on Family and
Interview with Kam Williams
Born in Jakarta,
Indonesia on August 15, 1970,
Dr. Maya Soetoro-Ng is a lecturer at the University
of Hawaiiís College of Education but is perhaps better
known as the sister of Barack Obama. Named after the
poet Maya Angelou, Maya has just published
Ladder to the Moon, a picture book inspired by
her young daughter Suhailaís questions about the
grandmother she never knew, Grandma Annie.
Here, the First
Sister talks about both her best-seller and about her
family, including what it was like growing up with a big
brother who would one day become the 44th President of
the United States.
* * * *
Hi Maya, Iím honored to have this opportunity to speak
Aloha, Kam. Thank you! Howíre you doing?
Very well, thanks. Howís the weather in Hawaii?
It pretty much is always good, other than the occasional
hurricane. The baseline here is really pretty terrific.
It is very sane. It allows you to spend time outside and
to devote a minimal amount of attention to getting
dressed in the morning. The sun kisses your face
everyday. Itís very healthy!
First of all, I wanted to share with you how much I was
moved by your book. It actually left me in tears.
Thank you so much for saying that.
Have you been getting a lot of feedback like that?
Yes, particularly from people who have lost loved ones,
elders. The book seems to conjure up memories and a
certain melancholy, the bittersweet recognition of the
gift that we might have once had and donít necessarily
want to lose but that we canít access anymore. So, the
personal themes seem to resonate very powerfully with
I lost my mother a couple of years ago. I told my
readers Iíd be interviewing you, so I have more
questions for you than we could ever get to. Yale grad
Tommy Russell asks: What do you think the chances are
that the Obama administration will cut off financial
assistance to Palestine now that Hamas and Fatah
officially reconciled their differences? Do you think
we'll see a Palestinian State in our lifetime?"
Since Iím not a part of the administration, I try to
avoid questions about policy. Generally, speaking,
those are the only questions that I wonít answer. But I
donít mind talking about my brother in terms of our
childhood and our mother.
No problem, Iíll skip those. Thatíll save us a lot of
time. Mirah Riben was wondering how you feel about the
birth certificate nonsense.
My brother has said it all, and I really donít have
anything to add to it. Itís a non-issue and a
Harriet Pakula Teweles says that for the purposes of
this interview, President Obama will be the brother of
Maya Soetoro-Ng who has a rather remarkable trifecta of
accomplishments as a researcher, writer and educator. If
you could be teaching a class right this minute what
would that class be and what would be the topic?
Well, I teach a course I really enjoy on Multi-Cultural
Education which is actually quite fun. But if weíre
talking about a fantasy skill, Iíd like to teach
capoeira, the Brazilian martial arts form. Have you
ever seen it? Itís so amazingly beautiful. I wish I
could do it, but it requires tremendous amounts of
strength and grace which I fear itís too late for me to
develop. I would also love to teach Argentinean tango
dancing, but I canít do that either. [Laughs]
Reverend Florine Thompson asks: How did you come up with
the title for your book?
I came up with the title after being jostled into a
memory of a postcard my mom had given me that I used to
have tacked onto my bedroom wall of a painting by
Georgia OíKeefe entitled
Ladder to the Moon. It had a golden ladder
suspended in a sea of blue with cliffs silhouetted in
the distance. It emphasized the journey, the climb, and
was both mysterious and also rather comforting. So I
thought it was very fitting to describe the journey that
Grandma Annie would take with Suhaila.
Editor/Legist Patricia Turnier asks: What message do you
want kids to take away from the book?
Namely, that they are strong and that they are powerful
not only because they will shape the future but because
they can already do much to heal today. And that the
best things that grownups do, we do for the children,
and that they inspire great good in us. I also want them
to remember that the world is intertwined and that we
therefore have to be gentle in the way that we treat one
another and the Earth, so that our impact on others is
benevolent and good.
Kam Williams: Patricia says: Your next book
project is about peace education and conflict resolution
in high schools. As a professor, do you believe that if
world history were taught everywhere on a national and
international level, it would be a great tool to
encourage the bonding of people?
I absolutely do believe that we need to not be so
myopic. We ought to throw open widely the windows on the
world in order to learn more about it. I think we could
benefit from world history that is specifically taught
in a multi-faceted fashion that allows for an
understanding that perspectives on truth can be very
different. Iím an advocate of an approach that endeavors
to foster empathy and which tries to find a common
humanity across the divide. And there are lots of ways
to achieve that.
One of the things
that I have my students do is to take a look at
English-language newspapers from all around the world in
order to see the different ways in which the same story
might be told. To illustrate that point, the front cover
Ladder to the Moon has the Moon from our
perspective while the back cover has the Earth from the
Moonís point-of-view. That sort of perspective shifting
is really valuable and should be used in teaching
Marcia Evans says: I had a chance to read the recent
New York Times article about your mother. The
in-depth profile really helped me appreciate her and how
she raised such accomplished children. And it gave me
more insight into why our President has the patience and
mannerisms that he does. My question is: What did you
think of the article and what mothering skills are you
raising your children with that you learned from your
I thought the article did a nice job of capturing momís
complexity. Of course, my childrenís book necessarily
paints a much more idealized portrait, the best of her,
momís kindness, her mandate that we treat each other
well, her empathy and her broadmindedness. These are the
qualities that I try to impart to my daughters [Suhaila
and Savita]. Meanness is the one thing I do get upset
about on those rare occasions when I see it.
Another thing was
that mom was tremendously curious. And thankfully, my
daughters and my brotherís daughters share her love of
exploration. I think those traits were among my momís
best. She was better at loving than she was at
disciplining. She always allowed us to be precisely who
we were. She never asked us to change anything
fundamental at the core. Thatís a powerful way to love,
when you accept your children, however they emerge, with
all their peculiarities. Itís interesting how different
my children are from one another, and the same can be
said for Malia and Sasha. You do find that children come
into the world with a lot of personality already
imbedded in them.
How often do you get to speak to your brother and to
visit the Obamas in the White House since heís been
I speak to him on a fairly regular basis, and Iíve been
to the White House quite a few times. He is concerned
about making sure that his daughters and all of us are
able to have as much normalcy as possible. He doesnít
want his job to be stressful for them. So he still does
many of the same things he did before becoming
president. For instance, he spends every Christmas in
Hawaii and we engage in much of the same routines as
before. And we spend summers together, and Iíve been
fortunate enough to see him a few times in between.
Kam Williams: Marcia also says that she loves
Indonesian/Malaysian cuisine. She wants to know whether
you prepare Indonesian dishes for your family.
I wish I did. Itís very complex food, and Iím not a very
good cook. I only make simple dishes. But I have the
soul of a chef, in the same way that I have the soul of
a jazz singer, but I just wasnít blessed with any of the
Reverend Florine Thompson asks: How does it feel to be
named after Maya Angelou and have you ever met her?
I did meet her many years ago when I went to see her
speak on three separate occasions. She knows that I was
named after her, but I havenít seen her in recent years,
although my brother has. I have always enjoyed the great
rhythm in her voice. And there have been ideas sheís
shared that were very influential to me, like the notion
that words are tactile and enduring and swirling around
us. Thatís stuck with me and perhaps guided my choices
as a teacher
Reverend Thompson also asks: What message would you give
to young students who aspire to the lofty heights of
your brother, President Obama?
Go for it! My brother didnít run for student government,
he didnít get straight Aís, and he wasnít perfect as a
child. And he was much more interested in basketball
than in student government. The key was that he never
made any mistakes from which he couldnít recover. They
were all mistakes which allowed him to grow and develop.
We came from exceedingly humble beginnings.
So, as clichťd as
it might sound to some adults, I think that his life
should remind children that they really can achieve
anything with the right support. You need support to
develop both the skills and the confidence. I think
young people should be emboldened by the fact that he
managed to craft this extraordinary life by thinking
about how to make his mark, and how to make his
footprints matter once he decided that his life should
serve some meaningful purpose.
The Judyth Piazza question: What key quality do you
believe all successful people share?
I honestly think that itís love. You really need to love
something or someone in order to work hard enough to be
very successful. You have to believe in something and
have a certain optimism. Faith and optimism come from
love. So, I really do think thatís the starting point.
Is there any question no one ever asks you, that you
wish someone would?
[Chuckles] Huh? Thatís a good question. I wish someone
would ask me what my favorite pickup line is.
Okay, what is your favorite pickup line?
Itís from Zora Neale Hurstonís novel,
Their Eyes Were Watching God. The character Tea
Cake looks at his woman, Janie, and says, ďJanie, youíre
the kind of woman who would make a man forget to grow
old and forget to die.Ē I always thought it was so
great. Imagine being told that youíre so extraordinary
that you can stop time and biology. My husband [Konrad]
never delivered that line to me, but I decided to marry
him anyway. [LOL]
The Tasha Smith question: Are you ever afraid?
Yeah, definitely. I worry whenever I falter in my
conviction about the message that I deliver about the
importance of optimism and continued dialogue. That sort
of thing scares me. And anger and malice scare me. But
Iím not often afraid and I try to not let any fear
impact the way that I live my life or to touch my
children. They certainly deserve to be fearless. Werenít
we also fearless at one time? [Chuckles]
The Columbus Short question: Are you happy?
Yes! Iím happy because I have a healthy family and a
life that allows me enough variety in my days. And I
have interesting work as a professor where I get to
impact others while learning from young people. Thatís
pretty good stuff.
The Teri Emerson question: When was the last time you
had a good laugh?
Oh, I laugh every day because I have the gift of these
kids. Theyíre hilarious! [Laughs] I canít help but feel
joyful watching my sassy two year-old who just loves to
walk around in my high heels while wearing sunglasses
and a feathered boa. [LOL] And I could recount lots of
stories about Suhaila who is so full of feeling that she
not only makes me proud of her but also makes me laugh.
For instance, she recently brought home a slug and a
worm and adopted them until I made her release them back
into the wild after a couple of weeks, at which point
she wept dramatically, announcing, ďFarewell! To Wiggles
and Lemon Drop!Ē [Laughs some more]
What is your guiltiest pleasure?
Good strong coffee with a really good novel, which I
unfortunately havenít had a chance to enjoy for a while
because you donít get the time when your kids are young.
I used to love just sitting in a comfy spot on a couch,
under a tree or on a porch and getting lost in a good
book. I could do so all day.
The bookworm Troy Johnson question: What was the last
book you read?
Imagining Ourselves: Global Voices from a New Generation
of Women which takes an interesting look at
I also recently
reread parts of
Life of Pi a novel about a teenager who ends up
adrift on the ocean in a lifeboat with a hyena, a zebra,
an orangutan and a Bengal tiger after the Japanese cargo
ship heís aboard sinks.
The music maven Heather Covington question: What music
do you like to listen to?
Because Iím not teaching high school anymore, I donít
get to keep up with whatís the latest and greatest from
the teenage perspective. But what I have in my car is
mostly older stuff like Willie Colon and Earth Wind &
Fire. I like to sing along, but with the windows rolled
up. [LOL] Good stuff!
What is your favorite dish to cook?
I like brunch. Itís the only thing Iím really good at.
Eggs, omelets with fine herbs and little bits of lovely
cheeses, and salads with nuts and fruits. Iím not a
cook. Isnít that terrible? But I can do a good brunch
which is fun because it fortifies you for the rest of
the day and itís a nice way to get together with
The Uduak Oduok question: Who is your favorite clothes
[Laughs] I have to confess that I donít care very much
about clothes. I have the good fortune to be living in
Hawaii where people donít pay too much attention to
fashion. In truth, I merely endeavor to look
respectable. I admire how Michelleís a fashion icon but
I have no parallel skill or eye. I just try to not look
When you look in the mirror, what do you see?
These are great questions. Fun! Iím sometimes surprised
by how middle-aged I look to myself, but I am working
now to embrace that. [Giggles] I definitely see a woman
who has journeyed and made mistakes but who has an
interesting map engraved into her face. A richly-layered
woman who has been alternately brave and weak but who is
full of love for enough people and things and places and
ideas to give her face character and to give her life
The Ling-Ju Yen question: What is your earliest
My earliest memories are of me and my brother and mother
in the house on Poki Street in Hawaii where we lived
from when I was three until I was six. I have a clear
mental snapshot of me rocking in a big chair trying to
tip it over. And I have another memory of myself
standing in front of the TV while my brother was trying
to watch a basketball game, compelling him to yell,
ďMom! Sheís doing it again.Ē
A third memory is
of putting all my books and dolls on a big blanket in
the middle of the hallway and forbidding Barack and my
mom to step on the blanket. [Laughs] Those are three of
my most vivid and earliest memories. I actually found
those very same dolls, including a big Raggedy Ann, when
I was pregnant with Suhaila because mom left all of
those dolls in a box for my children at my
grandmotherís. She put them there the year before she
How thoughtful! If you could have one wish instantly
granted, what would that be for?
World peace, of course! And on a personal level, that I
manage to live a good bit longer than either of my
parents, so that I might see all of the extraordinary
things that my children and my grandchildren will do.
The Rudy Lewis question: Whoís at the top of your hero
Iíd say Gandhi and Martin Luther King, because it was so
extraordinary for them to be able to see the ways in
which taking an approach which at first glance seemed to
be soft could actually be so much more powerful and
enduring than taking one which at first glance appears
sharp. I think that it required extraordinary
imagination and faith to persevere and not surrender
until real change was achieved.
The Tavis Smiley question: How do you want to be
I would love to be remembered as a fine educator and
parent. Being a parent has become incredibly important
to me. I never knew how much I would be altered by my
children. I would like to be remembered by them in much
the way I remember my mom: as loving and kind.
Thanks again, Maya, for being so much fun and so
Itís been a delight, Kam! What an interesting format
youíve got. Itís refreshing. I wonít forget you and I
would love to meet you someday.
Kam Williams: Same here! And
best of luck with the book.
Maya Soetoro-Ng: Itís been a
posted 4 May 2011
The 'Singular Woman' Who Raised Barack Obama
* * * *
Ladder to the Moon
Little Suhaila wishes she could have known
her grandma, who would wrap her arms around
the whole world if she could, Mama says. And
one night, Suhaila gets her wish when a
golden ladder appears at her window, and
Grandma Annie invites the girl to come along
with her on a magical journey. In a
rich and deeply personal narrative, Maya
Soetoro-Ng draws inspiration from her
motherís love for family, her empathy for
others, and her ethic of service to imagine
this remarkable meeting. Evoking fantasy and
folklore, the story touches on events that
have affected people across the world in our
time and reaffirms our common humanity. Yuyi
Moralesís breathtaking artwork illuminates
the dreamlike tale, reminding us that loved
ones lost are always with us, and that
sometimes we need only look at the moon and
* * * *
A Singular Woman
The Untold Story of Barack Obamaís Mother
By Janny Scott
Award-winning reporter Janny Scott
interviewed nearly two hundred of Dunham's
friends, colleagues, and relatives
(including both her children), and combed
through boxes of personal and professional
papers, letters to friends, and photo
albums, to uncover the full breadth of this
woman's inspiring and untraditional life,
and to show the remarkable extent to which
she shaped the man Obama is today. Dunham's
story moves from Kansas and Washington state
to Hawaii and Indonesia. It begins in a time
when interracial marriage was still a felony
in much of the United States, and culminates
in the present, with her son as our
president- something she never got to see.
It is a poignant look at how character is
passed from parent to child, and offers
insight into how Obama's destiny was created
early, by his mother's extraordinary faith
in his gifts, and by her unconventional
* * *
First Family of Writers
Grows by One
Excerpts by Sheryl Gay
In the fall of
2007, while helping her ambitious older
half-brother, Barack Obama, campaign for president,
Maya Soetoro-Ng holed up in the basement of the
Obamasí Chicago home to pursue a long-held ambition
of her own: writing a childrenís book.
Mr. Obama was
by then a best-selling author. But when he offered
to introduce his little sister to his agent, Ms.
Soetoro-Ng said, she refused. And she did not show
him her bookóa fictional paean to their mother, the
free-spirited anthropologist Stanley Ann
Dunhamóuntil it sold to a publisher. ďThatís
probably the stubbornness of a younger sister,Ē she
said. ďWe all want to find our own path.Ē
But the path
she has chosen, in her family at least, is crowded.
When Ms. Soetoro-Ngís book,
Ladder to the Moon, hit bookshelves on Tuesday,
it added to a growing Obama family literary canon.
President Obama, whose first two books earned
millions, recently published a childrenís book. His
wife, Michelle, just signed a contract with Crown
Publishing for a book on the White House garden, due
in April 2012.
ladyís brother, the college basketball coach
Robinson, published a memoir last year. The
Mark Obama Ndesandjo, who lives in China,
published a semi-autobiographical novel in 2009;
another half-brother, George Obama of Kenya, last
Homeland, an autobiography that chronicles
his attempt to transform himself from drug-using
gangster to advocate for Nairobiís poor.
presidentís mother has become a published author. In
2009, 14 years after her death, Duke University
Press published her 1992 doctoral thesis,
Surviving Against the Odds: Village Industry in
Indonesia. Ms. Soetoro-Ng wrote the
* * *
* * *
The Gardens of Democracy: A New American Story
of Citizenship, the Economy, and the Role of Government
By Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer
American democracy is informed by the 18th centuryís most cutting edge thinking on society, economics, and government. Weíve learned some things in the intervening 230 years about self interest, social behaviors, and how the world works. Now, authors Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer argue that some fundamental assumptions about citizenship, society, economics, and government need updating. For many years the dominant metaphor for understanding markets and government has been the machine. Liu and Hanauer view democracy not as a machine, but as a garden. A successful garden functions according to the inexorable tendencies of nature, but it also requires goals, regular tending, and an understanding of connected ecosystems. The latest ideas from science, social science, and economicsóthe cutting-edge ideas of todayógenerate these simple but revolutionary ideas: (The economy is not an efficient machine. Itís an effective garden that need tending. Freedom is responsibility. Government should be about the big what and the little how. True self interest is mutual interest.
* * *
A Game of
By Craig Robinson
A Game of
Robinson takes readers behind the scenes to meet his
most important influences in his understanding of
the winning traits that are part of his playbook for
success. Central to his story are his parents,
Marian and Fraser, two indefatigable individuals who
showed their children how to believe in themselves
and live their lives with conviction through love,
discipline and respect.
With insights into this
exemplary family, we relive memories of how Marian
sacrificed a career to be a full-time mom, how
Fraser got up and went to work every day while
confronting the challenges of multiple sclerosis,
how Craig and Michelle strengthened their bond as
they journeyed out of the Southside to Princeton
University and eventually, the national stage.
* * *
The White Masters of the
The World and Africa, 1965
By W. E. B. Du Bois
W. E. B. Du Boisí
Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization
* * *
Ancient African Nations
* * * * *
If you like this page consider making a donation
* * * * *
Negro Digest /
Browse all issues
* * * * *
The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan
The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll
Only a Pawn in Their Game
Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for
* * *
The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg
Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804
January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of
* * * * *
* * *
(Books, DVDs, Music, and more)
update 13 May 2012