Who Were Barack Obama's Parents?

As his own website states, former President Barack Obama didn't have a very predictable path to the White House. His mother was from Kansas, his father was from Kenya, and he was born in Honolulu, Hawaii. When his mother remarried, he left the U.S. with her and grew up in Indonesia.

"I was raised as an Indonesian child and a Hawaiian child and as a Black child and as a white child," he once said (via the Miller Center). Obama attended Catholic and Muslim schools but was raised as a nonbeliever. However, this diversity was not a hurdle in the way of his goals. In fact, it was the diversity, multi-culturalism, and open-mindedness that prompted Obama to enter a career in public service — and this is all thanks to his parents.

In August 2022, Obama inaugurated the Ann Dunnam Water Garden at the Obama Presidential Center, named after his mother. Once more, he explained the massive influence she had on him (via Twitter): "When I look at my values, that core belief in our common humanity and the inherent dignity of every person, that was instilled in me by my mother."

But there's much more to the story, an itinerant childhood, intense legal drama, and more than two parents included. So here's the whole story of Obama's parents.

Obama's father was, before anything else, absent

Like many sons that grew up without a dad, Barack Obama confesses to having been impacted by it. In an Instagram post from March 2021, Obama wrote: "I didn't really know my father — he left my mother and me when I was two years old, and only traveled from Kenya to visit us once, when I was ten." That was the last time Obama saw his father, but it was an important visit for him — Obama Sr. introduced him to basketball and jazz music. However, the fact that he had no contact with his father (bar a few disparate letters) left its mark on Obama: "I knew I would have to figure out how to be a man on my own."

In more than one respect, Obama Sr. was not a role model for his son. As NPR reports, when he met Obama's mother, Ann Dunham, he lied to her about having divorced his wife in Africa, Kezia Aoko. He also omitted to mention that they had two children together. And apparently, when a foreign student adviser confronted him about having two wives, Obama Sr. said: "Don't worry, my wife is pregnant. But she's making arrangements with the Salvation Army to give the baby up." After all, Dunham was only 18 when she had her son. Needless to say, Dunham eventually chose to raise her son as a single mom, and the rest is history.

His parents met at the University of Hawaii

In 1959, Barack Obama Sr. became the first African student to enroll at the University of Hawaii (via NPR). A year later, 17-year-old Ann Dunham became an anthropology student at the same university. Obama Sr. was studying mathematics, but the two met during a Russian class, according to Oprah Daily. As Sally H. Jacobs describes in her biography, "The Other Barack" (via NPR): "Both of them were quite taken with each other. This relationship picked up speed pretty quickly."

It really did move fast — within a few months, Dunham was pregnant, and the two got married. But easy come, easy go. Shortly after Obama's birth on August 4, 1961, Dunham took him to Seattle to be close to her family, while Obama Sr. remained in Honolulu to continue his studies. Their relationship had gone downhill very quickly, as Dunham's biographer Janny Scott told NPR's "Fresh Air," Dunham "laid down some dinner for him on the table that she had made and he looked at it and said, 'You expect me to eat this?' Picked it up and hurled it at the wall."

In 1964, Dunham filed for divorce. But even though their love story came to an end, their academic pursuits didn't. Obama Sr. went on to get a graduate fellowship in economics at Harvard University, and Dunham graduated in 1967, only to get a master's degree in Jakarta and complete a Ph.D. afterward.

Obama learned his most cherished values from Dunham

It's no secret that Barack Obama credits his mother, Ann Dunham, with imbuing him with the values he held dear as a president. As per biographer Janny Scott, "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 ... 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 [Obama] becomes a community development person in Chicago" (via NPR).

According to Scott, Dunham was extremely committed to education, so she made big efforts to ensure her son would get the best, no matter where in the world they were. During their time in Jakarta, Dunham would wake Obama at 4 a.m. and teach him English for three hours before leaving for school. Dunham taught her son that hard work, dedication, and a cool attitude (which she herself showed when Obama would get bullied for his skin color in Indonesia) gets one very far. In an interesting twist, Obama Sr.'s biographer Sally H. Jacobs wrote (via NPR): "If Obama the president had had [Barack Obama Sr.] as a father, I think it's fair to say that he wouldn't be the president."

Barack Obama Sr. had three terrible car accidents

Barack Obama Sr.'s life story outdoes many movies in intensity and improbable coincidences. Perhaps the most improbable are his three devastating car accidents, the last of which took his life. As per BlackPast, Obama Sr. was involved in his first car accident in 1970, and his injuries were so bad, he had to spend close to a year in a hospital.

But when he got out, he wanted to make some amends — as Sally H. Jacobs mentions in his biography (via NPR), he also had no job and his third wife was planning to leave him. So in 1971, Obama Sr. traveled to Hawaii to meet his son, Barack Jr. As Obama recalls in this Instagram post, this was a very impactful visit — and sadly, the only one.

Soon after Obama Sr. returned to Kenya, he had another car accident, and the consequences were even worse than before. He lost both his legs. Finally, on November 24, 1982, at the age of 46, Obama Sr. lost his life in a third car crash in Nairobi. It was a short and tragic end to a very tumultuous life that left his many children — including Obama — with more questions than answers.

There was also a stepfather

After divorcing Obama Sr. (and moving back from Seattle to Hawaii to continue her studies), NPR reports Ann Dunham met and married Lolo Soetoro, an Indonesian student. Dunham's biographer Janny Scott noted that Soetoro was, in many ways, the opposite of Obama Sr.: "He was physically smaller than Barack Obama Sr. And he was also just a genial, delightful, charming guy from Java ... I think he was just a nice guy who clearly took a real liking to Ann and she to him. And I think she saw in him, according to her friends, the possibility of a life that involved a certain amount of excitement ... returning to Indonesia but also with a man who could — had the possibility to be a family man."

In 1967, Dunham and Soetoro moved to Jakarta, Indonesia, with young Barack Obama. Obama lived in Jakarta for four years, during which Soetoro was a proper father to him. According to Reuters, Soetoro taught Obama boxing after he was attacked by an older boy and opened his mind to Indonesian cuisine (roasted grasshopper included). When Obama was 10, Dunham decided he should return to Hawaii to continue his education — he lived with Dunham's parents while Dunham herself stayed in Jakarta with Soetoro and their daughter Maya until their divorce in 1980.

Obama's family was very ethnically diverse

In an interview with Oprah, Barack Obama described the great variety of ethnicities in his family via their get-togethers: "Michelle will tell you that when we get together for Christmas or Thanksgiving, it's like a little mini-United Nations. I've got relatives who look like Bernie Mac, and I've got relatives who look like Margaret Thatcher. We've got it all." Obama has a Kenyan father, a white mother born in Wichita, Kansas, a half-Indonesian half-sister (who, as Oprah reports, is married to a Chinese-Canadian), and several African siblings, per Oprah Daily.

As reported by The New York Times, Obama spoke about his ethnically diverse family during his 2008 campaign speech, shedding some valuable light on what it means to be American today (and for hundreds of years, for all that matters). But he also commented on how multi-culturalism helped him develop as a person (via the Miller Center):

"I was raised as an Indonesian child and a Hawaiian child and as a black child and as a white child. And so what I benefited from is a multiplicity of cultures that all fed me." Be it open-mindedness or a more comprehensive education, having an ethnically diverse family helped the former president grow and fulfill his goals.

Obama Sr. generated post-mortem legal turmoil

Barack Obama Sr.'s romantic life was tumultuous, ambiguous, and left a lot of questions after his death in 1982. As NPR reports, when Obama Sr. met Ann Dunham, he was already married to his first wife, Kezia Aoko, and had two children with her. But he also married Dunham in 1961, and at the time, she didn't know about Aoko. Obama Sr. was part of the Luo ethnic group, where polygamy is perfectly normal. However, he was aware that Dunham wasn't Luo, hence his dishonesty. In 1964, Dunham filed for divorce (via Oprah Daily) and, the same year, Obama Sr. married his third wife, Ruth Beatrice Baker (via BlackPast). In 1973, they got divorced, and Obama Sr. reunited with his first wife. Meanwhile, he had eight children.

As Sally H. Jacobs explained in "The Other Barack" (via NPR), three years after his death, a complicated legal drama started, as his children and wives tried to decide who were his legal heirs. Aoko claimed she never divorced Obama Sr., so his other marriages were never legitimate. It turned out that Aoko lied about the divorce, and also about having four children with Obama Sr. — two of them were fathered by someone else. The legal battle went on for years, dividing the family, and leaving the children with a lot of uncertainties about Obama Sr.'s life. As Jacobs noted, five of the Obama children have written memoirs about their dad.

Ann Dunham was always unconventional

In an interview with "Fresh Air" (via NPR), Ann Dunham's biographer Janny Scott shared a story about a spur-of-the-moment road trip that stands as a synecdoche for Dunham's unconventional style, even as a teen: "It was in her senior year in high school ... They were bright. They were kind of insider outsiders in that high school, kind of brainy, interested in being on the cultural cutting edge ... They were coming back from maybe a coffeehouse in Seattle, and the conversation turned to maybe we should not go home ... Ann and one friend ended up just taking the car and driving to San Francisco, which was considered a rather radical breakout for a kid from Mercer Island High School in 1959, '60."

Dunham's parents had to get them out of juvenile detention and fly them back to Washington state. But this wasn't the end of Dunham living on the edge. Her open-mindedness and curiosity for the unknown led her to become a pioneer in social work in Indonesia and Pakistan, according to Oprah Daily. She lived in several places and interacted with people from all socio-economic and cultural backgrounds. As Scott told NPR's Terry Gross, Dunham was brave and unconventional throughout her life, and this led her to great professional heights (and provided an excellent model for Obama).

Obama's grandparents were, briefly, his parents

When he was 10 years old, Barack Obama returned to Hawaii from Indonesia to study at the Punahou School. As biographer Janny Scott explained (via NPR), Obama's mother, Ann Dunham, wanted her son to get a proper English language education, even though she wasn't free to leave Indonesia at that point (she was married to Soetoro and had a baby daughter with him). In Hawaii, Obama stayed with Dunham's parents, Stanley and Madelyn, per the Miller Center. Incidentally, they lived a few houses away from the prestigious prep school.

The Miller Center describes Obama as a good student, though not an extraordinary one. He attended the same school from fifth grade to the end of high school, during which time he played basketball, experimented with a few illegal substances (including marijuana and cocaine), and drank alcohol. He was also raised as a nonbeliever by his grandparents, who had passed their atheism onto Obama's mother as well. Dunham eventually returned to Hawaii while Obama was still in school, and she was an on-and-off presence physically, but a supportive mother throughout the whole time, as she and Obama stayed in touch no matter where she was on the globe.

Dunham was a pioneer in international development

As reported by The Independent, after completing a master's in anthropology, Ann Dunham went on to work for associations like the Asian Development Bank and the U.S. Agency for International Development. As per Obama, "[She] dedicated her life to understanding and improving the lives of the rural poor" (via Oprah Daily). On the forefront, Dunham was a pioneer, especially in microfinance, which aimed to help low-income women and craftspeople in the rural areas of Indonesia and Pakistan. She also supported groups opposed to military dictatorship.

But as Obama recalled in his 1995 memoir "Dreams of my Father" (via "All Things Considered"), Dunham's whole person dictated her profession: "[S]he traveled the world, working in the distant villages, helping women buy a sewing machine or a milk cow or an education that might give them a foothold in the world's economy." So Dunham became a prominent figure in international development out of a sheer passion for helping people, something that inspired Obama deeply: "What is best in me, I owe to her."

Obama's mother got divorced again and completed a PhD

Ann Dunham divorced Lolo Soetoro in 1980, years after the relationship had gone cold (as Janny Scott told NPR's Terry Gross, pressure from Soetoro's family, as well as from the tense political climate in Indonesia, changed Soetoro and his relationship with Dunham for the worse). After the divorce, Dunham began working on a Ph.D. thesis that, per The Independent, would take 14 years to complete. Alice Dewey, Dunham's Ph.D. supervisor, commented: "She was the hardest-working person I have ever met. When she came down to breakfast, she had already been working for four hours."

Dunham's thesis is titled "Surviving Against the Odds" and is a complex account of the many social layers of village life in Indonesia: ancient rituals, shamanism, gender-based divisions of labor, and more. To write her thesis, Dunham lived in a remote village mountain called Kajar, lodging with a lady who praised her for always being joyous: "[She didn't talk about her children] but I knew she missed them. She would ask me often about my children" (via The Independent).

Dunham died in 1995

After receiving a doctorate in anthropology, Ann Dunham moved to New York and began working as a policy coordinator for Women's World Banking — as the Stanley Ann Dunham Scholarship Fund reports, her work helped shape the policies for the United Nations' Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995.

Tragically, 1995 would also be the year Dunham would die of ovarian cancer, at the age of 52. Also in 1995, Barack Obama published his first memoir, "Dreams of my Father," but as the title suggests, the book barely focused on Dunham; in fact, as per NPR, it summarizes her life with trivial phrases like "a white anthropologist from Kansas" or "the woman who died of cancer while fighting with her insurance company at the end of her life."

Obama subsequently published a second edition where he expressed his regret over this, wishing he had written "less a meditation on the absent parent [and] more a celebration of the one who was the single constant in my life" (via NPR). Eventually, Janny Scott published "A Singular Woman," a biography that encapsulates Ann Dunham's extraordinary life and influence on Obama, in 2011.