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The 'Singular Woman' Who Raised Barack Obama

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The 'Singular Woman' Who Raised Barack Obama

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The 'Singular Woman' Who Raised Barack Obama

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TERRY GROSS, Host:

Last week, President Obama released his long-form birth certificate, saying: We do not have time for this silliness, I've got better stuff to do. Presumably, that included the secret operation targeting bin Laden.

Now Janny Scott has published a new book about President Obama's genuine family history and how he was raised. The book is about his mother, Ann Dunham. She died in 1995, the year President Obama's book "Dreams From My Father" was published.

That book focused on how Obama's absent Kenyan father affected his life, but in the preface to the 2004 edition, he wrote that had he known his mother was going to die of cancer, he might have written a different book, quote, "less a meditation on the absent parent, more a celebration of the one who was the single constant in my life."

Janny Scott is a New York Times reporter currently on leave who wrote several profiles of Obama during the presidential campaign and wrote a profile of his mother that led to her new book, "A Singular Woman."

Janny Scott, welcome to FRESH AIR. As you were doing your research about President Obama's mother, you watched the birther movement grow. What did you make of that?

JANNY SCOTT: Well, it's interesting. The birther movement kind of 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. It was sort of submerged during that period and then was resuscitated by Donald Trump.

In the beginning, I really felt, partly because of having spoken to so many people about the circumstances of President Obama's mother's life, and of course that covered his birth, I really had no question where he was born. He was clearly born in Hawaii.

When it became more and more pressing in recent months, I went back and, you know, looked at everything I had ever gathered on that subject, and as I say, it had not been a great preoccupation of mine. 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.

GROSS: In Obama's first memoir, "Dreams From My Father," it was focused much more on his father than on his mother. And Obama later said he felt kind of bad about that. Why do you think he focused that book more on his father than his mother, considering what a really exceptional person his mother was?

SCOTT: Well, I think you have to look at when that book came about. He had been elected the first black president of the Harvard Law Review, and he was - in the media reaction to that, there were a number of articles in which he spoke more and more about his life at the instigation of reporters who came to write pieces about his election.

And he was approached by a literary agent who offered him - suggested to him that he write a book about his life based on - sort of prompted by all the attention that came out then and what an interesting life he'd clearly had.

And so he embarked upon it then, I think. So it was partly that it came out of this moment when he had been, you know, the first black president of the Harvard Law Review, and then he also used it as a way to sort of sort our his racial identity.

So I think his focus was really on that. And it's very striking, when you look at the articles that were written after his election, how he begins to talk more and more about his father, and his mother is really referred to simply as a white anthropologist from Kansas, which is of course the stereotype that kind of came to become what she was known as in the public eye during the campaign and subsequently, the white woman from Kansas. Maybe we knew she was an anthropologist but probably we didn't, the single mother on food stamps, the woman who died of cancer while fighting with her insurance company at the end of her life.

GROSS: Well, let's talk about her life. She was a nonconformist even when she was in high school. You describe this road trip that she took with some friends to San Francisco. This was when she was living in Washington.

SCOTT: That's right.

GROSS: The state of Washington, not Washington, D.C.

SCOTT: That's right, outside Seattle. She was living at the time in Mercer Island, Washington. And she had been raised in kind of constant motion. Her family had moved after her birth from Kansas to California, back to Kansas, then to Oklahoma, to Texas, back to Kansas, and eventually to Washington.

So she had a sort of outsider's sensibility of always being new to a place. She was kind of the other. And so she had developed a sort of observer's quality, standing a little bit outside the world in which she operated and lived, but also she was kind of the original, you know, participant observer, not unlike the anthropologist she became.

So the story you referred to, she was - it was in her senior year in high school. She had a group of friends who were sort of unconventional like her. They were bright. They were kind of insider outsiders in that high school, kind of brainy, interested in being on the cultural cutting edge.

And she had been out one night with a couple of guys who were close friends of hers, and they were coming back from maybe a coffeehouse in Seattle, and the conversation turned to maybe we should not go home. And as you mentioned, they ended - two of them, Ann and one friend, ended up just taking the car and driving to San Francisco, which was considered a rather radical breakout for a kid from Mercer Island High School in 1959, '60.

GROSS: But they didn't stay long because their parents got them to come back home.

SCOTT: Yes, they were busted. Ann's father ended up having to fly down to San Francisco and get them out of juvenile detention and haul them back up to Washington.

GROSS: Let's talk about how Ann, President Obama's mother, first met President Obama's father. He was one of 80 young Kenyans who were flown to the United States by a Kenyan nationalist who had raised money from Americans to educate a new generation of leaders in anticipation of Kenyan independence.

From what you found out from Ann Dunham's friends, Barack Obama, Sr. was her first boyfriend.

SCOTT: It does seem that way. No one knew of her ever having a boyfriend in high school. And she arrived - her parents moved to Hawaii right after she graduated from high school. She did not want to go. She wanted to stay and go to the University of Washington or possibly University of Chicago.

But they - her father in particular apparently felt she was too young to be on her own like that. So they hauled her off to Honolulu, and she found herself on the campus of the University of Hawaii, which was a rather quiet land-grant institution at that point, might have felt a bit like a backwater even to a kid from a suburb of Seattle.

And she was somewhat out of place, and in her first few weeks on campus she met Barack Obama, Sr., who is said to have been the first African at the University of Hawaii. Whatever happened happened very fast, because within a couple of months she was pregnant.

There are several stories about how they met. President Obama, in his memoir, describes them meeting in a Russian language class. Others say they met in the library or on a bench near the library. But it was clearly a sort of cataclysmic collision for her.

GROSS: Janny Scott will be back in the second half of the show. Her new book is called "A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama's Mother." I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Janny Scott, the author of a new book about President Obama's mother, the late Ann Dunham. It's called "A Singular Woman." When we left off, Scott was describing how Dunham met Barack Obama Sr. at the University of Hawaii in the fall of 1960, when she was a 17-year-old freshman and he was 24. Within a couple of months she was pregnant.

Well, they got married and he neglected to mention to her that he was already married. He not only had a wife, he had a child and a second child on the way. His Kenyan culture was traditionally a polygamous culture. Did he think it was okay to have an American wife and a Kenyan wife? What was the state of his marriage to the woman in Kenya?

SCOTT: There are some accounts that suggest that he led Ann to believe that he was separated, but that there was no legal document suggesting there was any kind of divorce. I can't say exactly what was in his mind. And it's quite conceivable she didn't intend to get pregnant, but once she got pregnant the things she wanted to do, as it was described to me by one friend, because she loved him and because she was a good middle-class girl, was to get married. So they were married very - they were married for awhile but apparently together very briefly. He was gone within 10 months of President Obama's birth, and she appears to have left with her baby and gone to Seattle not long after that birth. So she may even have left before Barack Obama Sr. left.

GROSS: Their relationship, from how you describe it, changed once they were married.

SCOTT: Yes. One close friend of hers from a later period but who had heard the whole story from Ann said that Barack Obama Sr., once they were married, really, his attitude changed. He took her for granted in some way that he hadn't in the past, and that she described a scene in which - which Ann had apparently described to her - in which Ann provided, laid down some dinner for him on the table that she had made and he looked at it and said, you expect me to eat this? Picked it up and hurled it at the wall. And that Ann said to this friend Kaddy(ph) Warner, that was the moment where I knew this wasn't going to work.

GROSS: So she went to Seattle briefly to be with her old friends, but felt very separated from them because they were living the kind of college sorority fraternity life and she was a single mother. She returns to Hawaii and to the University of Hawaii. At the university she meets her second husband, Lolo Soetoro, who was from Indonesia and was at the University of Hawaii to study geography, and he was expected to return, after college, to serve his country - not in the military, necessarily, but to serve in some way.

So you say, in many ways, Lolo Soetoro was the opposite of Barack Obama Sr. Described Lolo Soetoro.

SCOTT: As he's been described to me, he was physically smaller than Barack Obama Sr. And he was also just a genial, delightful, charming guy from Java. He was the youngest son in a family of many children and therefore, had been adored and he was - other people who knew him at the University of Hawaii said he loved to party. He was a very good tennis player and later told her daughter Maya that she admired the way he looked in his white tennis shorts. I think he was just a nice guy who clearly took a real liking to Ann and she to him. And I think she saw in him according to her friends, the possibility of a life that involved a certain amount of excitement, perhaps returning to Indonesia, a country that was coming into its own at that time after years of, centuries of domination by the Dutch, returning to Indonesia but also with a man who could - had the possibility to be a family man.

GROSS: So she thought it would be interesting to be with him when he returned to Indonesia. So this is like the second time she married a man from the culture of another country who changed after they got married. How did Lolo Soetoro change?

SCOTT: Let me make one point about the place where these things happened. The University of Hawaii was undergoing a very interesting shift at the moment she got there. And it was beginning to attract a lot of Asian students because of something called the East-West Center that was built up and was started at that period. And some of the most interesting things happening on the campus really involved foreign students, so she kind of gravitated toward the center of activity that was happening there. And so I think that helps explain a little bit why she was first attracted to an African who was not part of the East-West Center, and then to an Indonesian. They were part of a world that in some ways was the most lively and exciting thing happening on that campus.

So they did return. Lolo was forced to return to Indonesia ahead of Ann, because of the upheaval that occurred there in 1965 with what is thought to have been an attempted coup and then a countercoup and subsequent killings of a lot of communists and suspected communists in Indonesia. All the foreign students who were studying abroad were brought back, and he was. And when he returned he was taken into the army and sent off to - on a team that was mapping the border of what is now Papua, New Guinea. So then Ann finished her undergraduate degree and then joined him taking her six-year-old son with her. And when she got there, I think she found that Lolo was really somewhat different from the Lolo that she'd known in Hawaii.

As it's been explained to me, it's a challenging thing for a student who is in a country like Indonesia to come back after a time in the West and come back into a place where there are all sorts of cultural and family expectations. And he was coming back with a Western wife. So there were things that were expected of her that were unfamiliar, and he also was feeling a lot of pressure, not just family and cultural, but also political pressure because of the tense political situation, his conscription into the army and all that. So he became a quieter, less fun-loving, probably less party-going husband. And I think she found herself lonely and baffled by what had become of him.

GROSS: So we're talking about what it was like for Obama's mother in Indonesia when she arrived there, and it wasn't the kind of life that she was expecting, at least her role as wife wasn't what she was expecting. She separated from her husband, Lolo Soetoro, after how long?

SCOTT: Well, I'm not really sure. It's hard to tell. She stayed there for four plus years with him and with Obama during his childhood. Then she sent him back, at age 10, to Hawaii and she we joined him in Hawaii with her second child who had been born then, Maya, Lolo's daughter, the following year. And so she was then in Hawaii, mostly without Lolo. He came with her at first but then he went back. So at that point I think they were pretty clearly separated. So, if they had been married in '64, as I believe, they were separated by, sort of, '72. She then was in Hawaii for several years and then she went back to Java and, with Maya, and was technically still married to him but the marriage was not strong and they were living apart much of the time - two different careers, very different lives and by 1979 they had decided to divorce.

GROSS: I think this is a sign, probably, of my naivete, but it didn't occur to me that the young Barack Obama, in Indonesia, would have faced the discrimination he did because he was part African, because he was - he had darker skin than the Indonesians. I didn't realize, in Indonesia, that skin color and darkness was going to be an issue. What were some of the things he had to deal with as a result of his skin color in Indonesia?

SCOTT: Well, I think as it's been explained to me, there's a lot of teasing in the culture of Indonesians, particularly with children. It's a way of inculcating strength and a certain self-confidence - oddly - that if you can resist the teasing without showing that you are rattled by it, then you have somehow come out on top. So his skin color was clearly something he was teased about. I interviewed a woman who recalled, in detail, having lunch in Jakarta with Ann and the young Barry at age approximately nine, and going out on a walk with them after lunch and how a group of Indonesian children began running along near them taunting Barry, throwing rocks at him and making racial comments. And the woman who I was talking to was Western said that she wondered why Ann wasn't reacting to this because she wondered if she perhaps didn't understand the words. But, in fact, Ann said no, no. It's fine. He's used to it. And so I think he was. And even one of Ann's employers told me that she would bring Barry into the office and the people in the office would joke about him because of the way he looked. He was also round and curly haired and those were also subjects of teasing. So he doesn't emphasize this in his memoir, but the people who knew his mother at the time remember this as a distinct factor of their life.

GROSS: I guess that was good training for being president.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SCOTT: That's what some people think. There's a theory in Java, that you encounter, that President Obama's remarkable cool and calm bearing is somewhat a Javanese attribute, a quality that is known as the adjective used in Java as haloes(ph), meaning kind of refined and courteous. So there are people who feel that his experiences there had a real influence on his demeanor.

GROSS: My guest is Janny Scott, author of the new book "A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama's Mother."

We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: My guest is Janny Scott, the author of the new book "A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama's Mother."

President Obama has told the story about how five days a week his mother would wake him at four AM in Jakarta, force feed him breakfast and teach him English for three hours before he left for school. And when he resisted she'd say, this is no picnic for me either, buster. So why did she need to do that, to wake him at four AM and teach him English?

SCOTT: Well, Ann Dunham came from a family with an enormous commitment to and history of caring about education. Many of her forebears had been teachers in Kansas, going back to the Oklahoma territory, in some branches of her family every son went to college. In her parent's generation, while they didn't go to college - didn't graduate from college, their siblings, many of them went to graduate school and ended up with PhDs. So they cared a lot about education and she clearly did too. And they also - she cared a lot about hard work and she spent a lot of time inculcating her values into her children. Primary among those, were the importance of education and the importance of really committing yourself to it. So she believes in that. But she also believed that he deserved the kind of opportunities that she had had - the opportunity to go to a great university 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 just decided she wasn't serving his interest while by keeping him in Indonesia and Indonesian schools, and that he needed to go back to Hawaii and get an English language education. And she began to really focus hard on preparing him for that, and that is the period, I think, in which I think that happened - in which she particularly drilled him in English language subjects and got materials from her mother in Hawaii and tried to prepare him for his return to Punaho in Hawaii.

GROSS: That's the school that he went to.

SCOTT: Yes, the prep school that he finally went to.

GROSS: So, you know, a lot of Americans pass judgment on President Obama's mother and say how could she have done that? How could she have sent her 10-year-old son back to Hawaii while she remained in Indonesia? Why didn't he stay with her or why didn't she go with him? What did you learn about the difficulty she had in making that decision and why she made it?

SCOTT: I think that it was a much more complicated decision than most people give her credit for. 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 and daughter and an Indonesian husband at the time, so she wasn't free, necessarily, to just leave. She also needed to work because she needed to be able to pay for the education she wanted to have for her son and her daughter coming up. And in order to work she was going to need to get some kind of, eventually, an advanced degree.

So she was juggling a lot of things. Her solution was to send him back to Hawaii to a school that was known to be quite extraordinary, where - which was a couple of blocks from where her parents lived and he could live with their parents doing that period. She then rejoined him and stayed there for middle school, which some people don't realize, and then she went back to Indonesia when he was - shortly before he entered high school. He says that, at that point, the decision was his - that he wanted to stay. He didn't want to go back to Indonesia.

GROSS: Tell us a little bit about the work President Obama's mother did in Indonesia and why it was so important to her.

SCOTT: Well, she went back to the University of Hawaii and became an anthropologist. She became a graduate student in anthropology. And she decided to do her field work on the subject of rural industries, handicrafts industries in villages in Java. This was a particularly interesting subject because Indonesia and Java has an extraordinary tradition of handicrafts, batik and metal work and, you know, pottery and all sorts of things that are used in daily life, even now. Whereas in other developing countries the old handicraft industries had been sort of swallowed up into tourist-based industries that were simply churning out junk for the tourist market.

In Indonesia these things went on well into the time that Ann was there and she was fascinated - she had always been fascinated by sort of beautiful objects. And she got, her interest in beautiful textiles and objects went to an interest then - turned into an interest in the lives of the people who produced those. So she focused her research on these village industries and ended up centering her what became a thousand- page dissertation on a particular village called Kajar, which was a blacksmithing village - that is, not that was shoeing horses but that was making metal tools for agriculture and also gamelan gongs for gamelan orchestras.

And so she spent an enormous amount of time in the late '70s in these villages, and particularly in the village of Karjar, talking to the blacksmiths. And blacksmithing was a male occupation. Traditionally women had not been allowed to work in the forges. Only when it became more and more - in that particular village - more and more important economically as agriculture ceased to be important for that particular place were women are allowed into the forges. But Ann for the most part was the only woman hanging out in these places when she was doing this work.

So that was what she ended up writing her dissertation about, which took many, many years. And in the meantime, she applied her skills to working in international development, and that interest in village industry turned into an interest in how to make it possible for women to work their way out of poverty in handicraft industries, and eventually the question of how to get more credit to women who wanted to start these kinds of businesses. So she ended up being both an anthropologist, then a development consultant, and then a person working in the field of microfinance.

GROSS: So you found a list of her long-range goals. What year was this from?

SCOTT: That was written on January 1st, 1985. And yes, it's an extraordinary list that I was stunned to see, because this was in a moment, a sort of lull in her career. She's come back to Hawaii because she wants to allow her daughter Maya to go to high school at Punajou also. And she sits down and she's kind of trying to sort out various things that she would like to get done presumably in the next five or 10 years - you know, finish her dissertation. One of the things is make a salary of about - it just says 60k, make the salary of $60,000, I'm assuming. Lose some weight. Raise Maya well. Remarry - that was a surprise to me. And one of them is constructive dialogue with Barry.

GROSS: Yeah. I read that and I thought, constructive dialogue. What does that mean? Were they having problems then?

SCOTT: I haven't gotten anyone to tell me that they knew of any such problems. And Ann was the kind of person who would perhaps think about her parental obligations in that way. You know, constantly thinking, how can I do this better. Nevertheless, there are indications from some of her friends that she did feel some sadness about the distance between them at different times. There's obviously geographical distance and then whatever distance that brought along emotionally.

So at different moments in her life she is upset and wanting - at one point she goes back in his senior year in Hawaii just to be with them because she realizes it's the last year of his childhood. Later, she's - one friend describes her as wistful about his decision to kind of 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 that I stumbled upon that suggests she had a kind of longing for a closer relationship with him.

GROSS: My guest is Janny Scott, author of the new book "A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama's Mother."

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Janny Scott. She's a former New York Times reporter who during the 2008 presidential campaign wrote about then-candidate Barack Obama. One of her articles was about his mother. She's expanded all that research into a new book called "A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama's Mother."

You interviewed President Obama for this book and you spoke with him in the Oval Office for, what, a couple hours?

SCOTT: No, just half an hour.

GROSS: Half an hour.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Okay, well, you got what you could in that half-hour.

SCOTT: A half-hour's pretty good.

GROSS: So did you share with him research that you had? Was he curious what you learned about his mother that maybe he didn't know?

SCOTT: We had a limited amount of time. He's a busy man. And I had been told that I would have, you know, 20 minutes or so, and so I boiled down my questions to the most crucial seven or so questions that I had. And I ended up getting 50 percent more time than I thought. But I didn't have time to take him back over everything that I'd learned. And no, he didn't ask me because I think he probably had other things going too.

GROSS: So what did you learn from him that you thought was most interesting?

SCOTT: Well, several things. I asked him about the impression left by his book that his mother was sort of a naïve idealist, something that comes through in the way he talks and sometimes even the way other family members talk about her, but is not at all the description that I get from people who knew her as a colleague and close friends of hers. No one has ever described her that way to me. And he said that he did think of her as a bit that way but he didn't think of it as a pejorative. He described her, those qualities, as a source of her strength in many ways.

And he told me an extraordinary story about something that occurred during the campaign on the night of the Iowa caucuses and how he was reminded of her at a moment when he was confronted with the extraordinary diversity, sort of improbable, surprising diversity at this caucus site in Des Moines, and how that night, leaving, having just occurred to him that they're actually going to win that night, he thought about his mother and he kind of teared up. And he said it was something about the mix of people there and the sense that we could reach across our apparent differences and make contact and there was more similarity than difference between us and more good than evil in all of us. And he said I guess that really is the naive idealism I'm talking about in her. And I think it's the naive idealism in me.

GROSS: President Obama also told you that despite all of her strengths, she was in a well organized person and that disorganization spilled over. So did that present problems for him?

SCOTT: I think he described it as sort of part of the slightly chaotic quality of his childhood. And I said to him, well, disorganization, that could be anything from a messy room to a messy life, and he said: all of the above. So my sense is that it did spill over. He didn't go into details about this, but you know, he tells the story in the book of there not being that much food in the refrigerator when he brought friends home from school, and he refers to the constant motion of his childhood. So I think it is something particularly perhaps in retrospect that he feels.

GROSS: What are your final impressions of Ann Dunham, President Obama's mother?

SCOTT: Well, I find her absolutely fascinating. She was a thoroughly unconventional person who dared to do things that many of us don't even try to do now. She, at a time when, you know, there were laws against interracial marriage in nearly two dozen states, she conceived a child with an African and married him. She runs off to Indonesia at a time when there's extraordinary political and social upheaval. She is a graduate student raising two biracial children by herself at a time when women in graduate schools rarely did anything like that.

She goes back and does this fascinating kind of ground-level research in villages in Java, where Western women are rarely seen, working in a specialty that is entirely male. She then becomes a pioneer in the field of micro-finance 20 years before Muhammad Yunus and Grameen Bank in Bangladesh won a Nobel Prize for it. She's just a forerunner in so many ways and yet she's also thoroughly human.

She is not particularly a visionary. She's a kind of person who improvised her life, making the best of sometimes out of not particularly wise decisions and other times really making very smart decisions under difficult circumstances. So I think there's a lot that we can learn from her, not just about what it means to be a good mother, or at least question our assumptions about that, but also we can get a lot of insight into the president, who I think is a person who many Americans still feel they don't fully understand.

GROSS: Don't you wish that she had lived to find out her son became president?

SCOTT: It does seem like a rotten - a rotten fate. She died just as he was launching his first campaign for public office, so she never got any glimpse of what was to come.

GROSS: Well, Janny Scott, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

SCOTT: Thank you, Terry. It was wonderful to be here.

GROSS: Janny Scott is the author of the new book "A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama's Mother." You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org, where you can also download podcasts of our show.

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