Michelle Obama and the Roots of Reinvention

How the First Lady learned to dream big.

By Geraldine Brooks
Photograph: Photo by: Matthew Rolston

The most detrimental characterization of Michelle Obama is as an angry black woman, a female version of the Obamas’ controversial former pastor, The Reverend Jeremiah Wright. To test this characterization, I read her a quote from James Baldwin that lodged in my mind the first time I read it. The white Southern novelist William Styron had drawn fire for trying to imagine the inner life of a black man in his novel The Confessions of Nat Turner. Baldwin, the great African-American writer, had come to his defense. "Each of us," Baldwin wrote, "helplessly and forever, contains the other. Male in female, black in white and white in black. We are part of each other."

I ask Michelle whether she believes that. She uncrosses her long legs and leans forward.

"I didn’t believe that as a child, no. Or as a teenager." At Princeton in the 1980s, she had remained somewhat aloof from the white students, partly by preference and partly because blacks weren’t welcome at the exclusive eating clubs that dominated campus social life. The family of her first roommate, a Southern white woman, had protested to the university administration because their daughter had been assigned to room with a black person.

Obama began to believe what Baldwin wrote only much later, she says, when her working life brought her in close contact with a wide range of people. "When you live in the world a bit more and you have more exposure to people and their values and their true souls, you make friends, you make enemies, you roll up your sleeves and work with people. You find out that our spirits are more connected. It’s just that we oftentimes don’t live and work and breathe together." When we do, she adds, "People who think they wouldn’t like someone of a different race always find someone they like and come to trust. And then they treat that person as the exception, when in fact [she] is probably more the rule."

She pauses for a moment, gathering her thoughts. "Trust has no color," she says emphatically. "I’ve come to realize that, and I think we’re beginning to realize that as a nation."

This faith, that people can change, is what fuels her, she says, and helps insulate her from the harshness of campaign scrutiny. Politics has taught her that "You don’t pay attention to the high highs or the low lows. And you embrace the positive," she adds. "If you talked to my mom, we were just raised like that."

Motherly Bonds

I had met her mother earlier that day. Marian Robinson, 71, still lives in the small liver-colored brick house in South Side Chicago where Michelle and her brother, Craig (now head basketball coach at Oregon State university), grew up, and where Michelle returned to live after completing degrees at Princeton and Harvard. Her father, Fraser, diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at 30, nevertheless worked as a pump operator for the city; Marian stayed home with the kids. Dropping in on the family for the first time, Barack said in his 2004 book, The Audacity of Hope, was like dropping in on the set of Leave It to Beaver.

"That’s very accurate," Robinson says, laughing, but at the same time making clear that she wasn’t a twinset-and-pearls mom like June Cleaver. Neither Marian nor Fraser went to college. On a city worker’s wages, they could afford to rent only limited space — one bedroom and one bath stretched to accommodate four. Today, there’s a daycare center next door and a gas station on the corner. It’s a decent neighborhood of working families, but the meaner streets of the South Side are only blocks away.

Michelle attended a nearby elementary school, but the local option for high school was grim: a troubled, failing school like so many in the inner cities. So she traveled 90 minutes each way by city bus to get to Whitney Young, a magnet high. Because the buses were crowded by the time they reached her stop, she would ride in the wrong direction for an additional half hour to get to the beginning of the route and secure a seat so that she could study.

That was typical, her mother recalls. "Michelle would do whatever it took. If she couldn’t tackle something from one end, she would go to the other end and tackle it."

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