The photograph showed the son, but my eye gravitated toward the mother. That first glimpse was surprising — the stout, pale-skinned woman in sturdy sandals, standing squarely a half-step ahead of the lithe, darker-skinned figure to her left. His elastic-band body bespoke discipline, even asceticism. Her form was well padded, territory ceded long ago to the pleasures of appetite and the forces of anatomical destiny. He had the studied casualness of a catalog model, in khakis, at home in the viewfinder. She met the camera head-on, dressed in hand-loomed textile dyed indigo, a silver earring half-hidden in the cascading curtain of her dark hair. She carried her chin a few degrees higher than most. His right hand rested on her shoulder, lightly. The photograph, taken on a Manhattan rooftop in August 1987 and e-mailed to me 20 years later, was a revelation and a puzzle. The man was Barack Obama at 26, the community organizer from Chicago on a visit to New York. The woman was Stanley Ann Dunham, his mother. It was impossible not to be struck by the similarities, and the dissimilarities, between them. It was impossible not to question the stereotype to which she had been expediently reduced: the white woman from Kansas.
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.