President Obama's Father: A 'Bold And Reckless Life' Sally H. Jacobs' new biography, The Other Barack, follows the troubled life of Barack Obama Sr. — from Kenya to Hawaii and back. Jacobs believes that if Obama Sr. had played a larger role in his son's life, Obama probably wouldn't have become president.

President Obama's Father: A 'Bold And Reckless Life'

President Obama's Father: A 'Bold And Reckless Life'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

A photograph of Barack Obama's father hangs on the wall of his grandmother Sarah Hussein Obama's house in the Kenyan village of Kogelo. Ben Curtis/AP Photo hide caption

toggle caption
Ben Curtis/AP Photo

A photograph of Barack Obama's father hangs on the wall of his grandmother Sarah Hussein Obama's house in the Kenyan village of Kogelo.

Ben Curtis/AP Photo

President Obama is the son of a white American mother and a black Kenyan father who met at the University of Hawaii in 1960. The president last saw his father when he was 10, when Obama Sr. made a brief visit to Hawaii from Kenya, where he moved when the future president was just a toddler.

But what was Barack Obama Sr. really like? Biographer Sally H. Jacobs takes an in-depth look at his life — and his legacy — in The Other Barack: The Bold and Reckless Life of President Obama's Father.

The Childhood Of Barack Obama Sr.

Jacobs tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies that the president's father grew up in an extremely strict household. His father, Onyango, who later changed his name to Hussein, regularly beat his wives and children with a four-pronged whip. He also forced his children to recite long lists of memorized facts before their meals.

The Other Barack by Sally H. Jacobs
The Other Barack
By Sally H. Jacobs
Hardcover, 336 pages
List Price: $27.99

Read An Excerpt

"Barack Obama Sr. would have to recite his math tables while standing at the table before he could have any food," Jacobs says. "[Math] was a relatively new concept for Onyango ... and he wanted his son to have this skill."

And when Obama Sr. later went to the village school, he was immediately recognized for his strong math abilities.

"A principal described him to me as the smartest boy in the school," says Jacobs. "He was particularly good at math, even then. That would become his trademark and he would go on to become an economist, but even as a boy he excelled with numbers."

In 1959, Obama Sr. went to study at the University of Hawaii, Manoa, in Honolulu, where he stood out for his fastidious dressing habits, his forays into public speaking and his fabulous dancing skills.

"A woman who had known him in Hawaii told me of how she ... would go down to some of the famous nightclubs with him and start to dance," says Jacobs. "And everybody would watch because he was so beautiful on the floor — and also because he was a black man. Blacks were very few in number in Honolulu and he was the first African student at the University of Hawaii."

Meeting Stanley Ann Dunham

A year after Obama Sr. enrolled at the university, he met Stanley Ann Dunham, a 17-year-old from Kansas who was studying Russian.

"Both of them were quite taken with each other," says Jacobs. "This relationship picked up speed pretty quickly. The president describes it in his own memoir [Dreams from My Father] of how drawn they were to each other. [And] in a fairly short time, she becomes pregnant."

Obama Sr. told Dunham that he had divorced Kezia Aoko, his wife in Africa, but that wasn't true. He also did not reveal that he had had two children with Aoko, who, like Obama Sr., was a member of the Luo ethnic group.

"The thing you have to understand about this is that it was deeply rooted in Luo culture," says Jacobs. "Divorce wasn't common. You could get a divorce but you had to go through a very complex process which involved the couple sitting before a council of elders and then there had to be a return of the dowry."

Later on, Obama Sr. told immigration officials that he thought of himself as divorced in Kenya before he arrived in the United States. Jacobs says that Obama Sr.'s immigration files also show that Obama Sr. and Dunham may have considered putting President Obama up for adoption before he was born.

"I [made a Freedom of Information Act request for] his immigration file because I wanted to confirm the date he arrived in the United States," she says. "In this record, there was an extraordinary memo in which the foreign student adviser at the University of Hawaii has ... realized [Obama Sr.] might have two wives."

In the adviser's memo, she noted that she had asked Obama Sr. about his family situation.

"And he says, 'Don't worry, my wife is pregnant. But she's making arrangements with the Salvation Army to give the baby up,' " says Jacobs. "Now did that really happen? It's not clear. Members of the family on both sides say they've never heard of it ... [But] Obama Sr. had every reason to not want to have that baby in his life at the time. He was, at the time, up for the renewal of his visa. The last thing they were going to look kindly on, if they chose to see it this way, was a bigamist with a mixed-race baby. So Obama Sr. would say that the baby was going to vanish and that baby would be the [future] president of the United States."

The Birth of Barack Obama Jr.

Of course, that baby didn't vanish. Shortly after Dunham gave birth to Barack Obama Jr. on Aug. 4, 1961, in Honolulu, she moved with him to Seattle. Obama Sr. stayed in Hawaii, leaving a year later to go to Harvard University for a graduate fellowship in economics. In 1964, Dunham filed for divorce. That same year, Obama Sr. returned to Kenya, which had just obtained its independence the year before, and got a job in management at Shell.

"Obama [Sr.] makes it less than a year," says Jacobs. "He wasn't fired exactly, but he was not asked back. So he left Shell and gets another potentially terrific job — this one at the Central Bank of Kenya. Again, he runs into trouble within months. He shows up late, he drinks on the job, he has to borrow money and he is asked to leave."

Sally H. Jacobs has been a reporter for more than 30 years, most recently with The Boston Globe. She specializes in political reporting and profiles. Angson C. Dhlakam/ hide caption

toggle caption
Angson C. Dhlakam/

Sally H. Jacobs has been a reporter for more than 30 years, most recently with The Boston Globe. She specializes in political reporting and profiles.

Angson C. Dhlakam/

Obama Sr. returned to the U.S. in 1971 because his life was falling apart. A third wife was planning to leave him, he had no job and he had suffered massive injuries in a car accident. He spent a short amount of time with his son Barack Jr. in Hawaii and then returned to Kenya, where a second car crash cost him his legs. In 1982, Obama Sr. was in a third car accident and died from his injuries.

All of Obama Sr.'s children, Jacobs says, have had to come to terms with their complicated relationships with their father. Five of his children have written soul-searching memoirs about Obama Sr., including the president's 1995 memoir, Dreams from My Father.

"If Obama the president had had [Barack Obama Sr.] as a father, I think it's fair to say that he wouldn't be the president," she says. "I think he would have had to wrestle with a neglectful father, an insecure person and someone who probably would have prevented him from following the path he close. In Dreams, you feel Obama Jr. struggling with [questions like] 'Who am I? What kind of a man am I? What will I be?' The person he comes out as is clearly very determined and rooted and a responsible person — everything that Obama Sr. was not."

Excerpt: 'The Other Barack'

The Other Barack by Sally H. Jacobs
The Other Barack
By Sally H. Jacobs
Hardcover, 336 pages
List Price: $27.99

Read An Excerpt

Late on a November evening in 1982, Obama [Sr.] was driving home when he rammed his white pickup truck headlong into the high stump of a eucalyptus tree at the side of the road and died instantly. He was forty six.

Obama's eight children, some of whom had not seen him for years, largely closed the door on the subject of their father. For better or worse, the Old Man was gone.

A quarter-century later another Barack Obama emerged, this one a cerebral U.S. Senator from Chicago who was angling, quixotically it seemed, for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. presidency. As that heavily laden name dominated the headlines and the nightly news, it triggered a flood of complex emotions among some of the elder Obama's children.

They were struck at how oddly the younger Barack's name was pronounced. The Old Man had also been called Barack, but his was a working man's name, with the emphasis on the first syllable. The American pronunciation was heavy on the second syllable, giving the name a more formal, somewhat aristocratic cast. This particularly amused the elder Barack's three surviving wives—not that they were talking to each other.

Reporters scoured the younger Obama's background, and questions invariably arose about his namesake and the Kenyan family he had met on a handful of occasions. The phenomenon of Obama's candidacy and the worldwide prominence that his name achieved after he became America's first African American president prompted some of the children to begin rethinking their relationship with the Old Man and to grow curious about the elements of his chaotic life. Somehow they were all bound by that restless, bespectacled onslaught of a man who was their father and now to this gentler but no less intense version of him on the front pages of America's newspapers.

The questions led to more questions. Who was their father? And who, for that matter, were really his children? To get to the truth of the man, how could any of them penetrate the skein of lies and half-truths he had woven? Even the makeup of his immediate family was a confounding jumble.

Three years after his death some of his children and wives became embroiled in a legal brawl aimed at establishing exactly who his legitimate heirs were and to which of his "wives" had he actually been married.

The colorful legal drama, which went on for years, pitted the first wife against the fourth, the eldest son against the youngest, and generally divided the family into two warring camps. At the heart of the matter was a claim by Obama's first wife, Grace Kezia Aoko Obama, that she had never divorced her husband and remained married to him at the time of his death. If that were true, then none of his subsequent three marriages—including the one with the president's mother—would have been legitimate. A host of family members who took sides on the issue provided conflicting affidavits peppered with name-calling and insults.

Even Obama's sixty-seven-year-old mother, frail and heartbroken over her first son's death, weighed in and declared that Grace had long ago divorced her son.3 The Nairobi High Court judge considering the dizzying squabble apparently believed Obama's mother: In 1989 Judge J. F. Shields ruled that not only had Grace divorced her husband but also that two of the four children she claimed he had fathered with her were not his sons at all.4

And that was just the first phase of the battle.

The name of Barack Hussein Obama II, the second son, crops up only incidentally in the bulging pink case files in Nairobi's High Court. No one in the case ever challenged the legitimacy of his paternity. But in July 1997 Barack Hussein Obama of Chicago, Illinois, deftly extracted himself from the matter with a brief letter to the court disavowing any claim he might have on the estate, which was worth about 410,500 Kenyan shillings, or $57,500, at the time his father died. He wrote the letter six months after he was sworn in to serve his first term in the Illinois Senate representing the 13th district.

Nearly a decade earlier, in the summer of 1988, Obama had launched his own effort to uncover the father about whom he had often wondered.

At the time, his father had been dead for six years and he had just completed work as a community organizer in Chicago and was preparing to enter Harvard Law School. During a five-week visit to Kenya, Obama met many members of his sprawling clan for the first time and listened to their stories of his father's political frustrations and domestic travails. He also found that many of his relatives had no greater command of his father's essence than he had gleaned from his mother's recollections. The elder Obama seemed a baffling mystery to many with whom he had lived and worked, including his disparate tribe of children.

Although he was a master of the verbal parrying and one-upmanship that are the Luos' stock in trade and was famous for his legendary black velvet baritone, the elder Obama confided in virtually no one, not even those in his wide circle of drinking comrades. Talk of personal matters, and certainly of children, he considered to be a show of weakness. He mentioned the son he had fathered while in Hawaii to only a handful of his closest friends and family members, even though he kept a photograph of that little boy, riding a tricycle with a small cap perched jauntily on his head, on his bureau. Taken a couple of years after he had left his small family in Hawaii, the picture always followed him through his many moves and dislocations.

His children may have understood him least of all. As Auma Obama, President Obama's half-sister, says in Dreams from My Father, "I can't say I really knew him, Barack. Maybe nobody did . . . not really. His life was so scattered. People only knew scraps and pieces, even his own children." Some of his children have pored over the letters and papers their father left behind, trying to pull all those inconclusive scraps and pieces together.

Four of the five children indisputably fathered by Barack Obama have written books that are at least in part a rumination of the Old Man and his impact on their lives. Like Dreams from My Father, each of the works is a yearning of sorts, an effort to make some sense of their father's character and complex legacy.

Only his firstborn son, Abong'o Malik Obama, a volatile fifty-three-year-old who lives with his three wives near the family's compound in western Kenya, has not written a book about his father—at least not yet.

Malik recently made headlines of his own when he took a nineteen-year old schoolgirl as his third wife. He has also irritated some Obama family members when he built a small mosque on his property that the steady parade of tourists heading to the Obama compound pass daily. Some Obamas worry that such a glaring symbol of the family's Muslim faith will negatively impact the Obama presidency. Malik has accused others of trying to profit from his father's life and says that he intends eventually to write the definitive biography of his father himself.

Auma Obama, Obama's only daughter and the second of his children born to his first wife, Grace Kezia, has painful recollections of a distant father who rarely spoke to her and often returned home from work drunk and irritable.8 But as she read some of the newspaper accounts of his life, she found she wanted to understand more about the forces that shaped his experience and left him so embittered. She called Peter Oloo Aringo, a longtime friend of Obama's and then a member of Kenya's Parliament representing the Alego district where he spent his childhood, who recalled that Auma was "very troubled about [her father's] life. She had spent more time with him than most of the children, but she felt she had not known him at all. She wanted to know how we had gotten along, how we had been friends, that kind of thing. But mostly she wanted to understand what had led to his downfall."

Excerpted from The Other Barack: The Bold and Reckless Life of President Obama's Father by Sally Jacobs. Copyright Sally Jacobs 2011. Reprinted with permission of PublicAffairs, a member of The Perseus Books Group.

Buy Featured Book

The Other Barack: The Bold and Reckless Life of President Obama's Father
Sally H. Jacobs

Your purchase helps support NPR programming. How?