When you’re First Lady, America shows itself to you in its extremes.
Michelle Obama’s life has had so many facets already: two Ivy League degrees, a successful career in corporate law, vice president of a hospital, nonprofit director, not to mention a mother, a role she cherishes. And then she became the First Lady of the United States, a different kind of role nothing could have adequately prepared her for, but which she approached and handled with complete grace and the immense intelligence, compassion, and drive she’d been cultivating her entire life. She’s used to adapting, she reminds us, because of how often her carefully charted life path, her “box ticking”, has shifted and caused her to become something new.
And when it ends, when you walk out the door that last time from the world’s most famous address, you’re left in many ways to find yourself again.
The book begins with Michelle’s childhood on Chicago’s South Side, before white flight had dramatically altered the neighborhood’s demographics. Through detailed anecdotes and scenes from her close-knit family and school life, even her piano lessons, she shows her values in development. At first, I wondered at the specificity of some of these, what they served besides vividly painting scenes from a life. The depth of the stories she’s telling, and how they fit together to guide her through the experiences life threw at her, only hit me later. Her storytelling is something to turn over in your thoughts. She imparts such meaningful wisdom from things that seem so simple on the surface.
The latter part of the book, which follows the Obamas’ experiences acclimating to life in the White House, was really a delight. I loved seeing it all through Michelle’s eyes, getting to experience it through her clear, funny, perceptive voice. It made me happy to see each little (yet massive) triumph she managed. Life there doesn’t sound easy. She laments not being able to open windows for fresh air, or enjoy having a balcony without involving the Secret Service and shutting down part of a public street.
Motherhood and family are at her center, areas where she refused to let politics and inhabiting the public sphere interfere, or at least as little as possible. In raising her girls, she acknowledges the privileges being in the White House allowed them to enjoy: When Malia became interested in filmmaking, she sidled up to Steven Spielberg at a dinner party and picked his brain, coming away with an internship offer. Yet Michelle watched Malia’s tennis matches through the smoked glass of a Secret Service vehicle, not cheering from the stands, so as not to cause disruptions. It’s clear how much of a trade-off it’s been.
Sometimes the anecdotes are impossibly delightful – like the image of Barack meeting Malia’s prom date wearing flip flops. But then there are the uglier and sadder moments of her husband’s presidency. She doesn’t shy from addressing these – issues of race and violence, especially.
Visiting a South Side school in a neighborhood plagued by gun violence, she tried to do what she could, having already described the glacial pace of certain political change and the stubborn resistance much of it is met with. It’s not enough to just want and advocate for change.
I will never pretend that words or hugs from a First Lady alone can turn somebody’s life around or that there’s any easy path for students trying to navigate everything that those kids at Harper were dealing with. No story is that simple … I was there to push back against the old and damning narrative about being a black urban kid in America, the one that foretold failure and then hastened its arrival. If I could point out those students’ strengths and give them some glimpse of a way forward, then I would always do it.
I was surprised, maybe because of the confident persona she projects, to learn that she doubted herself, that she repeatedly questioned whether she was enough. She had an internal call and response to this, always quietly answering “Yes I am.” The simultaneous vulnerability and strength she shows is powerful.
I can’t imagine this was an easy book to write. She’s honest and revealing beyond what I expected. Neither can I imagine having gone through what she has – being ridiculed and derided on the most public stage for the silliest, pettiest, and most offensive things, and still to write something so deeply revealing of herself. Her character and resilience astound me.
And her intelligence is fierce, as when she places some of the most offensive slings made against her into historical context and breaks them down analytically, making the impact of what she had to endure that much more painful, laid bare with how it felt and what it meant to her. “When Barack finally clinched the Democratic nomination, I’d greet him with a playful fist bump onstage … interpreted by one Fox commentator as a “terrorist fist jab,” again suggesting that we were dangerous. A news chyron on the same network had referred to me as “Obama’s Baby Mama,” conjuring clichéd notions of black-ghetto America, implying an otherness that put me outside even my own marriage.”
She returns to this topic of being “other” in America, how she knew that perception was pinned on her and her family in the White House. The way she handled it, showing her inner thought process and how carefully, gracefully, she navigated, was remarkable. I’m sorry that she even had to.
As the only African American First Lady to set foot in the White House, I was “other” almost by default. If there was a presumed grace assigned to my white predecessors, I knew it wasn’t likely to be the same for me. I’d learned through the campaign stumbles that I had to be better, faster, smarter, and stronger than ever. My grace would need to be earned.
I was female, black, and strong, which to certain people, maintaining a certain mind-set, translated only to “angry.” It was another damaging cliché, one that’s been forever used to sweep minority women to the perimeter of every room, an unconscious signal not to listen to what we’ve got to say.
Her life is inspiring, absolutely, but it’s more than that: she tells one story of her mother brushing off Michelle and her brother Craig’s successes when people praise them for coming from the South Side and achieving what they have, saying there were lots of kids there doing the same. It wasn’t downplaying her children’s achievements, rather acknowledging how many are striving like they did, only needing opportunities. Michelle’s done something so valuable in showing how she reached some of those opportunities, what possibilities exist even when the world says otherwise.
The important parts of my story, I was realizing, lay less in the surface value of my accomplishments and more in what undergirded them—the many small ways I’d been buttressed over the years, and the people who’d helped build my confidence over time. I remembered them all, every person who’d ever waved me forward, doing his or her best to inoculate me against the slights and indignities I was certain to encounter in the places I was headed—all those environments built primarily for and by people who were neither black nor female.
There’s not much more I can say beyond sharing her words, because they’re powerful, deeply meaningful, and have implications that reach so far. This is a woman who’s achieved, and been through, so much and often not even been allowed credit for it, but who just keeps going, always building, creating, improving her surroundings, becoming something more. It’s an important, joyful, hopeful book laced with humor, romance, and a constant undercurrent of strength. Required reading.
“You don’t really know how attached you are until you move away, until you’ve experienced what it means to be dislodged, a cork floating on the ocean of another place.”
“For better or worse, I’d fallen in love with a man with a vision who was optimistic without being naive, undaunted by conflict, and intrigued by how complicated the world was. He was strangely unintimidated by how much work there was to be done.”
“For more than six years now, Barack and I had lived with an awareness that we ourselves were a provocation. As minorities across the country were gradually beginning to take on more significant roles in politics, business, and entertainment, our family had become the most prominent example. Our presence in the White House had been celebrated by millions of Americans, but it also contributed to a reactionary sense of fear and resentment among others. The hatred was old and deep and as dangerous as ever.
We lived with it as a family, and we lived with it as a nation. And we carried on, as gracefully as we could.”
“We grow up with messages that tell us that there’s only one way to be American—that if our skin is dark or our hips are wide, if we don’t experience love in a particular way, if we speak another language or come from another country, then we don’t belong. That is, until someone dares to start telling that story differently.”
by Michelle Obama
published November 13, 2018 by Crown