Isn’t it strange. Here we are, two weeks away from a historic General Election, and because of the sad news about the parlous state of health of Barack Obama’s grandmother, Madelyn Dunham, our thoughts turn to matters beyond the reach of campaigns and the ballot box.
Or perhaps it’s not so strange – it’s salutary. For a moment, there is a hiatus to think about deeper things.
I’ve been touched by how many diaries and comments this moment has triggered. And though wary of sentimentality, these personal accounts of grandmothers have got me thinking about why Obama’s character and story appeals to so many people across the world.
Forgive the personal account, but our politics is often rooted in our backgrounds. The reason I want to tell this brief story is to explain to myself why this Brit feels so involved in this election, and why I suspect millions of others across the world do too.
Many British people today, particularly Londoners, have a history of displanted roots and migration, much like Obama’s.
I never met any of my grandmothers. My father’s mother died of illness in the 40s, so did my mother’s adopted parents. So when I think of Madelyn Dunham, I think of my mother.
She was born in 1926, the same year as our Queen, but in very different circumstances, the abandoned child of an Armenian violinist who had fled the genocide. She was adopted by an elderly but very liberal English couple, who also helped Jewish refugees during the war. They both were dead by the time my mother was seventeen.
An orphan and only child, my mother compensated for that by having no less than five children (I was the fourth). She also dedicated herself to public service and became a social worker. It was on one of her first ever assignments that she met a happy bright five year old at a children’s home. He was a mixed race child – no easy thing in England in the 1970s – the abandon off spring of a Scottish Mother and a father from Barbados.
He became the sixth child of our family. My mother fostered him, and then adopted him, my beloved kid brother, Steven.
We had hard times financially, moved out of London, and lived in rough villages where racial insults were common, and I was often getting in fights. Steven seemed to sail above it all with humour and constant laughing. We survived several bankruptcies and bonded as a family
By the time he was getting to late teens though, my mother was worried. This was the early 80s. There were riots in the mainly Afro Caribbean parts of England’s big cities. How would my brother survive, with his posh accent and black skin: would he be called a ‘coconut’? Would he be torn apart by the racial divide of the country, at home in neither community?
But something miraculous happened to London in that time. I tried to play a small part in it through groups like Rock Against Racism, but by the time my brother moved to London, he didn’t have to make a choice. It didn’t matter any more if he wasn’t white enough, or black enough. Something miraculous had happened – and I still don’t know how it was done.
London is now one of the most diverse and cosmopolitan cities, and Britain apparently has more mixed race relationships than anywhere in the world
Our family has always had a deep connection to America – both myself and my two older brothers have worked in the US, and all of us have married Americans (at some point) and I’ve wondered why. Perhaps we are connected to the American dream of mobility in this way. Perhaps millions of others are.
There’s nothing special in my family’s story. In fact I think we’re increasing typical. We feel in our bones the history of migration and lost roots because of my mother’s background. And I realise now this is why I’ve spent the last year or so, missing deadlines to engage in whatever way I can for Obama’s historic campaign, because his demeanour, his character, his temperament is born out of a same complicated but inspiring legacy.
So best wishes to Madelyn Dunham, and all those people who heal the wounds of rootlessness and deracination through their kindness and devotion.
And best wishes to my mother, wherever she is. It would be her birthday tomorrow.
Jean Jukes, 1926-2004
UPDATE: to my complete surprise, both my son and my older brother have commented on this diary. The latter, Older Brit, has also reminded me of our family’s other Obama connection – with Kenya. As he points out, we help to run a girl’s orphanage there. Though you’re all maxed out with campaign contributions no doubt, you might like to visit the web page
My mother would have approved of that too.