One of the least challenged aspects of President Obama's Narrative is that American racism meant that he had no choice in his racial identity: he could only identify as black and only black (as he chose to do on the 2010 Census). The existence of celebrities, such as Tiger Woods, Derek Jeter, and Vin Diesel, who take a less dogmatic view of how to self-identify, has seldom been mentioned in relation to Obama. Further, Obama's Hawaiian upbringing, where he was thought of as "just another mixed kid," at his highly mixed prep school is seldom mentioned.
Now, we learn what his own mother thought about his racial self-identification. From Janny Scott's biography of Ann Dunham, A Singular Woman
. When Obama was elected the first black head of the Harvard Law Review in 1990, he banged the paternal race gong hard, to his mother's disappointment. You can read this important account in Google Books
"A longer article a week later in The Boston Globe went into greater detail. "What seems to motivate Barack Obama is a strong identification what what he calls 'the typical black experience,' paired with a mission to help the black community and promote social justice," the Globe reported. It described "his unusual path, from childhood in Indonesia, where he grew up, he says, 'as a street kid [with several servants looking after him],' to adolescence in Hawaii, where he was raised by his grandparents." The article dwelt at some length on the influence of Obama's father, who, it said, was born in Kenya, "studied at Harvard and Oxford [?] and became a senior [?] economist for the Kenyan government." In high school, the article said, Obama began a regular correspondence with his father, "whose heritage was to be a major influence on his life, ideals and priorities." One of Obama's most valued possessions, the article said, was the passbook that his grandfather, a cook for the British before Kenyan independence, was required to carry. "He said that even though his heritage is one-half white, and although has had a mixture of influences in his life, 'my identification with the — quote — typical black experience in America was very strong and very natural [?] and wasn't something forced and difficult," the article said. Of Ann, it said little more than "His mother, who is white, is a Kansas-born anthropologist who now works as a developmental consultant in Indonesia."
In an even longer article in the Los Â Angeles Times a month later, Ann was described simply as "an American anthropologist" and "a white American from Wichita, Kan."
The marginal role to which Ann was consigned in those accounts did not go unnoticed. She had raised Obama, with the help of her parents, after his father had left for Harvard when Obama was ten months old. She had been his primary parent for the first ten years of his life.
She had returned to Hawaii to live with him when he was in middle school. She had moved back to Hawaii from Indonesia for several months during his senior year. Yet in those accounts, Obama had been "a street kid" in Indonesia, then sent back to Hawaii to be "raised by his grandparents." Yang Suwan, Ann's Indonesian anthropologist friend, recalled Ann returning to Jakarta around the time of the Harvard Law Review election. As always, she was extraordinarily proud of her son. But on another level, she seemed crushed.
"'His mother is an anthropologist,' Ann told Yang, quoting an article she had seen. "I was mentioned in one sentence." ...
When Ann told Made Suarjana that Obama was graduating from Harvard Law School, he said, "So, he's going to be a billionaire." Ann corrected him: No, she said, he wants to return to Chicago and do pro bono work. Because Suarjana knew that Obama was interested in politics, and because he felt he knew something about American public life, he said, knowingly, "Okay, so he wants to be president."
To his surprise, Ann began to weep. ...
"No, not this time," she answered, according to Suarjana. "He's going to be a senator first."
Had they already talked about it Suarjana wondered later. ...
"She felt a little bit wistful or sad that Barack had essentially moved to Chicago and chosen to take on a really strongly identified black identity," recalled Don Johnston, Ann's colleague at Bank Rakyat Indonesia. That identity, she felt, "had not really been part of who he was when he was growing up." Ann felt he was making what Johnston called "a professional choice" to strongly identify himself as black." "It would be too strong to say that she felt rejection," he said. But she felt, in that way, "that he was distancing himself from her."