Just as President Obama was releasing his “long-form” birth certificate last week, saying: “We do not have time for this silliness, I’ve got better stuff to do,” – per working on plans to finally take out the murderer Osama bin Laden – the author Janny Scott was explaining her new book, “A Singular Woman” about the president’s late mother, Ann Dunham, who died in 1995. Scott is a New York Times journalist who produced numerous profiles of the president and his mother during the 2008 campaign. She said that reporting led to her new book that includes a statement from Dunham saying she wanted more “constructive dialogue with Barry” — a nickname used for the junior Barack Obama.
Dunham on the president’s mind this Mother’s Day 2011
Scott’s new book, “A Singular Woman,” shares a story of a “warm and wonderful woman who was very close to her son, our president,” said the author during a May 4 National Public Radio (NPR) report.
In turn, those who read the book here in Eugene say “it’s fascinating that this strong woman had the right stuff to guide her young son through those difficult years without a father, but with a vision to be a good man who should do the right thing.”
Others who’ve read the book at the University of Oregon, say “it’s a must read for Mother’s Day” because the story of the president’s mother “speaks to all mom’s about the difficulty and sacrifices of raising kids without a father present.”
The book is about his mother, Ann Dunham, who died in 1995, the year President Obama's book "Dreams From My Father" was published. Although the president’s book focused on how his absent Kenyan father affected his life, Scott notes in the preface to the president’s 2004 edition, that “he wrote that had he known his mother was going to die of cancer, he might have written a different book, quote, ‘less a meditation on the absent parent, more a celebration of the one who was the single constant in my life.’”
In turn, President Obama has told the story about how five days a week his mother would wake him at four AM in Jakarta, force feed him breakfast and teach him English for three hours before he left for school. And when he resisted she'd say,” this is no picnic for me either, buster.”
Obama talks about his mother, and what she taught him
While writing “A Singular Woman,” Scott had the opportunity to interview President Obama for a half hour in the Oval Office.
"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. "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."
Scott's biography of Obama's mother traces Dunham's life and the relationship she had with her son -- whose rise in the political world came largely after her death in 1995 – and later when the president “largely thanks his mother for the values that led him to the work he now does.”
President’s family rich in culture and America’s melting pot
According to a White House background paper on the president, Barack Obama's family “presents a racial tableau unlike anything ever seen in a presidential nominee's family tree. His mother was white, from Kansas, his father black and Kenyan. He grew up surrounded by the aloha culture of Hawaii. President Obama's extended family includes many mixed marriages, white, black, Indonesian, Chinese and Canadian.”
Moreover, Scott writes that when Dunham left her home in Seattle and attended the University of Hawaii, “she was somewhat out of place, and in her first few weeks on campus she met Barack Obama, Sr., who is said to have been the first African at the University of Hawaii. Whatever happened very fast, because within a couple of months she was pregnant.”
Scott also notes that there are “several stories about how they met. President Obama, in his memoir, describes them meeting in a Russian language class. Others say they met in the library or on a bench near the library. But it was clearly a sort of cataclysmic collision for her.”
Who was the president’s mother?
In brief, Scott notes that the president’s mother Stanley Ann Dunham was also a scholar and a writer. Dunham also had another child by a different husband, and she’s President Obama's sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng who’s also an author and educator.
Scott also notes characterizations of Obama's mother — first as "a white anthropologist from Kansas" and then as "a single mother on food stamps" and "the woman who died of cancer while fighting with her insurance company at the end of her life.”
But, she writes, these descriptions “don't encompass who she was, the unconventional life she led or the influence she had on the future president of the United States.”
"She believed that he deserved the kind of opportunities that she had had [like] the opportunity to a great university," Scott says. "And she believed that he would never get that if he didn't have a strong English-language education. So at a certain point, she decided she wasn't serving his interests well by keeping him in Indonesia and in Indonesia schools."
Four years later, Obama moved back to Hawaii to live with his grandparents while his mother stayed in Indonesia with her second husband and daughter Maya Soetoro-Ng. It was a complicated decision — and one that most people don't give her credit for, Scott says:
"She was juggling a number of things: She wanted her son to get a good English-language education, which wasn't available to her in Indonesia. She had an Indonesian daughter and an Indonesian husband at the time. She needed to be able to work to pay for the education she wanted for her son and her daughter. In order to work, she was going to need some kind of advanced degree. So she was juggling a lot of things."
In 1972, Scott says, Dunham rejoined her son in Hawaii and stayed there during his middle school years. She returned to Indonesia to do anthropological field work shortly after he entered high school.
"At different moments in her life she is upset, and at one point, in his senior year of high school in Hawaii, she goes back just to be with him because she realizes it's the last year of his childhood," she says. "Later, one friend describes her as wistful about his decision to move to Chicago and root himself in Chicago and emphasize the sort-of black part of himself. So I think there was a theme — and this is just snippets of little things I've stumbled upon — that she had a kind of longing for a closer relationship with him."
Image source for Dunham: Wikipedia