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A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mother

Barack Obama's mother was bright, generous, ambitious, naive, and chronically disorganized – an unusual woman who broke the mold long before her son made history.

By / May 27, 2011

A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mother By Janny Scott Penguin Group 374 pp.

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She is credited with having given him confidence, intelligence, ambition, idealism, dry humor, and even that elongated chin. Yet when Barack Obama first burst onto the national stage, very little mention was made of his mother. “She is an anthropologist working in Indonesia,” was the single sentence included in most of the news accounts hastily thrown together after her son gave his memorable keynote address at the 2004 Democratic Convention in Boston. Much mention was made of his Kenyan father – whom the young Obama barely knew – and his grandparents were largely credited with having raised him.

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To some degree, Stanley Ann Dunham was rescued from obscurity by New York Times reporter Janny Scott, who published a stirring profile of her on the front page of the Times during the 2008 presidential campaign. Now Scott has further forwarded Dunham’s case with her thorough, meticulously researched biography called A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mother.

The title is apt. "Singular” is definitely the word for Dunham.

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Born in 1942 to Kansan parents, young Stanley Ann (she was named after her father but went by “Ann” for most of her life) came from solidly Midwestern stock, with plenty of teachers and farmers in her background. Her parents, however, were a bit restless by nature and moved with her around the country, finally settling in Seattle during her high school years. Friends from that era of her life remember Dunham as intellectual and a bit reserved but also a risk-taker with a hunger for the larger world. Perhaps she got that from her parents. For all their Midwest solidity, there was something a bit unusual about the family, noted one friend. “Closet Bohemians,” he speculated. “They weren’t your run-of-the-mill Ozzie and Harriet by any stretch of the imagination.”

Perhaps it was just as well. A more traditional family of their era might not have been as prepared to roll with the punches when their daughter – then a 17-year-old freshman at the University of Hawaii – told them that she was pregnant with the child of a 24-year-old black Kenyan graduate student named Barack Hussein Obama.

Obama was the first African student ever to enroll at the University of Hawaii. He impressed some around him as “quick,” “charismatic,” and a “straight-A student” – although others remembered him as “domineering” and “aggressive.” Dunham, it would appear, was both awed and smitten. (She apparently did not learn till years later that Obama was still married to his first wife in Kenya.)

Obama and Dunham married in 1961 before their son was born, but the marriage didn’t last long. Obama Sr. went on to do graduate work at Harvard University before eventually returning to Kenya. Dunham and Obama divorced in 1964. She and her son only saw Obama Sr. once again, in 1971, when he visited the United States one year at Christmastime.

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