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Mar.18, 2009

Vol. 109, No. 10


Mrs. Obama goes to Washington

From Chicago to Princeton to Pennsylvania Avenue, the interests that define Michelle Robinson Obama ’85 haven’t changed

By Peter Slevin ’78
Published in the March18, 2009, issue

First lady Michelle Obama ’85 listens to children at Mary’s Center, a community social-service center, in Washington in February.
Gerald Herbert/AP Images
First lady Michelle Obama ’85 listens to children at Mary’s Center, a community social-service center, in Washington in February.

It was Inauguration Day. The 44th president had just taken the oath of office, and his brother-in-law, Craig Robinson ’83, was checking out his sister’s new digs, better known as the White House. A staff member, one of 93 who work for the first family, gave Robinson and his wife, Kelly, a tour that took them to the Truman Balcony, overlooking the South Lawn and the Washington Monument beyond.

“We took in the view and the history. My wife and I were just shaking our heads,” Robinson says. “When you grow up in a place that’s one-bedroom, one-bath, you’re not thinking at any point, ‘My sister’s going to live in the White House,’ or ‘My mother’s going to live in the White House.’ ”

Live there they do, completing an improbable journey that took Michelle Obama ’85, the daughter of a city utility worker, from a small walkup in South Shore on Chicago’s South Side to the heart of American political power. Already, she is defining a role that reflects her outgoing, embracing personality and her eclectic interests, from education and social justice to fashion, the arts, and food.

Not 10 days into Barack Obama’s presidency, she was speaking at the White House about equal pay for women. Soon after, she was addressing cheering workers at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, urging them to find “a new level of passion and vigor.” A few days after that, she was telling teenagers at a Washington community health center that she and her husband “were kids like you who figured out one day that our fate was in our own hands.”

In barely a year, as Barack Obama’s presidential candidacy shot from quixotic to triumphant, Michelle Obama, 45, advanced from sending handwritten notes of gratitude to supporters in Iowa to appearing on magazine covers all over the world. Fashion writers ask if she will single-handedly revive American design. Women professionals wonder if she will influence a national discussion about balancing work and family. Scholars ponder how she will make the role of first lady her own.

From girlhood in Chicago to college at Princeton to professional life and presidential politics, one constant in the descriptions of Michelle Obama is her constancy. At a time when her roles and her responsibilities have expanded exponentially, her brother sees her as the same kid he grew up with. He feels confident that she can pull it off, even if the very fact of her new existence leaves him shaking his head.

“It felt like we were staying in someone else’s house,” he says of inauguration night at the White House, where he slept in the Lincoln Bedroom. “It didn’t feel like staying at my sister’s house ... Think about the different folks who have stayed overnight at the White House. It feels funny.”

Michelle LaVaughn Robinson grew up in a small apartment in South Shore, a working-class neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. “If you said it was 1,100 square feet,” her brother once commented, “I’d call you a liar.” Her father tended boilers for the city water department. Her mother stayed at home until Michelle was in high school. Michelle credits her parents’ steadfastness and strong example for keeping her grounded.

Fraser Robinson, as his children tell it, reported uncomplainingly to his blue-collar job despite a disheartening decline due to multiple sclerosis. Once a sportsman who boxed and swam, he depended in his final years on two canes to haul himself around. Yet his moral compass remained strong to the end. “I remember him saying you don’t want to do things because you’re worried about people thinking they’re right; you want to do the right things,” Craig Robinson said in a 2007 interview. “You grow up not worrying about what people think about you.”

Barack Obama has written that visiting the Robinsons was “like dropping in on the set of Leave It to Beaver.” As someone who felt he had “bloodlines scattered to the four winds” — he was born in Hawaii to a white mother from Kansas and a black father from Kenya — he found an anchor at the Robinsons’, where he said “there were uncles and aunts and cousins everywhere, stopping by to sit around the kitchen table and eat until they burst and tell wild stories and listen to Grandpa’s old jazz collection and laugh deep into the night.”

The children felt embraced.

“When you grow up as a black kid in a white world, so many times people are telling you — sometimes not maliciously, sometimes maliciously — you’re not good enough,” says Robinson, who last spring became Oregon State University’s head basketball coach. “To have a family, which we did, who constantly reminded you how smart you were, how good you were, how pleasant it was to be around you, how successful you could be, it’s hard to combat. Our parents gave us a little head start by making us feel confident.”

“It sounds so corny,” he adds, “but that’s how we grew up.”

Obama’s Princeton friends describe a woman who seemed impressively centered, even in her late teens. She graduated from a top Chicago public magnet school, and told audiences during the campaign that she was inspired to apply to Princeton because two years earlier, Craig had shown her it was possible. “Seeing him go was my first exposure to knowing that was something I could reach for. Nobody told me that I could go to Princeton,” Obama told a rapt audience at a Women for Obama rally at a Harlem community center in 2007. “I was No. 30 in a class of I-don’t-know-how-many people. We didn’t have resources ... didn’t have counselors who were pushing us to dream and to reach. And I saw my brother and I thought, well, shoot, I’m as smart as he is. If he can get in, I certainly can get in.”

She got in, arriving on campus in September 1981, barely a decade after women were first admitted, at a time when African-Americans represented just 8 percent of the class — 94 students out of 1,141. The lush setting, the gothic spires, and the undeniable prosperity, the conflicting senses of prejudice and possibility. It was a long way from South Shore.

“I have found that at Princeton, no matter how liberal and open-minded some of my white professors and classmates try to be toward me, I sometimes feel like a visitor on campus; as if I really didn’t belong,” Obama wrote in her sociology thesis, “Princeton-Educated Blacks and the Black Community.” “Regardless of the circumstances under which I interact with whites at Princeton, it often seems as if, to them, I will always be black first and a student second.”

Asked about her thesis more than two decades later, Obama said her experience would be recognizable to African-Americans in many settings. Working with her adviser, Walter Wallace, she spent her senior year exploring how black graduates coped and how Princeton influenced their choices. “One of the points I was making, which is a reality for black folks in majority-white environments, is [that] it is a very isolating experience — period,” Obama told PAW in 2007. “The question is, how do people deal with that isolation? Does it make you cling more to your own community or does it make you try to assimilate more?”

Sociology professor emeritus Marvin Bressler supervised Obama’s junior independent work and was close to Michelle and her brother. He describes her as disciplined and thoughtful, with an “impish sense of humor” and a sense of irony suited to the times. Knowing her then and seeing her now, he says he is “just awed by the distance she has traveled.”

Michelle’s challenges at Princeton, Bressler believes, were harder than those faced by her brother, who gained recognition as a two-time Ivy League basketball player of the year. “There existed in universities at that time,” Bressler says, “various competing strains of what an ideal minority should be. She had to make up her mind, in some sense, to what extent she regarded herself as black, as a woman, [or] simply as a person.”

“As students of color, we kind of went through a gauntlet,” says Hilary Beard ’84, a Philadelphia writer and Princeton friend of Obama’s. “I grew up around a lot of white people. What was new to me was to be around white people who had had so little exposure to people of color. I was suddenly confronted with negative assumptions about me and people who looked like me that I had never encountered before. It was shocking.”

Ken Bruce ’83 says Obama’s observation about being seen as black first and a student second was “about right.” In class, he remembers being a rare black engineer. On party nights, he remembers being on Prospect Avenue, where white students “would say things. They would shout things. They wouldn’t give you space on the sidewalk. It was almost like they felt a sense of ownership and they felt we were supplementary guests.”

Post Comments
3 Responses to Mrs. Obama goes to Washington

Ricardo Fernandez, Harvard '77 Says:

2009-03-20 11:16:49

It is a delicate balancing act to engage in journalism while producing a testimonial, but surely the Chicago bureau chief of the Washington Post and Princeton alumnus Peter Slevin should have been up to the task... So, we are told that Michelle Obama earned $300,000 a year in her position as a liaison between the University of Chicago hospitals and "the community." One suspects that is not a reference to the Hyde Park community, which hardly needs a liaison, but to the economically depressed and socially dysfunctional, high-crime community that exists partly within and around the rarefied Hyde Park (Jackson Park-Englewood). We learn also that this community distrusts the university. But at $300,000 a year to "bridge the gap" with the needy, is it really a fair statement on Michelle Obama's part to say that the university "distrusts" the community? Does not the very existence of the position she occupied--among other outreach efforts--belie that characterization? We learn that Mrs. Obama speaks compassionately and often of "the least of these"--but not why that phrase from the Gospel of St. Matthew apparently does not extend to the littlest humans in the womb who would be stripped of all legal protection if the radical abortion-on-demand agenda of the Freedom of Choice Act, which her husband supports, were enacted. We learn of her concern for greater diversity at the elite Lab School in Hyde Park, where her daughters were enrolled before entering the Sidwell Friends School in Washington DC. But not why it is that the termination of school vouchers enabling mostly poor black school children in the nation's capital to attend better private schools rather than be consigned to the failing public school system--as Sasha and Malia have been able to do--is a reflection of concern for the least among us, or a manifestation of being our brother's keeper. It is at the least a sign of intellectual honesty--from the perspective of journalism--to raise these contradictions, or seeming contradictions. It would, of course, strike a discordant note in an uncritical testimonial or admiring profile written for a sympathetic audience.

Dorene Cornwell '85 Says:

2009-03-25 10:57:22

Full disclosure: Michelle Obama and I may have breathed the same air at an event or two, but I did not know her while at Princeton. I once saw a cartoon of Ron and Nancy Reagan alongside Mikhail and Raisa Gorbachev. In the cartoon, the Gipper is saying to Nancy something like "Don't worry honey, I'll get you a PhD in philosophy in the morning." As a member of the class of 1985, I think it's wonderful that no one is ever going to have reason to write that kind of cartoon about Michelle Obama. More to the point, I do not get the previous commenter's issue about $300,000 healthcare executive salaries. If other healthcare executives routinely earn that much or more being liaisons to their particular communities, however, dysfunctional those communities may be, why would it not be appropriate for Michelle Obama also to make that kind of money? That point is not necessarily an opinion about whether any healthcare executive should be earning that much money, but that would be a different problem. I also think work as a healthcare executive is considerably more respectable than some of the work done in recent years in the overleveraged world of speculation and chasing financial bubbles.

Clifford Bryan Says:

2009-08-31 10:28:13

Michelle Obama is a wonderful First Lady.
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