I am the son of a Black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas,” former president Barack Obama famously said in a 2008 campaign speech in Philadelphia. Obama wasn’t the first president (nor the last) to have a parent born outside of the United States, but his status as the first bi-racial president and an unconventional childhood—which began in Honolulu, Hawaii, and included time in Seattle, and Indonesia—made his upbringing the subject of much attention.
Per NPR, which excerpted A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mother by Janny Scott, his mom, Stanley Ann Dunham (who went by Ann) and dad, Barack Obama Sr. met in 1960, and had their son in 1961. Though the two were not together for long, their lives remained intertwined as each went on to successful careers in the worlds of academia and international development.
As far back as a 2006 interview with Oprah, Obama spoke openly about his diverse family, joking about how different they looked from one another—and his wife, Michelle Obama’s, reaction to his diverse crew.
“Michelle will tell you that when we get together for Christmas or Thanksgiving, it’s like a little mini-United Nations,” he said. “I’ve got relatives who look like Bernie Mac, and I’ve got relatives who look like Margaret Thatcher. We’ve got it all.”
The lives (and travels) of Obama’s parents have been central to his public life, dating back to the racist and unfounded “birtherism” movement that alleged, without evidence, that Barack Obama was not a U.S. citizen and ineligible to serve as president.
To better understand the history
of our 44th president before reading his new memoir A Promised Land, we put together some key facts on the lives of Ann Dunham and Barack Obama Sr., the timeline of their relationship, and their role in President Obama’s early life.
Ann Dunham and Barack Obama Sr. met as students at the University of Hawaii.
In 1960, Ann Dunham—who would go on to study anthropology—and Barack Obama Sr., a prodigious math student, were both attending the University of Hawaii and met in a Russian class. Another NPR piece, this one citing Sally Jacobs’ The Other Barack: The Bold and Reckless Life of President Obama’s Father, notes that the two became enamored with each other fast, even though at the time, it was somewhat unclear whether Obama Sr. had technically divorced his first wife, Kezia Aoko.
Per Scott, Dunham became pregnant in 1961, and she married Obama Sr. that year. Their marriage was exceptional for happening “at a time when nearly two dozen states still had laws against interracial marriage.”
After their baby was born, Dunham decided to go to Seattle with baby Barack to be around family, while Obama Sr. remained at school.
Dunham’s life has been mischaracterized, but she had a significant impact on the future president.
As Scott wrote in A Singular Woman, “The president’s mother has served as any of a number of useful oversimplifications.” She explains that Dunham, who died long before her son became a national political star, has had many different identities projected upon her, from being portrayed as a “shy, small-town girl” or a “naive idealist” in Obama’s Dreams from My Father to being perceived as a struggling single mother.
In actuality though, according to Scott, she was not only an important, inspirational figure in her son’s life, but also a teacher and a forward-thinking worker who helped with local development and “consulted on microfinance projects” in Indonesia.
“He credits her with impressing upon him the importance upon one’s duty to others — perhaps that the best thing that one can do is to give opportunities for others,” Scott told NPR’s Terry Gross. “And her work in many ways foreshadows his. There was a period in 1979 where she was working in what her boss described to me as ‘community development in Java.’ That’s five years before he becomes a community development person in Chicago.”
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