What You Don't Know about Obama's Mama
In a culture of "helicopter parenting," in which mothers are tempted to manage every moment of their children's lives to ensure future success, it's peculiar that no one seemed interested in Barack Obama's mother when his political career began to skyrocket. Maybe the anomaly of his absentee, Kenyan father was so enticing that no one gave much thought to the oddly named Stanley Ann Dunham. No one, that is, except Janny Scott.
In 2008, Scott left her job as a New York Times reporter to research the life of then Senator Obama's late mother. She interviewed hundreds of Dunham's family members, colleagues, and friends. She traveled all over the world, tracing her subject's journeys. Scott's meticulous research shows; hers is an absorbing book that details Dunham's rich, disordered life.
Having read Scott's book, the fact that Dunham has been summarized—perhaps most often by the president himself—as "a white woman from Kansas" seems comically hollow. It was with much more care that Scott chose the title A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama's Mother for her biography. Scott said that if she had used the adjective unconventional in the title, "some people would have thought it was a pejorative. Others would have thought it was high praise."
"Singular," she wrote, "is neutral. But there's no mistaking its meaning: This person was remarkable, one of a kind."
A family friend of the Dunhams described the milieu in which Dunham grew up as a "Leave it to Beaver … kind of society." Indeed, Dunham gave birth to the son who would be known as "Barry" when Leave it to Beaver was still on the air. (She stopped using her unusual first name after high school.)
Ann Dunham, however, was the anti-June Cleaver. In 1960, for instance, when racial intermarriage was against the law in about half of the United States, she married an African man. During a period in our history when divorce was not commonplace, Dunham divorced. Twice. Whereas Wally and the Beav's mother was an ever-present fixture dressed in dresses and pearls in her spotless home, Dunham lacked a "Ward" of her own to pay the bills. She had a more disheveled appearance, supporting her children with help from her parents, working as a consultant, and piecing together an academic and anthropological career across the globe.
Of his mother, President Obama told Scott, "she was not a well-organized person. And that disorganization, you know, spilled over."
Dunham worked in Hawaii, Indonesia, India, Thailand, and Nairobi over the course of her adult life, sometimes living continents away from her children. When President Obama was 10, for instance, he spent the school year in Hawaii with his grandparents while his mother worked in Indonesia. She would later join him, but again leave him in her parents' care in Hawaii during his four years of high school. Meanwhile, she conducted research for her dissertation and worked in international development in Southeast Asia.