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A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama's Mother

Janny Scott

(Riverhead; US: Jan 2012)

When Barack Obama was elected the first black president of the Harvard Law Review in 1990, and the press first began to take notice of the budding lawyer and politician, there wasn’t much said about his parents. If mentioned at all, the spotlight was focused steadily on Obama’s Kenyan father—a man who didn’t raise Barack, but who nonetheless influenced his sense of ideals and identity as a black man in America. Following the law review election, Barack wrote his first memoir, Dreams from My Father, while his mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, was relegated to the background, pinned simply as a white woman from Kansas, a shy single mother who struggled to make ends meet during Barack’s childhood.


It’s curious, really, that so little was said about the woman who bore and raised Obama. Was the omission a political move? Was her unconventional nature a political liability? Did the “white woman from Kansas” diminish his identity as an African American politician? Janny Scott fills in the blanks with her thorough and engaging biography, A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mother. The book reveals Stanley Ann to be an intellectually curious, passionate, idealistic, and unconventional woman whose sense of wonder and love shaped the lives of two children—including the one that would become the 44th president of the United States.


Because Stanley Ann didn’t raise her children alone, though, a fair amount of attention is also given to her parents, Madelyn and Stanley, and their ancestors. Scott imbues the family with a romantic kind of American restlessness and adventure—these pioneers seeking out new frontiers in the dusty Midwest. Both Stanley and Madelyn had a “worldliness” about them (he wrote poems and plays, and she longed to escape provincial Kansas), so when they married, the two took off for the West Coast, where they hoped to fulfill their dreams but struggled financially, neither one having a college degree.


Madelyn, in particular, took on a more practical world view after Stanley Ann was born. She worked for a bank and made sure that Stanley Ann would have the educational opportunities that she did not.


Supported by her pragmatic mother, Stanley Ann (who later dropped her ‘male’ first name) was then free to pursue education, world travel, and a career in anthropology. Of course, these pursuits were interrupted when she became pregnant with Barack at just 17, while a student at the University of Hawaii. She had been charmed by Barack Hussein Obama, a Kenyan student at the university, who gave her a son and a first marriage. But he left shortly after—to Harvard for graduate school, and then back to Africa—and the marriage dissolved.


Ann’s own studies took her to Indonesia, with Barack in tow, where she married and divorced again. She had a second child, Maya, whose father was Indonesian.


The single mother of two biracial children, Ann was certainly her own woman; she didn’t care much about what others thought of her, and as many friends will state throughout the book, she “didn’t suffer fools gladly”. Adjectives friends and family use to describe her include “idealistic”, “trusting” (and perhaps naïve), “intelligent”, “curious”, and “sensual”. She took great pleasure in food (which eventually showed in her figure) and had a beautiful appreciation for nature. She seemed to ride the waves of change gamely.


But she made questionable life choices, one of which included leaving a preadolescent Barry in Hawaii with her parents so she could work in Indonesia. Ann is described by one friend as someone who defied labels, and perhaps “mother” was one of those labels. The fattest portion of A Singular Woman is devoted to her work as an anthropologist and not, interestingly enough, to the direct influence she had on Barry’s day-to-day life.


Ann really was her own person, and she followed her own path, even when it diverged from that of her son. The focus on Ann’s work almost make the title seem misleading, although technically, Ann was always Barack’s mother, just as Barack Obama Sr. was still a father capable of influencing his son. 


Scott writes objectively, for the most part, sharing her research and portraying a bright, complicated, and flawed woman, but her sympathy for her subject is undeniable. The book gives the impression that Ann had to leave for Indonesia in order to earn a PhD, which she needed in order to find work and financially support her children. But parents can support children without advanced degrees, and even after leaving Barack with Stanley and Madelyn, Ann took decades to complete her dissertation, and her parents helped support Barack and Maya financially—a fact that Barack is keenly aware of. 


As frustrating as some of her choices were, though, it’s tough to read A Singular Woman and not develop a fondness for Ann—her sense of wonder, adventure, and industry. Though she didn’t necessarily offer her children stability, she always gave them love. So the end of the book is a bit tough to read, as it shows Barack’s career taking off while Ann’s health declines and her life winds down.


What the book also affirms is how Ann influenced Barack and his sister through her life, work, triumphs and mistakes, and eventual death. Reading A Singular Women, readers may come to understand why the US president was initially reticent about his unconventional mother, but they also see, quite clearly, how she shaped him and his leadership choices for the United States and, by extension, the world. Even he acknowledges that her love and idealism fostered in him an egalitarian spirit that remains with him to this today.

Rating:

Sarah Watson is a Chicago-based freelance writer and book critic.


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