Motley Moose – Archive

Since 2008 – Progress Through Politics

UPDATED: Race, Family, Mortality and the American Dream

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.


  1. NavyBlueWife

    I think the great equalizers for all of us are suffering and love, and those things know no race, cred, color, nationality, religion, and on and on…

    I can hardly read all of the diaries and comments this morning because as some of you know, I lost my brother-in-law this year in a Navy helicopter crash here in Corpus Christi, TX, but a month later, I lost my dad suddenly of heart failure.  I can’t even talk about it.  I grew up as an only child, with only my mom and dad around me.  Now, he’s gone.

    Two funerals with military honors in one-month span, a folded American flag rests in my home…and to honor them is why I do what I do here.

  2. NavyBlueWife

    that the mccain/palin campaign is such an affront to many people because it attacks the very fabric of who we are…i personally get very upset when someone attacks another person on the basis of a fundamental quality — race, religion, gender, the like — and these rallies attack people who have been kicked around a lot — not REAL terrorists, mind you…not only are they kicking around minorities, (except Jews, they have been courting that FL vote pretty hard)…but they offend educated people, inner city folks, children in need of health care, people who are losing their homes because of predatory lending…i don’t know what the mccain/palin demographic looks like anymore, but they have offended so many people directly and indirectly…and so many people are telling them to stop, but NOPE…it makes me wonder if they are just working for 2010 and 2012 now.

  3. fogiv

    And despite your claim, it’s quite a special story.  Thanks so much for sharing it.

    This is from a comment I made about My G-Ma on MyDD back in June.  Hope nobody minds my recycling it

    When I was a sophomore in college, my parents summoned me home to visit with my ailing Grandmother (a month before my planned visit for winter break).  

    Having outlived all her younger siblings, she was 73 years old and had only months before been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease.  Her mental condition had rapidly deteriorated.  Essentially, I had been called home to say goodbye to a woman I had loved and admired.  She had always been strong, smart, independent.  

    When I was old enough to understand, she would tell me about what it was like to be a “first wave” feminist while we picked blackberries from the hillsides of my grandparent’s ranch.  I would climb the apple tree in the back yard, a basket dangling from the crook of my arm, while she pointed out the ones she wanted for the night’s pie.  While it baked, she would tell me about working in a munitions plant during WWII, about running track in college, and explain the difference between communism and socialism.

    When I got home that October, she didn’t at first recognize me.  She asked when I had been released from prison, and only moments later inquired as to wether or not I enjoyed serving in the Navy–I was neither a convict or a sailor.

    I spent as many days as I could afford, visiting her twice daily.  In the sort time I was home, her condition continued to deteriorate.  When I left, I’m not sure she knew who I was.

    My Grandparents.  I miss them both very much.


  4. blinkeythefish

    for putting the family story into this beautifuly told short story. I know I’ve heard it before, but it’s brilliant to be able to read about the origins of our family, and how unique it is; even though I agree that (for the most part anyway) we’re pretty normal.

    Also interesting point about American relationships, maybe it runs in the family! There is a nice girl who works at the video store down the road here…:)

    I’ll be posting my that blog about my experiences about working for Clean Tech for Obama so far, and just being an 18 year old Brit living in America generally, quite soon I hope: work here in NY has slowed down a bit so need to take advantage before I get thrown into it again when I head off to Pennsylvania!

    Thanks again Dad, and happy birthday Grandma.  

  5. Old Brit

    As Brit’s older brother ………I loved the Diary entry.

    The Kenya connection extends to my wife who is a Kikuyu and

    with Brit’s support we run a girls orphange in Kenya.

    Web Address is

    We loved the quote:

    Any woman can give birth.

    But not every woman can be a mother

    So appropriate today……..  

  6. Britbroson

    Firstly I would like to apologize for grammatical mistakes and the rambling, disjointed nature of this post – I am doing this covertly at work and my boss is a fervent McCain supporter. As Brit’s nephew I was very touched to read this about Grandma. After seeing my Father and my Cousin post I couldn’t resist. I grew up down the road from my Uncle in London and moved to the US (my birthplace) about 2 years ago. I live in North East Pennsylvania, which as you probably all know is a crucial area. I was lucky enough to go see a rally with Biden and both Clintons a week or two ago. I was struck by the immense diversity in the crowd, which is something that I have rarely seen here. I sit here in Scranton (I live in the Poconos) where it is perfectly normal to see deer strapped to cars, tobacco chewed, arsenals of firearms, fierce anti – abortion views and sometimes-blatant racism. This is countered by those who have moved here from New York and other parts of the US. Yet in that hall these disparate groups came together to support Obama whole-heartedly. They come together because of the realisation that they all have more in common with Obama and his views than McCain. Healthcare, the economy (jobs), the war and a desire for social equality are their priorities. We are bombarded with ads constantly, I sometimes wish there was a normal commercial! One of McCain’s most recent campaigns attacks Obama regarding redistributing wealth. I think that a large number of people here would like to see a little bit of redistribution. There is a genuine feeling of hope in one of America’s most depressed areas. Perhaps, outside of the metropolises America is undergoing something similar to London in the seventies. I hope that here and all across this country that I love we will usher in a new era of hope and change.

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