In her new memoir, Becoming, former First Lady Michelle Obama gives an inside look into her youth, her public life, and her family: feeling like an outsider at Princeton; her and her husband’s fertility struggles; lessons from the campaign trail; never forgiving Donald Trump for his birtherism claims against her husband. She also reflects on her childhood on Chicago’s South Side, which included block parties and backyard BBQs with her extended and local family of grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins.
WBEZ’s Natalie Moore sat down with Michelle Obama on the eve of her book tour launch to talk about growing up in South Shore, and the people who raised her.
Listen to Natalie Moore’s one-on-one interview with former first last Michelle Obama here.
Michelle Obama: We are people of Chicago on both sides of my family. We have southern roots. South Side. My maternal grandfather was from Alabama and Dandy, who’s my paternal grandfather, came from South Carolina. So like most Chicagoans, our roots were in the south.
Natalie Moore: As a child you notice the transformation of your neighborhood — white flight, segregation. How did that shape our impact your identity as a black South Side girl?
Obama: You know I didn’t realize what was happening when I was young. It was only reflecting back over the years that I realized what was going on that slowly, literally the white people in my life were disappearing overnight. And I put in two pictures in the book just to show the stark difference of my kindergarten class or first grade class. It’s a very diverse picture. You know we had Mexican kids … South Korean kids and I mean it was a mixture of everything. By eighth grade in that same school, there were no white kids. I would come to realize that they were all moving south because of, you know, the pernicious fear of black people like us moving into the neighborhood and the neighborhood becoming a ghetto. And now again those weren’t things that I thought about at the time but you could feel it.
Moore: We’re sitting in Whitney M. Young (Magnet High School) right now and I remember reading you talk about wondering if you belonged here. The same with Princeton. How did you work through that self-doubt and say ‘you know what, I do belong here’?
Obama: It took a while. It took a moment. […] So I landed on this campus—Princeton is one of the most Ivy of the Ivy League. Very wealthy, very elite. Kids arriving to campus in limousines. But it wasn’t just Princeton, it was college in general. Just the language of college. … It was like learning another language. You know for me what I did was I tried to recreate a community of comfort for myself and I did that by pretty much staying very close to the black community that was there. It was a place of comfort for me in this bastion, I call it. I was a poppy seed in a sea of whiteness. But this isn’t something that I encourage kids to do what I did. You know I kind of just stayed with my community and I think I missed out on a lot at Princeton.
Moore: So then you got to Harvard Law School you’re a corporate lawyer you’re living in upwardly mobile buppie life, happy hours, but you didn’t feel fulfilled in you used this term a lot in the book: when someone takes a swerve. What was your swerve?
Obama: Whoo! I think my first swerve—I had many swerves. I learned to swerve. The White House was probably my biggest swerve. Politics with my husband was a big, huge swerve. But the first baby swerve was sort of recognizing that I had been building my life up until that point based on things I thought I was supposed to do, but never taking the time to think about the things that I cared about or wanted to do. So I had landed a wonderful job as a lawyer in a big corporate firm, but I didn’t want to be a lawyer and I had never taken time to think about why I was going to law school. That was just the next step. And meeting Barack Obama […] and falling in love with him and having somebody in your life that you cared about that influenced you and encouraged you to take some risks and helped me begin to start my swerve and to leave the law and to start going into public service and working for the government. But I don’t think I would have had the courage to completely do that as quickly as I did without him.
Moore: Work-life balance is something that women before you have struggled with, women after you are going to continue to struggle with. But at one point in your marriage you thought about your own agency and creating your own happiness. What was that like?
Obama: One of the things I learned in marriage is that two individuals leading separate lives and coming together—you know, when important and necessary and when there’s time—works really well until you have kids. We were starting to feel that rub and we needed to take a moment to kind of think about how we got here and what we’re going to do. And over the course of our counselling, one of the things I learned through counseling was that I was responsible for my happiness. First and foremost. Barack can love me but I have to decide in my life what I want and I can’t wait for permission from him or even his agency to help me do it.
Moore: What was the hardest thing about writing this book? How vulnerable did you allow yourself to be on the pages?
Obama: You know, I am a pretty open book. Over the years I’ve become comfortable and proud of my entire life. Not just the high points but the bumps and the bruises; I’ve had to learn how to make sense of all of that in order to get to this place. So, for me, that process is part of the story. I also think it’s important as someone who’s viewed as a role model to young people that they get the whole truth. I just don’t think it’s fair for us to sit on our role model pedestals and pretend like this was easy or that we didn’t struggle. You know, kids need to hear, ‘Yes I failed the bar the first time.’ Take that in, everyone: Michelle Obama failed something. You know? Michelle Obama feels hurt. Michelle Obama feels fear. And the hope is that that gives so many others the permission to feel those feelings and to know it’s not the end of the world, that it’s part of that journey of becoming.
Click play above to hear about Natalie’s experience at “An Intimate Conversation with Michelle Obama.”