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Her life’s story


  • A photo from the 1960s provided by Barack Obama's presidential campaign shows him as a young child with his mother, Stanley Ann Dunham. His Kansas-born mother met his father, Barack Obama Sr., at the East-West Center in Manoa. Courtesy photo
  • COURTESY NINA SUBIN
    “I will say I?think (Stanley Ann Dunham) was very unpredictable. She constantly defied the stereotypes of what one might expect. While she was idealistic she was also very pragmatic.”

    Janny Scott
    Author of “A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mother”

  • COURTESY CHARLES PAYNE
    courtesy charles Payne @Caption1:A family photo shows Stanley Ann Dunham, seated at center, with grandmother Leona Payne, left; her mother, Madelyn Lee Payne Dunham, standing at right; and aunt Ruth McCurry on her front porch in Augusta, Kan., in the late 1940s.
  • BLOOMBERG NEWS
    Bloomberg News Barack Obama Sr., a visiting Kenyan scholar, met Stanley Ann Dunham at the East-West Center in Manoa.
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This story has been corrected.

The author interviewed nearly 200 people who knew Dunham, and “no one ever suggested that she had been to Kenya in that period,” said Scott, who researched public records and official statements made about Obama’s birth, double-checking them when the issue recently resurfaced.

“It strains credulity that two impoverished students — I don’t know how much it would have cost to fly to Kenya at the time — (could have flown) to Kenya and back,” Scott said.

Scott’s book, “A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mother,” does not go into the controversy, stating in a matter-of-fact manner that “On August 4, 1961, at 7:24 p.m., at Kapiolani Maternity and Gynecological Hospital in Honolulu, Ann gave birth to Barack Hussein Obama Jr.”

“A Singular Woman,” released last week, traces Dunham’s life story, from her Midwestern family roots to her adolescence in Seattle and her collegiate days in Hawaii, and then her career as a itinerant scholar who helped develop microfinancing in Indonesia. It follows her to her 1995 death from cancer at age 52 in Honolulu.

Scott became immersed with Dunham’s story during the 2008 presidential campaign, when she wrote several articles on Obama’s background, including one about his mother that garnered an offer “out of the blue” from Penguin Publishing to write a book about her. Scott accepted, viewing Dunham as “a person who lived an extraordinarily interesting life who we know almost nothing about. … Her life was so unusual that it was worth knowing.”

The author’s research brought her to Honolulu five times, where she enjoyed its “very distinct sensibility, one that I had not encountered anywhere else.”

She was especially fascinated by the history of the East-West Center in Manoa, where Dunham met Barack Obama Sr., a visiting Kenyan scholar. The institution had just been established and brought in “this influx of international energy and melting-pot experience of Asia and the West at that moment,” Scott said.

“You could see how it ripped open people’s horizons to know that you could go overseas to Asia as part of your studies or a person from Asia could move to Hawaii. I think at that time, the ’60s, that must have been an eye-opening thing.”

Scott also made two extended trips to Indonesia, constantly being surprised by people who surfaced with stories about Dunham doing field work for her anthropology degree or working in economic development there. Indonesia itself was “entrancing,” said Scott, who understood Dunham’s attachment to the country.

“It’s so beautiful, and to someone interested in history and archaeology and culture the way she was, it’s so deep and layered and still vividly in the present,” she said.

Scott sees Dunham as being caught in a web of opportunity, interest and need which kept her from settling into a secure lifestyle. “She had financial obligations so she needed to work. She also had a marketable skill, and the work was interesting. It was almost a curse that she found work that was so interesting, because it kept her from finishing (her doctorate), and it hung over her head for years.”

Scott gives Dunham credit for her work with the then-fledgling microfinancing program at an Indonesian bank. Though Dunham did not originate the program, she had worked with some of the founders and did market research for them as it got off the ground, Scott said. The program has provided financing for millions of poor people underserved by traditional banks.

Obama was in the midst of the presidential campaign when Scott started the project. She sent him a letter informing him of her plans and asking for an interview “sometime when you’re not busy,” she said with a laugh.

“I basically felt like what I would do is proceed and try to operate as responsibly as possible, build up a certain amount of credibility and hope that I didn’t set off any red flags in the meantime, and I would then go to him sometime toward the end, when I really had an idea of what I wanted from him,” Scott said.

She eventually was able to talk to Obama about his mother for 30 minutes in the Oval Office last year, when he spoke of a “naive idealism” that he thinks he inherited from his mother.

As for what Dunham might think about her son’s presidency, Scott said it would be highly speculative to imagine her reaction.

“She had extraordinary faith in him. She felt he was an unusual child and often spoke about the possibility of him being great, even becoming president.”

“I will say I think she was very unpredictable. She constantly defied the stereotypes of what one might expect. While she was idealistic she was also very pragmatic. … She wasn’t a dreamy ‘space shot’ as some people have suggested.”

CORRECTION

» Barack Obama was born on Aug. 4, 1961. The above article misquoted a biography of the president’s mother as stating he was born in 1971.

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