Before Michelle Obama was the First Lady, a position defined by partnership and parenting, she was a career woman with twenty successful years under her belt before her husband dreamed of running the country. In fact, when Barack pitched her the idea, he had to enlist her family to convince her. Peter Slevin, author of Michelle Obama: A Life, told Jezebel: “What Michelle’s mother Marian Robinson said to her son Craig when he talked about Barack’s idea of running for president, is ‘Well, OK, but I don’t think you’ll be able to talk your sister into it.’”
In this newly released biography, the former Washington Post journalist and current associate professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism gives readers an in-depth look at America’s FLOTUS—starting at the Great Migration, and leaving no stone unturned.
What made you pinpoint Michelle Obama’s family history as a starting point for your book?
As I followed Michelle Obama around the country and saw her in action while writing for the Post, I thought: this is a woman who deserves a book in which she’s the center of the narrative and not just the wife of the more famous Barack Obama. So I went into her family history, and the history of her hometown Chicago, which was fascinating from beginning to end.
Chicago’s Great Migration history, which made it a great metropolis and such an important place socially, culturally and politically—particularly with the decline of the Harlem Renaissance—was the key to understanding Michelle’s family and Michelle. She grew up extremely close to her mother, father and a large extended family on the city’s South Side. She knew her grandparents very well, three of whom had come in the Great Migration. She saw what they went through and their family stories became a very important part of her.
How do you think that history plays into her role as FLOTUS?
There’s a very clear line from Michelle’s upbringing on the South Side to her experiences in college and law school at Princeton and then at Harvard, where she confronted these questions of obligation and purpose. Her friends describe conversations where they would be sitting around in the black law student organization offices in the basement of a Harvard building and asking themselves “What does it mean to be a black lawyer? What role do we and the law play in making a difference when we get out?” Her friend Verna Williams, who’s now a Cincinnati College of Law professor, said, “It’s not just about us here at Harvard and it can not be just about us when we get out.”
In answer to your question, Michelle is working very hard to un-stack the deck. She recognizes that opportunity in American society is grossly unequal and she’s doing what she can to make things just a bit better.
And not just socially but health-wise too.
I do not remember Bess Truman hula-hooping on the White House lawn and I don’t think it was Barbara Bush who said “Black girls rock! We rock!”
There was some controversy around Mrs. Obama’s speech during BET’s Black Girls Rock award show—there seems to be a question of how black the country is comfortable with the FLOTUS being, right?
That was the fascinating part of writing this book. There are so many layers to who Michelle Obama is and how people in American society perceive her. When she said “black girls rock,” she was saying what she says to audiences all over the country. In many ways, the book is all about that statement. It’s about the role she sees herself playing on the national stage. And she’s been a mentor since high school. Her message has always been that, “You need to believe in yourself, be who you want to be, don’t let anyone stand in your way, don’t let anyone put you down and if you want some evidence, look at me.”
At the heart of Michelle Obama’s message is the power of her own trajectory.
From Chicago’s South Side to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Right. Now, can every little black girl in America be Michelle? Probably not. She had a lot of advantages. But she’s saying that you can seize your opportunities.
She learned lessons, growing up. She had two grandfathers who knew racism and prejudice and how it could hold them back. One of her grandfathers, who came from Georgetown, South Carolina, had great ambitions. When he got to Chicago, he had trouble finding work; he left the family for awhile and joined the military. He came back and became a postal worker. Michelle said, about him, “If my grandfather had been born white, he’d have been a bank president.”
Another grandfather couldn’t get a high-paying job—let’s say as a carpenter—because he wasn’t allowed to join a labor union. It was for whites only. But that same man who was unable to become a bank president told Michelle, “Your destiny is not written the day you were born.” In other words, recognize that the deck is stacked, but don’t let it get you down. Get your education, get on with it and you can be who you want to be. In Chicago, she became a force on the South Side quite apart from Barack’s career.
Speaking of her success, what surprised me most about the book was President Obama enlisting Mrs. Obama’s brother Craig to talk her into his presidential bid. She was not thrilled about Obama running for president.
No, she was not. This would not have been her first choice. She once said to Barack when he was a pretty anonymous state senator, “You know Barack. this profession is not noble.” She felt it was time for him to get on with his life. Running for president is this whole other world: as Gwen Ifill wrote in 2009, the Obamas had no idea what they were in for. Michelle said she “took myself down every dark road [she] could imagine” in trying to decide whether to give Barack’s run for the presidency the go-ahead. Her friends told me that she had veto power, and if she’d said, “Sorry Barack we’re not doing this, it wouldn’t have happened.”
You wrote that she’s the “string to his helium balloon” and was the financial benefactor to his plans. The story where Obama’s credit card was turned down at the Democratic National Conference and then he came home to her fuming, saying something like, “Great, why don’t you watch our daughters, I have stuff to do,” was great.
Right. “OK Mr. Fancy Pants…”
It was also interesting that her mother Mrs. Robinson didn’t want to move into the White House either. All of the Robinsons seemed to say “Man, do we have to?”
I think that’s very much in keeping with the humor and groundedness of the family. One of the stories I love from the book was when I went to Harvard to talk with Michelle’s old professors and look through old yearbooks. And it’s a big deal to graduate from Harvard Law, so there were all these parents who say glorious things about the pride they have in their children and this is the greatest accomplishment in the history of the universe and her parents write, “Michelle, we always knew this was gonna happen 15 years ago when we could never get you to shut up!”
Attending a magnet high school, Princeton and Harvard changed her ambitions. But originally, Michelle wanted to be a mom. She said, “I saw my mother and I wanted to be like that.” Mrs. Robinson was a stay-at-home mother until Michelle and Craig were in high school. From the way Michelle talks about the role her mother plays in the White House, and from the stories that her friends and the President tell of her—Michelle is driven to be terrific at everything, yet she talks about feeling vulnerable.
It must be a great balance to have Mrs. Robinson in the White House.
This week, when asked what she’d really like to do, Michelle said, “I would like to drive in a car with the window down.” Just think about how strange their lives are right now.
I love that Mrs. Robinson is the one who can slip out of the White House without security and when people see her, they say “Wow, you look just like the grandmother-in-chief” and she’ll say “A lot of people say that” and keep walking.
What she also says is that a lot of people don’t recognize her because, “well, they don’t see us,” meaning white people don’t see us.
That’s probably true. She was initially wary of President Obama’s biracial ethnicity when the couple began dating?
Marian Robinson is a member of her generation, she was born in the 1930s. But she also got over that hesitation quickly. She was worried it would make life just a bit harder for their children Malia and Sasha. But she grew to adore Barack.
Like her mother, Michelle seemed wary of the President at another time: around their engagement, when he was dragging his heels.
I love that scene. Anyone who knew Michelle Robinson at the time knew that saying “Gosh Miche, it’s just a piece of paper” was not going to go over really well. And Barack tells this wonderful story that you saw in the book: she was haranguing him at a fancy dinner and he’d arranged ahead of time to have the engagement ring presented with the dessert. When it arrived, he said, “Well, that kinda shuts you up doesn’t it?” There’s a lot of humor in that partnership.
In A Life, you wrote about but didn’t name an issue the Obamas agreed upon in private but the President didn’t endorse publicly—a move the FLOTUS disagreed with. Was that issue gay marriage?
Yes, you’re absolutely right. Michelle had done outreach to the gay and lesbian community early in her career when she was standing in for Barack. And Barack himself had been very much in favor of gay rights and marriage as early as 1996, but he didn’t say that when he was running for president, did he? It’s pretty clear that he felt that he could not. His advisors certainly believed that he was pulling his punches.
And it sounds like Mrs. Obama thought he was too?
Michelle is very pragmatic. I assume she understood that he was making a political calculation and in due course, it would all work out. Which it did. She’s so supportive of his career and he’s said how much he relies on her to recognize what’s true and what actual people are thinking. I spoke with their friend Marty Nesbitt, a close friend of President Obama’s in Chicago, and he said that “Michelle is the most do-what’s-right person in Barack’s circle.”
What do you see as the FLOTUS’ legacy in the feminist canon?
That’s a question for you to answer, in a way. How people answer that question will depend on where they sit. It’s hard to imagine a consensus. Opinions about Michelle among women are very divided, even as they are broadly positive. Some people say “Why is it that this incredibly talented Princeton and Harvard educated woman is not saying or doing more?” Others say “Give her a break” and lean way back as Brittney Cooper wrote at Salon in response to Milton Michelle Cottle’s critical piece in Politico.
You’ve mentioned that the amount of hateful comments people have posted online about the FLOTUS online were surprising too.
The depth of them is shocking and just horrible, but not surprising. There’s a section, maybe around chapter 13 or so where, instead of just mentioning what’s happening in general, I highlight named individuals who share these photoshopped images or racist jokes. They are players, men—of course they’re men—but I tried to call them out a little bit.
Image via Knopf and Getty.
Contact the author at Hillary@jezebel.com.