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The Story of Barack Obama's Mother

Barack Obama and his mother
(Left to right): Jim Cole / AP; Maxine Boxer
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The exception was Ann, the quiet young woman in the corner who began to hang out with Obama and his friends that fall. "She was scarcely out of high school. She was mostly kind of an observer," says Abercrombie. Obama Sr.'s friends knew he was dating a white woman, but they made a point of treating it as a nonissue. This was Hawaii, after all, a place enamored of its reputation as a melting pot.

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But when people called Hawaii a "melting pot" in the early 1960s, they meant a place where white people blended with Asians. At the time, 19% of white women in Hawaii married Chinese men, and that was considered radical by the rest of the nation. Black people made up less than 1% of the state's population. And while interracial marriage was legal there, it was banned in half the other states.

When Ann told her parents about the African student at school, they invited him over for dinner. Her father didn't notice when his daughter reached out to hold the man's hand, according to Obama's book. Her mother thought it best not to cause a scene. As Obama would write, "My mother was that girl with the movie of beautiful black people playing in her head."

On Feb. 2, 1961, several months after they met, Obama's parents got married in Maui, according to divorce records. It was a Thursday. At that point, Ann was three months pregnant with Barack Obama II. Friends did not learn of the wedding until afterward. "Nobody was invited," says Abercrombie. The motivations behind the marriage remain a mystery, even to Obama. "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?" Obama wonders. "I suppose, had she not passed away, I would have asked more."

Even by the standards of 1961, she was young to be married. At 18, she dropped out of college after one semester, according to University of Hawaii records. When her friends back in Washington heard the news, "we were very shocked," says Box, her high school friend.

Then, when Obama was almost 1, his father left for Harvard to get a Ph.D. in economics. He had also been accepted to the New School in New York City, with a more generous scholarship that would have allowed his family to join him. But he decided to go to Harvard. "How can I refuse the best education?" he told Ann, according to Obama's book.

Obama's father had an agenda: to return to his home country and help reinvent Kenya. He wanted to take his new family with him. But he also had a wife from a previous marriage there—a marriage that may or may not have been legal. In the end, Ann decided not to follow him. "She was under no illusions," says Abercrombie. "He was a man of his time, from a very patriarchal society." Ann filed for divorce in Honolulu in January 1964, citing "grievous mental suffering"—the reason given in most divorces at the time. Obama Sr. signed for the papers in Cambridge, Mass., and did not contest the divorce.

Ann had already done things most women of her generation had not: she had married an African, had their baby and gotten divorced. At this juncture, her life could have become narrower—a young, marginalized woman focused on paying the rent and raising a child on her own. She could have filled her son's head with well-founded resentment for his absent father. But that is not what happened.

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