Anthropologist disliked ethnic barriers, sought to aid world's poor
Obama's Women Reveal His Secret
Janny Scott, New York Times
In the capsule version of the Barack Obama story, his mother is simply the white woman from Kansas. The phrase comes coupled alliteratively to its counterpart, the black father from Kenya. On the campaign trail, he has called her his "single mom."
But neither description begins to capture the unconventional life of Stanley Ann Dunham Soetoro, the parent who most shaped Obama.
Kansas was merely a way station in her childhood, wheeling westward in the slipstream of her furniture-salesman father. In Hawaii, she married an African student at age 18. Then she married an Indonesian, moved to Jakarta, became an anthropologist, wrote a dissertation on peasant blacksmithing in Java, worked for the Ford Foundation, championed women's work and helped bring microcredit to the world's poor.
She had high expectations for her children. In Indonesia, she would wake her son at 4 a.m. for correspondence courses in English before school; she brought home recordings of Mahalia Jackson, speeches by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
And when Obama asked to stay in Hawaii for high school rather than return to Asia, she accepted living apart - a decision her daughter says was one of the hardest in her mother's life.
"She felt that somehow, wandering through uncharted territory, we might stumble upon something that will, in an instant, seem to represent who we are at the core," said Maya Soetoro-Ng, Obama's half sister. "That was very much her philosophy of life - to not be limited by fear or narrow definitions, to not build walls around ourselves and to do our best to find kinship and beauty in unexpected places."
Soetoro, who died of ovarian cancer in 1995, was the parent who raised Obama, the Illinois senator running for the Democratic presidential nomination. He barely saw his father after the age of 2. People who knew Soetoro well say they see her influence unmistakably in Obama.