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Owed to folks

What makes an anthropologist? What is the relation between a life as lived, and the work and ideas? These might be the central questions for the biographer of a prominent anthropologist. In fact, there are not all that many examples of such a genre: possibly they have a rather narrow readership. The lives of Mary Douglas and Claude Lévi-Strauss, Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict, and a few others have received biographical treatment. One suspects that more generally they have not quite the right ingredients to spark the popular imagination. Within the small world of anthropology though (and perhaps especially of those who are interested in life stories, memoirs, and kinship), this is a topic to arouse some curiosity. It isn’t clear, however, that these are the questions motivating this particular biography. Would it have been written if Stanley Ann Dunham were not the mother of Barack Obama? The answer is surely no. The subtitle says it all: what makes this anthropologist singular is not so much her anthropology but being the mother of Barack Obama – himself, among other things, an unusually talented memoirist and writer.

This book treads an uneasy line between upholding the idea that S. Ann Dunham was sufficiently interesting in herself to merit extended treatment, and that what makes it worth reading is the connections we can draw to the extraordinary trajectory of her son. So, matters of kinship as well as matters of anthropology are at its heart. But actually, part of the interest here is that Scott tells us quite a lot about what makes a rather more workaday anthropologist than Margaret Mead or Claude Lévi-Strauss – a ‘good enough anthropologist’ one might say, rather than a leading figure. One who was female, North American, formed in a particular era, highly committed, unbelievably hard-working, and more than usually immersed in the world she studied – the world of Indonesian villagers from the early 1970s to the mid-1990s and their economic livelihoods. But also someone who was humorous, sometimes flirtatious, formed strong friendships with women and men, spoke Indonesian extraordinarily well, and came to feel more at home there than anywhere else. No puritan despite her clear moral values, Ann Dunham was a woman with appetites – for the wonderful food, jewellery, and batiks she found in Indonesia, and also for men. Reading this account, one might feel a sense of familiarity: that one has known women like her, encountered perhaps at a conference, or through a friendship formed in the field that, surprisingly enough, has endured. The photograph on page 164 of Ann with Nancy Peluso, a fellow-Indonesianist, taken in 1977 or 1978 in Yogyakarta, shows two young women with vibrant, intelligent faces and radiant smiles leaning in towards each other; it strikes a chord.

Although they look in the photograph much like any graduate students from that era, by 1977 Dunham was in fact in her thirties and the mother of seventeen-year old Barack – or ‘Barry’ as he was then known (himself then attending high school in Hawaii and living with her parents). Following her second marriage, she had been resident in Indonesia for about eight years, and was just embarking on fieldwork on peasant craft industries – fieldwork that would continue for more than a decade, and result in a dissertation of more than a thousand pages, submitted at last to the University of Hawaii in 1992.  One senses that Ann Dunham might have been a bit of a supervisor’s nightmare. It is a tribute to the dedication of this student and that of her supervisor that the thesis, focussing in the end mainly on rural blacksmithing, was actually submitted. The huge amount of ‘excess’ data that Ann had collected meant that material on other villages and other craft industries – basket-weaving, leather work, batik, and pottery – had to be cut. The extraordinarily loyal supervisor was Alice Dewey, well known to generations of Southeast Asianists as the author of a pioneering study of peasant marketing in Java, and participant in the ‘Modjokuto project’ of the 1950s – a team fieldwork project that yielded, among other classic works, Clifford Geertz’s Religion of Java. It is a further tribute to this supervisor, and to others, that a shortened version of Dunham’s thesis was published in 2009 by Duke University Press under the title Surviving Against the Odds, edited and with a preface by Alice Dewey and Nancy I. Cooper.

Surviving against the odds seems to sum up Dunham’s life as aptly as those rural livelihoods she so carefully documented. Resilient but also fragile, a risk-taker who left herself exposed, Dunham maintained an economically and sometimes personally precarious life a very long way from her native Kansas. There is in one sense no mystery as to what took her PhD so long to complete – separated from her Indonesian husband by the late 1970s, and with herself and two children to support, Dunham had to earn her living. She did so as a development expert and consultant who pioneered microfinance credit programmes long before they became fashionable, and was well known and respected in development and anthropology circles in Indonesia and beyond for the depth and range of her knowledge and her commitment to high quality policy-related research.

The answer to what made this particular anthropologist, it becomes clear, has to do with the complex intertwining of background and personality. The fact that by the time she was 22 Dunham had made not one but two unconventional international marriages seems more than coincidental. A peripatetic childhood culminating in the abrupt decision of Dunham’s parents to move from Mercer Island near Seattle to Honolulu in 1960, where she enrolled as an undergraduate at the University of Hawaii, and where she met both her future husbands in turn as students, were certainly crucial. So too was the role of the newly established East-West Center as a locale for Southeast Asian studies and international exchange (including a considerable track record of interethnic or international marriage among students who came to the Center). It was here that her second husband, Lolo Soetoro, was a postgraduate student in geography, and where she herself later enrolled as a postgraduate student, and here too that her memorial service was celebrated after her death in 1995.

But of course there is an even more pertinent question at the heart of this book: what made Barack Obama, or what made the first Black American President? Like many children who grow up with little or no contact with one or both birth parents, Obama had a fascination with the father who was mainly missing from his childhood. His memoir, Dreams from My Father, speaks eloquently of his endeavour to connect to his father and his father’s family in Kenya, and of how central this was to the Black American identity he forged as a young man. That he has recognised the ways in which these choices apparently diminish the importance of ties to his maternal family in his public persona is also clear from what he has written. The acknowledged strength of his bond with his maternal grandmother, a ‘rock of stability’ as he phrased it in the dedication to The Audacity of Hope suggests the complexity of this family story.

One might say that the irreducible entanglements of nature and nurture are the subject of Scott’s biography. If the author’s motivation was somehow to set the record straight as to the relative importance of the ‘absent parent’ vis-à-vis the one who was, as Obama put it in the same dedication, ‘the single constant in my life’, it is not surprising that continuities of character and values between mother and son are given special prominence. It turns out that Dunham’s pregnancy and swift marriage to Obama senior at the age of 17 had a precedent in the secret teenage marriage in 1942 of her own mother in Augusta, Kansas. And the familial antecedents on both Dunham’s mother’s and father’s side offer plenty of examples of unsettledness of spirit, a willingness to strike out and take risks, and to move to new places. There is a striking account related by Ann’s mother’s brother of her unusually bright maternal grandmother who had been a teacher, exposed her children to books, travel, art, and anthropology, and took them on a memorable trip to the 1934 Chicago Worlds Fair. It was this, he said, that ensured that all of the maternal siblings left Augusta, Kansas ‘almost as soon as we could’. The inter-generational connections here recall in a more secular register Marilynne Robinson’s remarkable novels (set in Iowa and in Kansas) about familial transmission, Gilead and Home. Dunham’s forebears, however, tended less to preachers, and include several women teachers from the early twentieth century – a background that produced in Ann’s generation more than one anthropologist who worked in Indonesia. The moves to Honolulu and to Indonesia are in this sense foreshadowed.

While the reader’s attention is drawn by the author to the ways in which core values – a concern with the lives of those who ‘survive against the odds’ – were passed from mother to son (Barack the community organiser and activist), others, such as a prodigious capacity for hard work and a seriousness of purpose, or even a prominent chin and its characteristic tilt (which we are told can sometimes be mistaken for snootiness), are part of this maternal inheritance. But there is also a sense of disorganized battiness: the 1000 page dissertation, the chaotic finances, and the irrepressible urge to collect – textiles, jewellery, and of course ever more data. And then there are the extraordinary lists kept in notebooks; lists under such headings as ‘Work + Employment’, ‘Owed to Folks’, or this from January 1st 1985: ‘Long Range Goals’, and under it, ‘1. Finish PhD’, ‘4. remarry’, ‘5. another culture’, ‘7. pay off debts (taxes)’, finishing at number twelve with ‘relations w/friends and family (corresp.)’. If lists could get a life in order, this would surely do it. As an inveterate list maker myself, I found this a salutary reminder to bin the evidence. Perhaps it is not so surprising after all that Obama has kept some of his mother’s eccentricities carefully under wraps.

About a third of the way through this biography, I had a moment of enlightenment. Reading it during the unseemly recent Congressional debacle over raising the US debt ceiling, I was struck by a passage in which the author recounts a conversation with Elizabeth Bryant, a friend of Dunham’s who first got to know Ann and Barry in Indonesia in 1971. Recalling the racist taunting she witnessed him being subjected to as a nine year-old boy in Yogyakarta, Bryant says of the President, ‘I think that’s one reason he’s so halus’. Halus is an Indonesian term that occupies a central place in Geertz’s Religion of Java; it means refined, controlled, cool, calm. I hadn’t up till then thought of Obama’s well-known qualities of reserve and deliberation as being actually Indonesian ones instilled during his early childhood in Java. That overriding tendency to avoid overt confrontation, and to seek compromise, which critics perceive to be his fatal flaw, is a trait familiar to Southeast Asianists. Nurture it seems has won out; and that just might be an anthropological insight.

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