The Lesser-Known Truth Of Barack Obama's Parents

As important influences on the former president's life, Barack Obama's parents have become known figures in U.S. history. Barack Obama Sr. was a Kenyan economist who left when the younger Obama was a toddler. Ann Dunham was an anthropologist who worked in Indonesia, where Obama Jr. lived during his childhood. But a lot about them is relatively unknown. Their relationship was unique from the beginning. Dunham and Obama Sr. met while studying Russian at the University of Hawaii.

While Dunham is often portrayed as an abandoned woman left to raise a son on food stamps, she was an ambitious woman who was ahead of her time. While Obama Sr. left the family for good, Dunham also left him. Shortly after her son was born, she moved to Seattle to study at the University of Washington. They reunited with Obama Sr. in 1962, a year before he left for Kenya. Obama Sr. also attempted to have Dunham and Obama Jr. move with him in the '70s, but she had closed that door.

She never held his decision against him. In fact, the Obamas' original plan was to move to Africa after their son was born. "It wasn't your father's fault that he left, you know. I divorced him," Obama Jr. recalled her as saying in his 1995 memoir "Dreams from My Father." Obama Sr. had big plans for Kenya's budding democracy. He belonged in Africa, and she knew that. Dunham and Obama Sr. were complex individuals who lived colorful lives.

Ann Dunham first name was Stanley

Barack Obama's mother may have been known as Ann Dunham throughout her adult life, but she was Stanley Dunham growing up. She believed her father, Stanley Dunham, named her after himself after he got over the disappointment of having a daughter and not a son. "I know, it's a boy's name and no, I don't like it. I mean, would you like to be called Stanley?" Dunham's schoolmate Elaine Johnson recalled her saying in a 2007 Chicago Tribune interview. "But my dad wanted a boy and he got me. And the name 'Stanley' made him feel better, I guess.'"

However, many of her family members disagreed with her version. According to Obama's uncle, Ann's mother was a movie fan and drew inspiration for her daughter's name after watching "In This Our Life," featuring Bette Davis as Stanley Timberlake. "A woman named Stanley: 'Madelyn thought that was the height of sophistication!'" Madelyn Dunham's brother, Charles Payne, told David Maraniss for his 2012 biography, "Barack Obama: The Story." That Ann's father was named Stanley gave Madelyn the conviction to go through with it.

In her younger years, her family and friends called her Stannie Ann, Maraniss wrote in The Washington Post. But after high school, she started introducing herself by her middle name, though she didn't completely drop Stanley.  Her 1992 anthropology dissertation from the University of Hawaii is signed "S. Ann Dunham." And she added Stanley in parentheses before Ann Dunham in all official correspondence. 

Barack Obama's parents were married in a secret ceremony

When Ann Dunham and Barack Obama Sr. tied the knot, they kept the news to themselves. "Nobody was invited," Neil Abercrombie, a college friend of Obama Sr., told Time in 2008. The wedding came as a shock to their close friends. "She wasn't particularly interested in children or in getting married," Dunham's friend Maxine Box said. The wedding came amid other news. Dunham was pregnant with Barack Obama Jr., who was born six months later. 

That wasn't the only possible reason for all the secrecy. Dunham and Obama Sr. wed in February 1961, when interracial marriage was banned in certain states. And it wasn't just the American side that opposed the relationship. The Kenyan side was equally unhappy. Dunham told Barack about the elder Obama's father's reaction to hearing about their plans. "[He] wrote Gramps this long, nasty letter saying that he didn't approve of the marriage. He didn't want the Obama blood sullied by a white woman," he wrote in "Dreams from My Father."

Barack never learned why Dunham, an ambitious college student, decided to get married at just 18. "I never probed my mother about the details. Did they decide to get married because she was already pregnant? Or did he propose to her in the traditional, formal way?" he told Time. He wished he had shown more interest when he had the chance. "I suppose, had she not passed away, I would have asked more," he said.

Like his son, Barack Obama Sr. is a Harvard alum

The 44th U.S. president isn't the only Obama to have graduated from Harvard University. Barack Obama's father earned an M.A. in Economics from the school in the early 1960s. But Barack Obama Sr.'s decision to pursue his education had consequences. When he moved to Massachusetts, he left a wife and a 2-year-old in Hawaii. He could have made a different choice. Obama Sr. had also received a scholarship offer from the New School that would have supported all three.

However, he chose Harvard, whose scholarship only covered tuition. "Barack was such a stubborn bastard, he had to go to Harvard. 'How can I refuse the best education?' he told me. That's all he could think about, proving that he was the best," Ann Dunham told her son, as he recalled in "Dreams from My Father." Obama Sr. was gifted. Dunham often told her son that he inherited his intelligence from his father, David Maraniss noted in "Barack Obama: The Story."

He was also ambitious. Obama Sr. moved to the U.S. to pursue an education, intending to return to his home country to help build its government following Kenya's 1963 independence. He put that goal above everything else, even his family. "I know he loved Ann," his friend Neil Abercrombie told the Chicago Tribune. "I think he didn't want the impediment of being responsible for a family. He expected great things of himself and he was going off to achieve them."

Barack Obama Sr.'s conflicts with Kenya's president hurt his ambitions

Barack Obama Sr. kept his eyes on the ball. In 1964, he returned to Kenya, got a job as a government economist,  and was later promoted to senior economist. He seemed to be on the right track. But Obama Sr. disagreed with President Jomo Kenyatta's economic approach from the beginning — and he wasn't quiet about it. "Maybe it is better to have something perfunctorily done than none at all!" he wrote in a 1965 essay titled "Problems Facing Our Socialism" published by Politico in 2008.

Obama Sr.'s sharp tongue didn't earn him many friends in the Kenyatta administration. He wasn't getting the promotions he thought he deserved. "Kenyatta said to the Old Man that, because he could not keep his mouth shut, he would not work again until he had no shoes on his feet," Barack Obama's half-brother said, as the former president wrote in "Dreams from My Father." As the elder Obama saw his aspirations slip through his fingers, his behavior became more erratic.

He started drinking heavily and driving irresponsibly. "He was drinking too much; his frustration was apparent," Neil Abercrombie told the Chicago Tribune, describing a visit he paid to his friend during an African trip. After Kenyatta's 1978 death, Obama Sr. found work with the Ministry of Finance. "But I think he never got over the bitterness of what had happened to him," his son said. In 1982, he died in a car accident.

Ann Dunham had insurance troubles when she died from cancer

Barack Obama believes his mother was a victim of a broken healthcare system. Ann Dunham was diagnosed with ovarian and uterine cancer in 1995. She had just moved back to the U.S. from Indonesia, where she had been misdiagnosed with indigestion the previous year. She was switching jobs and unsure whether her new insurance would cover her treatment. That's what was on her mind. "She wasn't thinking about coming to terms with her own mortality," Obama highlighted in a 2007 ad, according to the Chicago Tribune.

Dunham spent her last months dealing with bureaucracy to figure out if the new insurance would deem her cancer as a pre-existing condition. "When my mom got cancer, she was no wealthy woman and it pretty much drained all of her resources," Obama said in a 2012 Democratic National Convention video shared by PBS. Dunham's experience became one of the motivators behind Obama's landmark statute. "Watching your mother die of something that could have been prevented — that's a tough thing to deal with," Michelle Obama added.

Dunham died in November 1995, months after her diagnosis. Obama could never separate her insurance loophole from her untimely death at 52. "Passing a health-care bill wouldn't bring my mom back," Obama wrote in his 2020 memoir, "A Promised Land." He still believed her death shouldn't have been in vain. "But it would save somebody's mom, somewhere down the line. And that was worth fighting for."