Barack Obama’s mother has been known variously as “a white anthropologist from Kansas” and “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.”
A Singular Woman
But in reading Janny Scott’s new biography of Stanley Ann Dunham, A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mother, a much more complicated picture emerges. This is a story that many of us mothers will be able to relate to, as we read of the painful decisions this young woman was forced to make under difficult circumstances, as she sought to raise her son in the very best way possible.
Scott was recently interviewed by Terri Gross on NPR’s “Fresh Air,” and here’s what she had to say:
“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.”
Obama Has Thanked His Mother For Passing On Her Values To Him
Scott’s biography 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.
Stanley Ann Dunham was born in 1942, the only child of a Kansas couple who moved her around seven times in 12 years, finally ending up in the Seattle area.
At the end of her high school years, when her parents were moving to Hawaii, she was reluctant to accompany them, but her father insisted that Ann was too young to be left alone.
Pregnant At 19
So instead, she wound up in 1960 at the University of Hawaii, pregnant by Barack Obama Senior, who was possibly her first boyfriend and definitely the first African at the University of Hawaii, just two months after meeting him. They married quickly, but the marriage did not last long. (It turned out that he was already married, with a child on the way, in Kenya). Shortly after divorcing him, she married Lolo Soetoro, an Indonesian graduate student, whom she followed to Indonesia with 6-year-old Barack in tow.
Waking Her Son At 4 AM For 3 Hours Of English Lessons
Barack Obama has famously spoken of how his mother used to wake him at 4 am during his time in Jakarta, force-feed him breakfast, and teach him English for three hours before he went to school.
Eventually, knowing that her son needed a strong English-language education, which he wouldn’t be able to get in Indonesia, she sent him back to Hawaii when he was nine, to live with his grandparents. In 1972, Dunham rejoined her son in Hawaii and stayed there during his middle school years.
Agonizing Decision To Send Barack Back To Hawaii
This is one of those agonizing decisions that she had to make as a mother. Janney explains to Terri Gross:
“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.”
Although she did not divorce Soetoro until 1979, by 1973 she was essentially a single mother raising two biracial children, working to support them both and going to graduate school.
An Extraordinary Story
This is a extraordinary story, by anyone’s standards. Stanley Ann Dunham grew up before the civil rights movement or the women’s movement; she lived more than half her life in Indonesia, a country largely unknown to most Americans, and as a working and mostly single mother, she raised two biracial children, and believed absolutely that her son in particular had the potential to be great.
In a horrible twist of fate, Ann Dunham died just as her son was launching his first campaign for public office. Had she lived, she have been sixty-six years old on January 20, 2009, when Barack Obama was sworn in as the fortyfourth president of the United States.
Barack Obama may have entitled his first book, Dreams From My Father, but it seems very clear that we should look to his strong-willed and inconventional mother for the force behind his success.
Happy Mother’s Day!
Photo credit: dhlynksky via Creative Commons