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.

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

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.

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.

Dunham’s parents made it possible for her to return to school where she fell in love with another international student, this one a 27-year-old Javanese graduate student of geography named Lolo Soetoro. In 1964, the same year that she divorced Obama, Dunham married Soetoro and she and young Barry (as the future president was then known) eventually went to live with him in Indonesia.

In interviewing friends who remembered Dunham and her son from that era, Scott unearths a telling anecdote. A fellow American expat who once lunched with Dunham and young Barry recalled that during an after-lunch stroll the young boy, who was running ahead of the adults, was attacked by a group of Indonesian children who began lobbing rocks and racial epithets in his direction. (Children of part-African descent were anything but common in the area.) Startled, Dunham’s hostess asked Dunham if she thought they should intervene in Barry’s defense. Durham calmly replied, “No, he’s okay. He’s used to it.”

Certainly the life that Dunham gave her children (Obama’s half sister, Maya, was born to Dunham and Soetoro in 1970) was anything but conventional. Dunham hopscotched between Indonesia and Hawaii for some years, working in Indonesia but also doing graduate work in anthropology at the University of Hawaii, where she eventually earned her PhD. Maya moved back and forth with her but for much of his schooling Barry chose to stay in the US with his grandparents.

Perhaps the happiest part of Dunham’s life was spent in Indonesia. Expert in local cottage industries and fluent in Indonesian, she worked in the field of microfinancing and enjoyed a culturally rich expat lifestyle. Colleagues remember her as conscientious, deeply caring, ambitious, empathetic, and generous – sometimes to the point of leaving herself open to exploitation.

They also recall her joyous conviction that her son was a remarkable boy who would do wonderful things in life. Although separated from him much of the time, they note that she spoke of him constantly and that any letter from him was a major event for her.

Obama would later write in “Dreams from My Father” that Dunham was “the kindest, most generous spirit I have ever known.”

But he also told Scott that she was “not a well-organized person” and that it was his grandparents who prevented his youth from turning “chaotic.”

It was perhaps her disorganization that was to blame for Dunham’s early demise at the age of 52. Despite numerous warnings that something was wrong, she was very slow to seek any help. She died in 1995, before her son was elected to the state senate in Illinois.

Scott’s book carefully chronicles Durham’s life at every step and provides a good bit of detail about her work in Indonesia. Although interesting on an intellectual level, it lacks the kind of personal anecdotes that might have turned “A Singular Woman” into one of those books that you’d be seeing all over the commuter train and around the pool this summer.

But perhaps Dunham – who was devoted to her work and largely kept her personal life to herself – would have wanted it that way.

Her son, America’s first black president, has written that “what is best in me I owe to her.” Scott’s biography provides ample evidence of the bright, idealistic dreamer who endued her son with the kind of spirit that made breaking barriers a possibility.

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor’s books editor.

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