Top Photo: Ann Dunham with her father, Stanley, and her children, Maya and Barack. Courtesy Maya Soetoro-Ng
A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mother
By Janny Scott
Hardcover, 384 pages
List price: $26.95
I am the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas. — BARACK OBAMA, MARCH 18, 2008
The photograph showed the son, but my eye gravitated toward the mother. That first glimpse was surprising — the stout, pale-skinned woman in sturdy sandals, standing squarely a halfstep ahead of the lithe, darker-skinned figure to her left. His elastic-band body bespoke discipline, even asceticism. Her form was well padded, territory ceded long ago to the pleasures of appetite and the forces of anatomical destiny. He had the studied casualness of a catalog model, in khakis, at home in the viewfinder. She met the camera head-on, dressed in hand-loomed textile dyed the color of indigo, a silver earring half hidden in the cascading curtain of her dark hair. She carried her chin a few degrees higher than most. His right hand rested on her shoulder, lightly. The photograph, taken on a Manhattan rooftop in August 1987 and e-mailed to me twenty years later, was a revelation and a puzzle. The man was Barack Obama at age twenty-six, the community organizer from Chicago on a visit to New York. The woman was Stanley Ann Dunham, his mother. It was impossible not to be struck forcefully by the similarities, and the dissimilarities, between them. It was impossible not to question, in that moment, the stereotype to which she had been expediently reduced: the white woman from Kansas.
The president’s mother has served as any of a number of useful oversimplifications. In the capsule version of Obama’s life story, she is the white mother from Kansas coupled alliteratively with the black father from Kenya. She is corn-fed, white-bread, whatever Kenya is not. In Dreams from My Father, the memoir that helped power Obama’s political ascent, she is the shy, small-town girl who falls head over heels for the brilliant, charismatic African who steals the show. In the next chapter, she is the naive idealist, the innocent abroad. In Obama’s presidential campaign, she was the struggling single mother, the food stamp recipient, the victim of a health-care system gone awry, pleading with her insurance company for coverage as her life slipped away. And in the fevered imaginings of supermarket tabloids and the Internet, she is the atheist, the Marxist, the flower child, the mother who “abandoned” her son or duped the state of Hawaii into issuing a birth certificate for her Kenyanborn baby, on the off chance that he might want to be president someday.
The earthy figure in the photograph did not fit any of those. A few months after receiving the photo, I wrote an article for The New York Times about Dunham. It was one in a series of biographical articles on then Senator Obama that the Times published during the presidential campaign. It was long for a newspaper but short for a life, yet people who read it were seized by her story and, some said, moved to tears. As a result of the article, I was offered a chance to write a book on Dunham, and I spent two and a half years following her trail. I drove across the Flint Hills of Kansas to the former oil boomtowns where her parents grew up during the Depression. I spent many weeks in Hawaii, where she became pregnant at seventeen, married at eighteen, divorced and remarried at twenty-two. I traveled twice to Indonesia, where she brought her son, at six, and from whence she sent him back, alone, at age ten, to her parents in Hawaii. I visited dusty villages in Java where, as a young anthropologist, she did fieldwork for her Ph.D. dissertation on peasant blacksmithing. I met with bankers in glass towers in Jakarta where, nearly two decades before Muhammad Yunus and Grameen Bank shared the Nobel Peace Prize for their work with microcredit, Dunham worked on the largest self-sustaining commercial microfinance program in the world. I combed through tattered field notebooks, boxes of personal and professional papers, letters to friends, photo albums, the archives of the Ford Foundation in Midtown Manhattan, and the thousand-page thesis that took Dunham fifteen years to complete. I interviewed nearly two hundred colleagues, friends, professors, employers, acquaintances, and relatives, including her two children. Without their generosity, I could not have written this book.
To describe Dunham as a white woman from Kansas is about as illuminating as describing her son as a politician who likes golf. Intentionally or not, the label obscures an extraordinary story—of a girl with a boy’s name who grew up in the years before the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the Vietnam War, and the Pill; who married an African at a time when nearly two dozen states still had laws against interracial marriage; who, at age twenty-four, moved to Jakarta with her son in the waning days of an anti-communist bloodbath in which hundreds of thousands of Indonesians are believed to have been slaughtered; who lived more than half of her adult life in a place barely known to most Americans, in an ancient and complex culture, in a country with the largest Muslim population in the world; who spent years working in villages where an unmarried, Western woman was a rarity; who immersed herself in the study of a sacred craft long practiced exclusively by men; who, as a working and mostly single mother, brought up two biracial children; who adored her children and believed her son in particular had the potential to be great; who raised him to be, as he has put it jokingly, a combination of Albert Einstein, Mahatma Gandhi, and Harry Belafonte, then died at fifty-two, never knowing who or what he would become.
Had she lived, Dunham would have been sixty-six years old on January 20, 2009, when Barack Obama was sworn in as the forty-fourth president of the United States.