way for his acceptance of the surprises the little girl would have for him down the road; namely an African boyfriend and the mixed-race child that would be born of that marriage. Students of Obama’s family history should not overlook this aspect. The love and acceptance Barack Obama got from his grandparents were not a given; given the the reality of race relations in the 60s and the character quirks that may have made some white people unable to adapt to the idiosyncrasies and vicissitudes of a changing racial landscape. (Up to 1967, 16 States still had anti-miscegenation laws or prohibition against marrying outside one’s race. Obama was born on August 4, 1961.)
Stanley Ann: Barack Obama’s mother, Stanley Ann was named after her father Stanley who had been expecting a boy. When you look at her in pictures, you see that she has her father’s jaw-line. But from what we now know, Ann Dunham inherited more than her father’s jawline. Described as fearless, reckless and a dreamer, Ann turned out to be a bit of a steam-roller, especially later on in her life. So in certain ways God may have answered Stanley Dunham’s not-so-silent prayers by giving him an irrepressible go-getter with a tomboyish abandon for novelty and adventure. You can see it in Stanley Ann’s chubby little face (first picture): that flash in the eye portending a streak that would tax her ability to iron out the kinks of her whimsies. It may have been a make-believe story, a role-playing scenario or, as it turned out much later on in her life, a Lennonesque “imagine-all-the-people” view of world. Such is the story of redeeming quirks often overlooked in children playing in the mud.
“When I think about my mother,” Obama told Amanda Ripley of Time Magazine, “I think that there was a certain combination of being very grounded in who she was, what she believed in, but also a certain recklessness. I think she was always searching for something. She wasn’t comfortable seeing her life confined to a certain box.”
“Hers was a mind in full tilt,” writes Susan Blake, a classmate and former city council woman from Mercer Island. In the oft quoted article “Family Portraits” by Chicago Tribune writers Tim Jones, Kirsten Schanberg and Laurie Goering, the authors see in Barack the future Senator and President of the United States a trinity of blending influences:
“Over time, the distinctive and often clashing qualities of Madelyn, Stanley and Stanley Ann have been merged, smoothed, polished and put on display in the politician who is their grandson and son. Obama’s voice volume is lower than his excitable grandfather’s. The overt skepticism of his mother and grandmother has been papered over, and Stanley Ann’s aversion to attention is gone. The candidate who vows to help bridge America‘s racial,religious and cultural divides has shed his mother’s rejection of organized religion, calling his embrace ‘a vessel for my beliefs’.
“He lost his grandfather’s impetuosity but kept the sales skills, attracting enough big money and broad support to reshape the race for president.
“In a recent interview, Obama called his mother “the dominant figure in my formative years . . . The values she taught me continue to be my touchstone when it comes to how I go about the world of politics.”(Family Portraits: Strong Personalities Shaped a Future Senator, Chicago Tribune)
Obama’s mother died of ovarian and uterine cancer on Nov. 7, 1995. S he was 52. Although Obama helped the family scatter her ashes over the Pacific ocean he, to this day, regrets not being at his mother’s side when she died.
Nature as “God Gone Astray In The Flesh”*: Barack Hussein Obama Sr., was no Mister Johnson, the colonial Pied Piper of Joyce Cary‘s imagination. Obama is the Kenyan student Stanley Ann Dunham met and married at the University of Hawaii. Without discounting nurture, it is hard to argue against him being the possible enigmatic ingredient behind Barack’s quick-silver intelligence and the easy cock-suredness that was so readily on display during the presidential campaign. We neglect the impact of genes at our own peril even though in this particular case it is hard to untangle the DNA strands. Reason? Barack the child had a lot going for him already between his mother, and maternal grandparents. Be that as it may, certain things are hard to dismiss, given what we know of Barack Obama Sr’s personality “rap sheet”:
1. He “Had this magnetic personality,” recalls Neil Abercrombie, a member of Congress from Hawaii who was friends with Obama Sr. in college. “Everything was oratory from him, even the most commonplace observation.” Is this the secret behind Barack’s soaring oratory or an E.S.L. quirk combined by the need to impress?
2. He was a bright student who completed his economics degree at the University of Hawaii with a G.P.A. good enough to get him into Harvard.
3. Obama senior was one gregarious dude who quickly drew a crowd of friends at the university.
Everything in Barack Obama’s family tree thus points to some kind of genetic trifecta when it comes the source of his charisma; the most obvious suspects being his father, his maternal grandparents and his mother. His smile however belongs to one person. Nancy Peluso who was a friend of his mother says that when Barack smiles, he lights up like his mother.
The Obama Perplex (Next in the Obama story): As much a Obama likes the bright lights and the limelight, there is a part of him that stands at the back of the room with signature remove; an existence behind a veil beyond which a few have ventured. It creates that near-but-far feeling that drives some people nuts. But the question of why people want to figure him out is not always pedestrian …. not always …… with good intentions. The people who crave closeness as a means to figuring you out may sometimes the same people who want to pick your pocket.
(* “God gone astray in the flesh” is an idiosyncratic but congruent allusion to the power of genetic expression as an analog of language. The quote is from Paul Valery as mentioned by Frantz Fanon in his book “Black Skins, White Masks”. Yes, God does indeed go astray in the flesh many, many times. Original Reference: “Mastery of a language affords remarkable power. Paul Valéry knew this, for he called language, ‘the god gone astray in the flesh'” )
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This story is not even close to being completed. As I continue to work on it, time allowing, you can read up on Stanley Ann Dunham in the quoted Time Magazine article by Amanda Ripley entitled “The Story of Barack Obama’s Mother.” And for a tale that offers an intriguing peek into Obama behind the scenes of election 2008, read up on Newsweek’s opus, Barack Obama: How He Did It (Newsweek Politics – Campaign 2008).