In 1990, Barack Obama became the first African-American president of the Harvard Law Review. A year later, he was approached by a literary agent, who asked if he would be interested in writing an autobiography about his life.
Obama said yes, and in 1995, his book Dreams from My Father was published. As the title suggests, it focused mainly on the relationship he had with his father, Barack Obama Sr. When articles about the book started coming out, they referred to his mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, as simply "a white anthropologist from Kansas."
But the characterizations of Obama's mother — first as "a white anthropologist from Kansas" and then as "a single mother on food stamps" and "the woman who died of cancer while fighting with her insurance company at the end of her life" — don't encompass who she was, the unconventional life she led or the influence she had on the future president of the United States, says writer Janny Scott.
Scott's biography of Obama's mother, A Singular Woman, traces Dunham's life and the relationship she had with her son, whose rise in the political world came largely after her death in 1995. But he has said he largely thanks his mother for the values that led him to the work he now does.
"He credits her with impressing upon him the importance upon one's duty to others — perhaps that the best thing that one can do is to give opportunities for others," Scott tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "And her work in many ways foreshadows his. There was a period in 1979 where she was working in what her boss described to me as 'community development in Java.' That's five years before he becomes a community development person in Chicago."
In 1960, Dunham's family moved to Hawaii, where she enrolled in college. It was in Hawaii that she met a Kenyan student named Barack Obama. Three months pregnant with their child, she married him in 1961. Obama Sr. stayed in school in Hawaii, and Dunham returned to Seattle with her newborn baby, Barack. She returned to Honolulu in 1963; she and Obama divorced in 1964. In 1966, Dunham married Lolo Soetoro, an Indonesian man studying in Honolulu on a student visa.
Obama was largely raised in Hawaii for the first six years of his life, but in 1967, he moved to Indonesia with his mother to join Soetoro, who worked as a surveyor for the Indonesian government and then a consultant for Mobil. Dunham taught English, worked in rural development and consulted on microfinance projects. Obama attended local schools in Jakarta. He also, at her insistence, took English correspondence classes and regularly woke up before dawn to go over his English language skills.
"She believed that he deserved the kind of opportunities that she had had [like] the opportunity to a great university," Scott says. "And she believed that he would never get that if he didn't have a strong English-language education. So at a certain point, she decided she wasn't serving his interests well by keeping him in Indonesia and in Indonesia schools."
Four years later, Obama moved back to Hawaii to live with his grandparents while his mother stayed in Indonesia with her second husband and daughter Maya Soetoro-Ng. It was a complicated decision — and one that most people don't give her credit for, Scott says:
"She was juggling a number of things: She wanted her son to get a good English-language education, which wasn't available to her in Indonesia. She had an Indonesian daughter and an Indonesian husband at the time. She needed to be able to work to pay for the education she wanted for her son and her daughter. In order to work, she was going to need some kind of advanced degree. So she was juggling a lot of things." In 1972, Scott says, Dunham rejoined her son in Hawaii and stayed there during his middle school years. She returned to Indonesia to do anthropological field work shortly after he entered high school.
Janny Scott was a reporter for The New York Times from 1994 to 2008.
Nina Subin/G.P. Putnam
Nina Subin/G.P. Putnam
Janny Scott was a reporter for The New York Times from 1994 to 2008.
Nina Subin/G.P. Putnam
Obama decided not to return to Indonesia with his mother. In 1985, she wrote a list of her long-range goals, which included "finish[ing] her dissertation, making a salary of 60K, los[ing] weight ... and having constructive dialogue with Barry" — a nickname used for the junior Barack Obama.
Scott says she doesn't know of any problems between Obama and his mother, but there were some indications that his mother felt some sadness about the physical distance between them.
"At different moments in her life she is upset, and at one point, in his senior year of high school in Hawaii, she goes back just to be with him because she realizes it's the last year of his childhood," she says. "Later, one friend describes her as wistful about his decision to move to Chicago and root himself in Chicago and emphasize the sort-of black part of himself. So I think there was a theme — and this is just snippets of little things I've stumbled upon — that she had a kind of longing for a closer relationship with him."
On her thoughts about articles written about Obama after he was elected president of the Harvard Law Review
" 'His mother is a white woman from Kansas,' [or] 'His mother is an anthropologist,' or 'His mother is an anthropologist working in international development,' and that would be about it. [There were] long descriptions of his father's family history. She went back to Indonesia during that period and confided to a friend how distraught and upset she was to be reduced to one sentence."
On interviewing President Obama for the book
"I asked him about the [implication left] by his book that his mother was sort of a naive idealist — something that comes through in the way he talks and sometimes in the way other family members talk about her. But that's not at all the description that I get from people who knew her as a colleague — close friends of hers. No one has ever described her in that way to me. [Obama] said that he did think of her as a bit that way, but he didn't think of it as a pejorative. He described those qualities as a source of her strength in many ways."
On the "birther" movement
"The birther movement began during the campaign, when I was actually writing a series of biographical pieces for The New York Times on then-Senator Obama. And then it kind of faded out a bit. So during the period when I was doing the research, it wasn't something I was thinking a whole lot about ... and then was resuscitated by Donald Trump. In the beginning, particularly because of speaking to so many people about President Obama's mother's life, and of course that covered his birth, I really had no question as to where he was born. He was born in Hawaii. When it became more and more pressing in recent months, I went back and looked at everything I had ever gathered on that subject. ... And it seemed so clear. So I came to the conclusion that many people have come to — that this is a classic conspiracy theory, and it feeds on information that may well be to the contrary but is all taken to be evidence of the conspiracy."
A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama's Mother By Janny Scott Hardcover, 384 pages Riverhead Hardcover List price: $26.95
I am the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas. — BARACK OBAMA, MARCH 18, 2008
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 halfstep 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 the color of 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 twenty years later, was a revelation and a puzzle. The man was Barack Obama at age twenty-six, 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 forcefully by the similarities, and the dissimilarities, between them. It was impossible not to question, in that moment, 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 with 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 naive 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 state of Hawaii into issuing a birth certificate for her Kenyanborn baby, on the off chance that he might want to be president someday.
The earthy figure in the photograph did not fit any of those. A few months after receiving the photo, I wrote an article for The New York Times about Dunham. It was one in a series of biographical articles on then Senator Obama that the Times published during the presidential campaign. It was long for a newspaper but short for a life, yet people who read it were seized by her story and, some said, moved to tears. As a result of the article, I was offered a chance to write a book on Dunham, and I spent two and a half years following her trail. I drove across the Flint Hills of Kansas to the former oil boomtowns where her parents grew up during the Depression. I spent many weeks in Hawaii, where she became pregnant at seventeen, married at eighteen, divorced and remarried at twenty-two. I traveled twice to Indonesia, where she brought her son, at six, and from whence she sent him back, alone, at age ten, to her parents in Hawaii. I visited dusty villages in Java where, as a young anthropologist, she did fieldwork for her Ph.D. dissertation on peasant blacksmithing. I met with bankers in glass towers in Jakarta where, nearly two decades before Muhammad Yunus and Grameen Bank shared the Nobel Peace Prize for their work with microcredit, Dunham worked on the largest self-sustaining commercial microfinance program in the world. I combed through tattered field notebooks, boxes of personal and professional papers, letters to friends, photo albums, the archives of the Ford Foundation in Midtown Manhattan, and the thousand-page thesis that took Dunham fifteen years to complete. I interviewed nearly two hundred colleagues, friends, professors, employers, acquaintances, and relatives, including her two children. Without their generosity, I could not have written this book.
To describe Dunham as a white woman from Kansas is about as illuminating as describing her son as a politician who likes golf. Intentionally or not, the label obscures an extraordinary story—of a girl with a boy's name who grew up in the years before the civil rights movement, the women's movement, the Vietnam War, and the Pill; who married an African at a time when nearly two dozen states still had laws against interracial marriage; who, at age twenty-four, moved to Jakarta with her son in the waning days of an anti-communist bloodbath in which hundreds of thousands of Indonesians are believed to have been slaughtered; who lived more than half of her adult life in a place barely known to most Americans, in an ancient and complex culture, in a country with the largest Muslim population in the world; who spent years working in villages where an unmarried, Western woman was a rarity; who immersed herself in the study of a sacred craft long practiced exclusively by men; who, as a working and mostly single mother, brought up two biracial children; who adored her children and believed her son in particular had the potential to be great; who raised him to be, as he has put it jokingly, a combination of Albert Einstein, Mahatma Gandhi, and Harry Belafonte, then died at fifty-two, never knowing who or what he would become. Had she lived, Dunham would have been sixty-six years old on January 20, 2009, when Barack Obama was sworn in as the fortyfourth president of the United States.
From A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama's Mother by Janny Scott. Copyright 2011 Janny Scott. Reprinted by arrangement with Riverhead, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.