January 25, 2017

“We’re Not in Kansas Any More” — Hello Goodbye Obama On the Morning After

By Stuart Mitchner

The morning after the Inauguration we’re out of milk so I drive over to the shopping center. Maybe because I’ve had no breakfast, everyone I see looks grim and hung-over. It’s a William Blake crowd, “marks of weakness, marks of woe” on every face. Or maybe it’s just me remembering how it seemed on January 21, 2009, everyone smiling, high on hope, strangers shyly nodding hello. Eight years ago! Was the contrast really so stark? Surely life’s more subtle than that.

When I get behind the wheel of my green 2000 CRV, the key won’t turn, steering wheel’s locked, so I give it a turn or two, no use. Then I look up and see almost directly across from me in the parking lot the green 2000 CRV that actually belongs to me.

No, life’s not subtle. I’ve begun January 21, 2017 by getting into the wrong car.

Driving home, the date begins sinking in. At sunrise on January 21,1966 I was with seven million pilgrims at Sangam, the meeting of holy rivers, the Ganges and the Jumna. Seven years later a friend who’d shared the moment with me writes from England with the news that his first child was born in the early morning hours of January 21. A year later living nearby in Bristol, my wife and I come to know and love the little girl and begin to think, “We can do this,” and so we do, and here we are in Princeton on the morning after. Like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, “I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas any more,” which makes sense since that’s where I was born, and I haven’t been back in 20 years. Come to think of it, the last time was January 20-21, 1997. As Bill Clinton was being sworn in for his second term I was on my way home from my aunt’s funeral in Hutchinson, just northwest of Wichita, where Barack Obama’s mother was born. That’s her in the photo opposite holding the future president of the United States.

A Girl Named Stanley

Lately I’ve been looking through my copy of Dreams From My Father, which was written in the early 1990s when the presidency was only a gleam, if that, in Barack Obama’s eye. I first read the book in the weeks before the 2008 election, for a column (“It’s in the Prose: To Know Obama, Read His Story,” Nov. 12, 2008) that ended with the wish that I’d had time to write more about the president’s mother, Ann, born Stanley Ann Dunham, Stanley being her father’s name as well as that of a character played by Bette Davis in a film her mother liked. The Kansas connection caught my attention around the time Senator Obama was delivering the “United States of America” keynote address at the 2004 Democratic Convention, the speech that put him on the map.

“The Most Beautiful Thing”

The scene from Dreams From My Father I wanted to write about takes place when Ann Dunham is visiting her son in New York City in the early 1980s. Noticing an ad in the Village Voice for a revival of the 1959 art house favorite Black Orpheus, she tells Barack and his half-sister Maya she hasn’t seen it since she was 16, her first foreign movie. She’d thought it “the most beautiful thing” she’d ever seen.

So they all three go to the film, which Obama feels like leaving halfway through because although it’s “a groundbreaker of sorts,” he finds it patronizing, with its “black and brown Brazilians” singing and dancing “like carefree birds in colorful plumage.” When he turns to his mother to see if she might be ready to go, he’s stopped by the sight of her wistful face “lit by the blue glow of the screen.” In that moment he feels as if he were “being given a window into her heart, the unreflective heart of her youth.” He suddenly realizes that “the depiction of childlike blacks” on the screen was “a reflection of the simple fantasies that had been forbidden to a white middle-class girl from Kansas, the promise of another life: warm, sensual, exotic, different.”

He turns away, “embarrassed for her.” After the film, Maya says, “Kind of corny, huh …. Just Mom’s style.” For Obama, it’s more than that, so much more that he finds himself avoiding situations where he and his mother might be forced to talk. He’s having trouble dealing with the idea that her naive response to such a film might actually have changed the course of her life, priming her for the relationship with a Kenyan exchange student named Obama that led to marriage and Barack’s birth on August 4, 1961.

The moment in the movie theatre takes on added meaning later when Ann talks more openly about her relationship with Obama’s father. As she describes the opposition to their marriage and the circumstances that eventually led her to divorce him — the fact that the father in Kenya violently opposed his son’s union with a white woman and that his first marriage, a village wedding, might not have been sanctioned by a legal divorce — her chin begins to tremble and she bites down on her lip, “steadying herself,” telling Barack, “We were so young, you know. I was younger than you are now. He was only a few years older than that.” At this point, she brightens up, recalling the time he was an hour late for their first date. When he didn’t show up after a few minutes, she’d stretched out on a bench, and fallen asleep, waking up to find he’d finally arrived with a couple of his friends. As they stood there looking down at her, “I heard your father saying, serious as can be, ‘You see, gentlemen. I told you that she was a fine girl, and that she would wait for me.’”

As his mother laughs at the memory, Obama sees her again as the girl she had been. “Except this time I saw something else,” he writes. “In her smiling, slightly puzzled face, I saw what all children must see at some point if they are to grow up — their parents’ lives revealed to them as separate and apart, reaching out beyond the point of their union or the birth of a child, lives unfurling back to grandparents, great-grandparents, an infinite number of chance meetings, misunderstandings, projected hopes, limited circumstances. My mother was that girl with the movie of beautiful black people in her head, flattered by my father’s attention, confused and alone, trying to break out of the grip of her own parents’ lives. The innocence she carried that day, waiting for my father, had been tinged with misconceptions, her own needs. But it was a guileless need, one without self-consciousness, and perhaps that’s how any love begins, impulses and cloudy images that allow us to break across our solitude, and then, if we’re lucky, are finally transformed into something firmer. What I heard from my mother that day, speaking about my father” was “the love of someone who knows your life in the round, a love that will survive disappointment.” What moves Obama is his mother’s effort to help him see his father the way she saw him. “And it was the look on her face that day that I would remember when a few months later I called to tell her that my father had died and heard her cry out over the distance.”

Blue and Red

“Dreams from the Prairie,” the opening chapter of Janny’s Scott’s A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mother (Riverhead 2011) gives evidence that there’s a lot more to Kansas than the “red state” that voted for Trump and twice voted against Obama. Kansas is “complex, contradictory, and surprising,” a “state of extremes” a “far cry from the stereotype.” Its motto is Ad astra per aspera: “To the stars through difficulties,” an idea that, Scott suggests, might have resonated with Obama’s idealistic mother had she lived to see him take the oath of office.

“Her Capacity for Wonder”

Introducing the 2004 edition of Dreams from My Father, Obama says that if he’d known his mother was going to die of cancer “with brutal swiftness” a few months after the book was published, he might have made it “less a meditation on the absent parent” and “more a celebration of the one who was the single constant in my life.”

In his summary of her last ten years, he describes how she spent the time doing what she loved, “working in the distant villages of Asia and Africa,” where she “gathered friends from high and low, took long walks, stared at the moon and foraged through the local markets of Delhi or Marrakech for some trifle, a scarf or stone carving that would make her laugh or please the eye. She wrote reports, read novels, pestered her children, and dreamed of grandchildren.” She also helped during the writing of the book, “correcting stories that I had misunderstood careful not to comment on my characterizations of her but quick to explain or defend the less flattering aspects of my father’s character.”

Obama ends the preface where he ended his last press conference: “In my daughters I see her every day, her joy, her capacity for wonder …. I know that she was the kindest most generous spirit I have ever known,” and “what is best in me I owe to her.”

And while we may not be “in Kansas any more,” thousands marched in Topeka and Wichita, Ann Dunham’s hometown, on the day millions here and all around the world made the glorious most of the morning after.