Tea with Barack Obama’s Sister
Updated: Feb 1, 2022
Maya Soetoro-Ng on her “awesome” big brother, his early presidential leanings and their mother’s legacy of hope.
// By: Stuart Coleman // October 23, 2008 // Originally published on Salon.com //
When I met Maya Soetoro-Ng at a small cafe in Honolulu last week, we talked mostly about her brother, Barack Obama. She had been campaigning for him but had taken time off to care for their ailing grandmother. Soetoro-Ng didn’t know then that 85-year-old Madelyn Dunham’s health would become more fragile and that her brother would be flying back to Hawaii to visit her with less than two weeks to go before Election Day, followed by flocks of reporters and an impressive lead in the polls.
Talking over tea, I was struck by how different she looks from her brother, who is nine years her senior. Maya is a zaftig, half-Indonesian woman with light skin, dark hair and a deep voice. Although they had different fathers and lived apart for many years, she and Barack were both raised by the same mother and grandparents.
While Barack went to Harvard, his father’s alma mater, to get his law degree, Maya went to the University of Hawaii like her mother and earned a Ph.D. in education. She now teaches at a girls school in Honolulu, where she lives with her husband, Konrad Ng, and their daughter.
Did you ever imagine Barack becoming president?
There was this joke in our childhood that he was going to be the first African-American president … but it was based on the fact that he was so bossy and he was always winning arguments! You know, he was always trying to tell people what to do so we were like, “Oh, yes, Mr. President!” There’s a difference between a family joke and having a real concrete understanding. No, I didn’t think that this would happen, or even could happen, until perhaps just after the 2004 Democratic convention when he made that big speech.
What changed after that speech?
He started being recognized and people started really investing their own hopes and aspirations in him, and there were these Draft Obama movements all over the country. But even then, we thought, “All right, the Senate, that’s big — you can effect a lot of change with that.” We weren’t really thinking beyond that.
When did you first learn that he had aspirations for the nation’s highest office?
I remember a few years ago going into his office, and he was pacing and frustrated, and I said, ‘What’s wrong?’ This is in Chicago in his home office. He said, “I don’t know. I feel like I’m floundering, like I’m not doing what I’m supposed to be doing, that I could be doing more, that I haven’t quite found my path, my mission.” I started laughing at him because I was like, “You are the only guy who could be a state senator, a law professor and a civil rights lawyer and feel like you’re underachieving.” The big joke became, “Finally, you’re not underachieving!”
What was Barack like as a big brother?
He was an amazing big brother. I’ve obviously said that a lot, but I mean it. He really was much more attentive than anyone his age could be expected to be.
As a teenager, you went to stay with Barack when he was working as a community organizer in Chicago. Is this when you feel like you began to know him as an adult and an individual?
He was in his 20s so he was pretty young to be taking over the care of his teenage sister. He took me to several colleges around the country to help me make the good decision about where to go to school. He let me stay with him and helped me get my first job. He took me to festivals and fairs and museums. He enrolled me in classes at the Art Institute of Chicago, and I studied dance there. He was awesome! He showed me his life and an impressive dedication to service. I was a teenager then, and our relationship really hasn’t changed.
Is it strange seeing what a national and international phenomenon your brother has become?
It’s kind of like I’m loaning him out to the rest of the world. I get a wee bit less of him, but he’s still the same guy. I don’t feel like there’s a huge disconnect between the man I see on the television and the man who calls me at night. The smile is the same, the sense of humor is the same, and the ears are the same, and the voice is the same. And it’s the same with his politics. He’s working now to represent more people, to be more broadly inclusive in his representation. He can’t really afford to think, “Who am I?” Now, it’s more like, “Who are we as a nation? Or who do we want to be? And how can I help facilitate a stronger, broader, unified identity?”
The McCain campaign has been very aggressive. What do you say to people who say that your brother needs to fight back more?
I say that he cannot be something other than who he is. This is a man who fights by thinking about what you can do to make the country better, to enhance our will, to expand the parameters of possibility. I think he’s done a fairly good job letting people know that he’s not weak, that he’s decisive; he’s not impulsive, but he’s decisive, and he’s not afraid to act. But at the same time, that doesn’t mean that you have to get nasty. It doesn’t mean that you have to transform your personality. He can’t. He can only be who he is, and who he is is somebody who is very strong and competitive, believe me, but he’s not nasty.
I think a lot of people don’t realize there is honor and dignity in the way that he’s carried out his campaign. For the most part, I think he’s done an extraordinary job. But I think there are other people who mistake the smile for softness or the civility for weakness.
Does he ever get mad?
He gets irritated. He doesn’t get mad unless someone’s saying something about his family. He gets protective, and then he’ll get mad. You know, like a time or two, he’s said, “Leave Michelle alone.” Fortunately, there haven’t been too many people who have criticized her or the kids — that would make him mad. I haven’t really seen him mad; I’ve seen him irritated and kind of disappointed — disappointed in the media or disappointed in his opponents.
Has this campaign changed him?
In spite of his really hectic schedule, we speak regularly. I’ve been campaigning for him, of course, so I’ve seen him quite a bit this past year. Every year, he comes to Hawaii and spends time with his family. He makes sure that he takes me out on our sibling lunch, and we go and scatter flowers at the place where we scattered our mother’s ashes. He’s marvelously consistent and knows how he is. He’s very rooted, and he lets us know that he’s there for us.
What do you think your mother Ann Dunham’s legacy was?
Definitely, without a doubt, her compassion and empathy, her ability to see the humanity of other people, her hopefulness — she was eternally hopeful. You think about this woman with two failed marriages that she really, really wanted to work, but she still believed in marriage. She witnessed all kinds of poverty, inequality and injustice and oppression, but she still believed in human beings and their potential to do good.
Who was more influential, your mother or your grandmother?
Both. I think they each gave Barack something separate. Our mother was more of a dreamer, but she was also very pragmatic when she needed to be. And our grandmother was very practical, no nonsense, but was also our emotional tether when she needed to be. I mean, she’s the reason we could make all of these choices and we could operate bravely in our own lives because we knew she was there.
He has had some strong women in his life. He couldn’t help but be a feminist.
That’s what I’ve been saying for this whole campaign! I’ve been calling him a feminist for the last year. People laugh, but I think it’s true.
How do you think Barack has changed people’s view of race in America?
I think the impact is different for different people. My feeling is that for those who needed a strong symbol of black America, he’s offered something valuable in representing race that way. But I think for those who were ready to deemphasize race, he’s all for that as well. The campaign has never really been about race, from his perspective. People have tried to make it about race, but he’s insisted throughout that it wasn’t about race.
How does his mixed-raced identity affect his view of the world?
I think it affects me more. He is less interested in the questions of his own hybridity … it’s sort of like “I am what I am — let’s not overanalyze.” For me, it’s really important because I feel like we don’t teach multicultural education in ways that are particularly meaningful.
As a feminist yourself, what do you think of Sarah Palin?
I don’t care for her.
We have different politics, and that’s it really. And I really don’t care for the way she has been deliberately misdirecting the attention of the American people when it comes to my brother. I’m protective because I love him.
Stuart H. Coleman lives in Honolulu and works as the coordinator of the East-West Center‘s Leadership Certificate Program. He is also the author of two books about surfing,“Eddie Would Go” and the upcoming “Fierce Heart”.