"The president’s mother has served as any of a number of useful oversimplifications. In the capsule version of Obama’s life story, she is the white mother from Kansas coupled alliteratively to the black father from Kenya. She is corn-fed, white-bread, whatever Kenya is not. In “Dreams From My Father,” the memoir that helped power Obama’s political ascent, she is the shy, small-town girl who falls head over heels for the brilliant, charismatic African who steals the show. In the next chapter, she is the naïve idealist, the innocent abroad. In Obama’s presidential campaign, she was the struggling single mother, the food-stamp recipient, the victim of a health care system gone awry, pleading with her insurance company for coverage as her life slipped away. And in the fevered imaginings of supermarket tabloids and the Internet, she is the atheist, the Marxist, the flower child, the mother who abandoned her son or duped the newspapers of Hawaii into printing a birth announcement for her Kenyan-born baby, on the off chance that he might want to be president someday....
To describe Dunham as a white woman from Kansas turns out to be about as illuminating as describing her son as a politician who likes golf. Intentionally or not, the label obscures an extraordinary story — of a girl with a boy’s name who grew up in the years before the women’s movement, the pill and the antiwar movement; who married an African at a time when nearly two dozen states still had laws against interracial marriage; who, at 24, moved to Jakarta with her son in the waning days of an anticommunist bloodbath in which hundreds of thousands of Indonesians were slaughtered; who lived more than half her adult life in a place barely known to most Americans, in the country with the largest Muslim population in the world; who spent years working in villages where a lone Western woman was a rarity; who immersed herself in the study of blacksmithing, a craft long practiced exclusively by men; who, as a working and mostly single mother, brought up two biracial children; who believed her son in particular had the potential to be great; who raised him to be, as he has put it jokingly, a combination of Albert Einstein, Mahatma Gandhi and Harry Belafonte; and then died at 52, never knowing who or what he would become."
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