“When I was a kid, my aspirations were simple. I wanted a dog. I wanted a house that had stairs in it—two floors for one family. I wanted, for some reason, a four-door station wagon instead of the two-door Buick that was my father’s pride and joy.”
Simple beginnings indeed for one of the most admired First Ladies of the United States. In these memoirs, we follow her as she discovers who she is and as her world begins to widen.
Michelle Robinson Obama came from a happy home. The Robinsons did not believe in dictating to their children. Instead, they were treated as adults, and encouraged and supported. Michelle grew up in the South Side of Chicago, which used to be a mixed-race neighbourhood when she and her brother were children. Over the years, people started to leave, and not just the white families, but anyone with the means to move. “Decline can be a hard thing to measure, especially when you’re in the midst of it.” The South Side became known for drugs and violence, but the Robinsons stayed put.
There was no escaping racial discrimination in the US. Her grandfather, Dandy, came of age during the Great Depression and moved to Chicago. But jobs were hard to come by. He wanted to train as an electrician, but to do this—or work as a steelworker, carpenter or plumber—you needed a union card and, as a black man, the chances of your getting one were low. He eventually gave up on college and found work as a handyman. The American Dream seemed only to work for some.
Michelle was accepted into Princeton in spite of her school counsellor saying she was not “Princeton material”.
In Princeton, Michelle discovered what it was like to be one of the few black people on campus. “[I]t was impossible to be a black kid at a mostly white school and not feel a shadow of affirmative action. You could almost read the scrutiny in the gaze of certain students and even some professors, as if they wanted to say, ‘I know why you’re here.’” This was demoralizing and fed into her doubts about herself: was she good enough?
Eventually, Michelle returned to Chicago and joined a high-end law firm called Sidley & Austin. It was a long way for a girl from the South Side. As she tells herself: “You used to pass it as a South Side kid riding the bus to high school, peering mutely out the window at the people who strode like titans to their jobs. Now you’re one of them. You’ve worked your way out of that bus and across the plaza and onto an upward elevator so silent it seems to glide. You’ve joined the tribe.”
But her life was about to change.
She was asked to mentor a summer associate called Barack Obama. On their first meeting, he was late, something that was anathema for a punctual woman like Michelle. The rest, as they say, is history.
After marriage, the Obamas juggled jobs and children, especially when Barack decided to run for political office. This was not easy. She had to find time to help him in his campaign. Her description of the campaigning—whether for Senate or the presidency—is really interesting: the constant travel, meeting with people all over the country, and the importance of image. She was criticized by some for not being a “normal” campaign wife, in other words, someone with a “painted-on smile and the adoring gaze”.
And there was a price to pay: “as my visibility as Barack Obama’s wife rose, the other parts of me were dissolving from view. When I spoke to reporters, they rarely asked about my work. They inserted ‘Harvard-educated’ in their description of me, but generally left it at that.”
After Barack’s election as US President, we also get a close look at life in the White House with its constant pressure and high visibility. Michelle writes about her attempts to keep things as normal as possible for their daughters in a situation that was far from normal: after all, how many children are escorted to school by the US Secret Service?
She cares deeply about children. Her campaign “Let’s Move!” aimed to end childhood obesity within a generation. One of the hardest moments for the Obamas during the presidency was the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, where 20 children were killed.
Michelle comes across in her book as thoughtful and grounded. She is also funny. In a receiving line with Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, Michelle admired the Queen’s efficiency as she moved people along “with economic, friendly hellos that left no room for follow-up conversation”. Barack, on the other hand, “projected an amiable looseness, almost inviting chitchat and then ponderously answering people’s questions, thereby messing up the flow of the line. All these years after meeting the guy, I was still trying to hurry him up.”
As is clear from the quotes used in this review, Michelle’s writing is eloquent, moving and lyrical. This paragraph at the end of the book sums up, for me, what she is about:
“In sharing my story, I hope to help create space for other stories and other voices, to widen the pathway for who belongs and why. … For every door that has been opened to me, I’ve tried to open my door to others. And here is what I have to say, finally: Let’s invite one another in. Maybe then we can begin to fear less, to make fewer wrong assumptions, to let go of the biases and stereotypes that unnecessarily divide us. … It’s not about being perfect. It’s not about where you get yourself in the end. There’s a power in allowing yourself to be known and heard, in owning your unique story, in using your authentic voice. And there’s grace in being willing to know and hear others. This, for me, is how we become.”
 I’m going to use the Obamas’ first names throughout the review for the sake of clarity.