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President Obama's Father: A 'Bold And Reckless Life'

President Obama is the son of a white American mother and a black Kenyan father who met at the University of Hawaii in 1960. The president last saw his father when he was 10, when Obama Sr. made a brief visit to Hawaii from Kenya, where he moved when the future president was just a toddler.

But what was Barack Obama Sr. really like? Biographer Sally H. Jacobs takes an in-depth look at his life — and his legacy — in The Other Barack: The Bold and Reckless Life of President Obama's Father.

The Childhood Of Barack Obama Sr.

Jacobs tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies that the president's father grew up in an extremely strict household. His father, Onyango, who later changed his name to Hussein, regularly beat his wives and children with a four-pronged whip. He also forced his children to recite long lists of memorized facts before their meals.

"Barack Obama Sr. would have to recite his math tables while standing at the table before he could have any food," Jacobs says. "[Math] was a relatively new concept for Onyango ... and he wanted his son to have this skill."

And when Obama Sr. later went to the village school, he was immediately recognized for his strong math abilities.

"A principal described him to me as the smartest boy in the school," says Jacobs. "He was particularly good at math, even then. That would become his trademark and he would go on to become an economist, but even as a boy he excelled with numbers."

In 1959, Obama Sr. went to study at the University of Hawaii, Manoa, in Honolulu, where he stood out for his fastidious dressing habits, his forays into public speaking and his fabulous dancing skills.

"A woman who had known him in Hawaii told me of how she ... would go down to some of the famous nightclubs with him and start to dance," says Jacobs. "And everybody would watch because he was so beautiful on the floor — and also because he was a black man. Blacks were very few in number in Honolulu and he was the first African student at the University of Hawaii."

Meeting Stanley Ann Dunham

A year after Obama Sr. enrolled at the university, he met Stanley Ann Dunham, a 17-year-old from Kansas who was studying Russian.

"Both of them were quite taken with each other," says Jacobs. "This relationship picked up speed pretty quickly. The president describes it in his own memoir [Dreams from My Father] of how drawn they were to each other. [And] in a fairly short time, she becomes pregnant."

Obama Sr. told Dunham that he had divorced Kezia Aoko, his wife in Africa, but that wasn't true. He also did not reveal that he had had two children with Aoko, who, like Obama Sr., was a member of the Luo ethnic group.

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.

"The thing you have to understand about this is that it was deeply rooted in Luo culture," says Jacobs. "Divorce wasn't common. You could get a divorce but you had to go through a very complex process which involved the couple sitting before a council of elders and then there had to be a return of the dowry."

Later on, Obama Sr. told immigration officials that he thought of himself as divorced in Kenya before he arrived in the United States. Jacobs says that Obama Sr.'s immigration files also show that Obama Sr. and Dunham may have considered putting President Obama up for adoption before he was born.

"I [made a Freedom of Information Act request for] his immigration file because I wanted to confirm the date he arrived in the United States," she says. "In this record, there was an extraordinary memo in which the foreign student adviser at the University of Hawaii has ... realized [Obama Sr.] might have two wives."

In the adviser's memo, she noted that she had asked Obama Sr. about his family situation.

"And he says, 'Don't worry, my wife is pregnant. But she's making arrangements with the Salvation Army to give the baby up,' " says Jacobs. "Now did that really happen? It's not clear. Members of the family on both sides say they've never heard of it ... [But] Obama Sr. had every reason to not want to have that baby in his life at the time. He was, at the time, up for the renewal of his visa. The last thing they were going to look kindly on, if they chose to see it this way, was a bigamist with a mixed-race baby. So Obama Sr. would say that the baby was going to vanish and that baby would be the [future] president of the United States."

The Birth of Barack Obama Jr.

Of course, that baby didn't vanish. Shortly after Dunham gave birth to Barack Obama Jr. on Aug. 4, 1961, in Honolulu, she moved with him to Seattle. Obama Sr. stayed in Hawaii, leaving a year later to go to Harvard University for a graduate fellowship in economics. In 1964, Dunham filed for divorce. That same year, Obama Sr. returned to Kenya, which had just obtained its independence the year before, and got a job in management at Shell.

"Obama [Sr.] makes it less than a year," says Jacobs. "He wasn't fired exactly, but he was not asked back. So he left Shell and gets another potentially terrific job — this one at the Central Bank of Kenya. Again, he runs into trouble within months. He shows up late, he drinks on the job, he has to borrow money and he is asked to leave."

Sally H. Jacobs has been a reporter for more than 30 years, most recently with <em>The Boston Globe. </em>She specializes in  political reporting and profiles.
Angson C. Dhlakam /
Sally H. Jacobs has been a reporter for more than 30 years, most recently with The Boston Globe. She specializes in political reporting and profiles.

Obama Sr. returned to the U.S. in 1971 because his life was falling apart. A third wife was planning to leave him, he had no job and he had suffered massive injuries in a car accident. He spent a short amount of time with his son Barack Jr. in Hawaii and then returned to Kenya, where a second car crash cost him his legs. In 1982, Obama Sr. was in a third car accident and died from his injuries.

All of Obama Sr.'s children, Jacobs says, have had to come to terms with their complicated relationships with their father. Five of his children have written soul-searching memoirs about Obama Sr., including the president's 1995 memoir, Dreams from My Father.

"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," she says. "I think he would have had to wrestle with a neglectful father, an insecure person and someone who probably would have prevented him from following the path he close. In Dreams, you feel Obama Jr. struggling with [questions like] 'Who am I? What kind of a man am I? What will I be?' The person he comes out as is clearly very determined and rooted and a responsible person — everything that Obama Sr. was not."

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