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The 'Singular Woman' Who Raised Barack Obama

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."

Obama's Roots

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 <em>The New York Times</em> from 1994 to 2008.
Nina Subin / G.P. Putnam
G.P. Putnam
Janny Scott was a reporter for The New York Times from 1994 to 2008.

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."

Interview Highlights

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."

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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