Sunbeams streamed warmly through the elegant glass-ceiling courtyard of the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., in February, illuminating the thousands who gathered for the return of Michelle and Barack Obama to the public stage. Artists Amy Sherald and Kehinde Wiley unveiled their portraits of the former FLOTUS and POTUS, the ceremony feeling far more like an easygoing homecoming than a stodgy museum reveal.
Standing tall alongside the canvas of her greyscale portrait, flashing her wide smile and wearing a long-sleeved floral navy gown, Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama commanded as much love and attention as she ever did in her eight years in the White House. All hailed the forever mom-in-chief as she beamed.
The sold-out, superstar-sized stadiums of a 10-city tour for her new memoir proves that sunlit winter day was the barest of warm-ups. Becoming by Michelle Obama (published by the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House) traces her journey from the South Side of Chicago to her Harvard Law-educated tenure at Sidley Austin to America’s most beloved first lady and all points in-between: her White House vegetable garden and battle against childhood obesity; her Reach Higher and Let Girls Learn education initiatives; her style-iconic trio of Vogue covers; her relaxed appearances on Ellen and “Carpool Karaoke” (rapping breezily with Missy Elliott). Michelle Obama’s dignity and polish have been sorely missed since the Obamas’ exit from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, hence the Beyoncé-sized audiences for her book tour.
EBONY: What have you found most liberating about your post-White House life?
MICHELLE OBAMA: You know, it might be the amount of time I’m able to spend in jeans or workout pants. In the prologue of the book, I share an anecdote from the early months after we left the White House—it was just me and our two dogs, sitting outside, doing nothing. I’ve had more time to do that; to just exist in the world; to just be. I realize now that I may not have fully understood everything I was carrying around with me for a decade or so—all the duties and expectations, both from myself and from others, that surrounded me every single day. Writing this book gave me a chance to process all of that.
Barack’s had a chance to decompress as well. He doesn’t have to carry the weight of the world around with him anymore. No one’s following him around with the nuclear codes. Don’t get me wrong, we were incredibly blessed to [have lived] in the White House and serve the American people, and we were given opportunities to do good that we never would have thought possible for ourselves.
But I think eight years is about as long as somebody should live inside that bubble, especially somebody with a young family. It’s healthy for our lives to swing back toward something a little closer to normal. I’ve been able to go out to dinner in public more often. I’ve gone for long hikes in the mountains. I’ve still got a Secret Service detail with me all the time, but I’m able to move and live with more freedom, more lightness—and I’m not going to lie, I’m enjoying it.
EBONY: The world at large has tried its best to accept that you won’t run for office. But how seriously did you consider running for any political office at all, and what made you decide against it?
OBAMA: To be completely honest, I’ve never considered running for office—seriously or otherwise. Really. For me, deciding to run for office would be like deciding to live on the moon. Politics is just not the place for me. I’m not cut out to make a life there. It’s too chaotic, too messy, and the tribalism and nastiness aren’t something I want to experience day-to-day. I’m someone who prefers order and calm, and politics doesn’t offer that.
That said, I still care deeply about the future of the country. And after watching Barack serve for eight years, I believe more strongly than ever that we need good people leading us in elected office at every level—people not just with the necessary skills and intellect, but with the character and compassion to stand up for folks who don’t have a voice.
As I see it, though, there are a lot of other ways to contribute in our country: speaking out for people and causes that can use a boost, making sure everyone feels like they have a say in this democracy, advocating for young people. Those are some of the areas where I’ve devoted myself since I left the White House, and I’ll continue to do so in the years ahead. Because as I’ve always said, it’s not enough just to climb up the ladder and make a life for yourself—you’ve got to reach back and help others up along the way.
EBONY: Black women are often conditioned to uplift and adopt a save-the-world mentality, and the world often turns to Black women for rescue. (See Oprah for president.) Can you speak to where this stems from and why this Black-woman-as-savior/superhero idea is unfair?
OBAMA: First of all, I don’t think people should be turning to any one individual to save them from some outside force—unless that individual is themselves. If we’re frustrated about something, whether that’s in politics or in our communities or in our jobs, we need a lot more people to look at themselves for an answer before throwing all their hopes into someone else to save the day. We saw some of that while Barack was president. It’s a nice daydream to think that one person can do it all, but in the end it’s just that, a dream. It’s the hope that we can have everything we want without doing anything we don’t want to do. Unfortunately, the world doesn’t work that way.
As for why the world sometimes looks to Black women—and I have to say that I wish the world turned to Black women more often than it does—I think it’s because we’ve got a perspective all our own. If you’re growing up Black and female, you can’t help but learn what’s really going on down on the ground. You’re going to see a lot of the bottoms of people’s shoes coming down on you, so you learn to be nimble and resourceful. You learn to be grateful for whatever you have. You learn to find the good in things. From our vantage point as Black women, we spend a lot of time looking upward.
All of that—that hardened practicality and that loving optimism—filters into our voices as we grow older and more confident in ourselves. We become people who aren’t willing to sit idly by if something’s going wrong at home or at work. The trick is just that we need more people who are willing to listen to Black women, especially young Black women, to lift up our voices rather than shutting us down.
EBONY: As you describe in Becoming, a high school counselor once said you weren’t Princeton material. What can be done to bolster the self-confidence of young Black America to push back against those who want them to think small?
OBAMA: This is a good example of what I’m talking about. When I was a teenager, a high school counselor of mine took one look at me and decided I wouldn’t be able to cut it in the Ivy League. It’s one of those moments that, I realize now, could have broken me. I walked away from that meeting with a bruised ego. I wasn’t sure what to think about myself. My own brother had gotten into Princeton just two years earlier, but I now was being told—by someone whose job it was to support kids in this process, no less—that I wasn’t good enough?
What I did was channel that hurt into a singular focus on getting into Princeton and proving that counselor wrong. I studied hard and asked for help when I needed it. I put a lot of work into my college essays, and I shared my whole story: what it was like growing up with a dad who had multiple sclerosis, the fact that my parents didn’t have much money and hadn’t graduated from college. I didn’t shy away from any of it. And a few months later, I got in.
Now, I know I was lucky. I had a mom and a dad who gave me the skills to channel my frustration into something productive. They instilled in me a sense of my own worth, the belief that my goals were achievable. And most important, they taught me to focus on controlling the things I could control, and not to worry about the things I couldn’t. I knew that I couldn’t control what that counselor said to me any more than I could control if a mall cop hovered over my friends and me as we shopped in a department store. But I could control how I responded to that stuff. It’s pretty wise advice—as I’ve grown older, I’ve seen a lot more wisdom in my parents’ ways than I did as a teenager—and I think it probably would serve all of us well as we think about the things our kids are up against.
Because we can’t control other people’s expectations. Some folks are going to see a Black boy with a hoodie and think he’s a thug. Some folks are going to see a Black girl speaking up in class and think she’s too loud or too bossy. A lot of times, folks aren’t going to see those kids at all. We’ve come a long way since I was a kid, but all of that is still a cold truth in 2018.
The good news is that none of this is insurmountable. We’ve got to help our kids believe in their own stories—every part of those stories, the ups and the downs. We’ve got to show them that their strength is found in what’s so often perceived by society as a weakness. Their skin is too dark. Their family doesn’t make enough money. They live in a tough neighborhood. All of that is what makes them who they are, and it’s what can help them overcome the slights when they come. That doesn’t mean they’re going to be free from pain and from hurt. But if we can help them see the beauty in their stories, if we can keep their aspirations sky high, and if we can do it day after day and year after year, I think we’ll give them a boost that can help them brush off anybody who doubts them.
EBONY: What made you decide not to bicker at Princeton like your college friend, Suzanne Alele?
OBAMA: I think I should first help our readers understand what it means to “bicker,” because I certainly didn’t know when I arrived at Princeton as a kid from the South Side of Chicago. There was a whole new vocabulary for me to learn on campus; an entire language of privilege I hadn’t been exposed to. For instance, a lot of students came to campus already knowing the meaning of a term like “precept,” but when I first heard it, I mostly just smiled and nodded—just like I did when someone told me about their experience playing squash or lacrosse. The same goes for bickering. For all intents and purposes, I learned soon enough, bickering in an “eating club” was like rushing in a sorority or fraternity. At Princeton, they just called it something else.
Now, my friend Suzanne was a bright light in my life; someone whose smile and energy was infectious. She was messy, and I was clean. She was a free spirit, and I was always worried about my to-do list. Similarly, she clicked with all sorts of different people—and that meant she was more comfortable exploring the bickering process, which meant branching outside of our social circle of mostly African-American students. Meanwhile, I was content with the friends that I had. I knew they had my back, and I knew that I needed that kind of comfort and security to get through school. Suzanne was different from me, and that’s what made us friends.
Do I sometimes wish that I’d ventured outside of my comfort zone? Sure, a little. But the truth is, I was happy with my scene. Besides, we quickly realized that the few friends of ours who bickered (including, soon enough, Suzanne) didn’t end up spending much time at their eating clubs, anyway. They ended up eating with us. I guess we all gravitate toward those who make us feel like we belong; the people who make us feel like we’re home.
EBONY: You wrote that as first lady, you wanted to honor the legacies of Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth, Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King. Can you expand on that responsibility?
OBAMA: I tried to never let myself forget that I was blessed to live a life that those women never could have imagined, and that includes my life before I was first lady. I was a lawyer making a salary that would have made their heads spin. I led a nonprofit, rubbed elbows with the mayor and local philanthropists. I managed a department at a hospital and rallied a community for change. Whatever the slights and challenges I experienced along the way, I was walking a path that was far smoother than anything the women who came before me experienced. Because of their dignity and perseverance, I was able to take advantage of incredible opportunities.
And I’m not just talking about those role models we read about in textbooks and biographies. I wanted to do right by the women in my own life—my mother, who stayed home to raise my brother and me; my great-aunt Robbie, a schoolteacher who first taught me how to play piano; my grandmother LaVaughn, a gentle, quiet woman who ran a thriving Bible bookstore on the South Side with skill and grace. They were my role models, too. I knew that I was carrying all of their stories with me throughout my life and into the White House.
Sometimes I put all that on myself as pressure. I didn’t want to make a single mistake, partly because of how I’m constituted, but also because as the first Black first lady, I knew any mistake wouldn’t be perceived as just a reflection on me but on them, too. It was important to me to be a first lady who was worthy of following in all of their footsteps.
EBONY: How would you advise today’s Black Lives Matter movement in their struggle against racial ignorance and hatred?
OBAMA: I’d give them the same advice I’d give to anybody who wants to make a real change: You’ve got to vote. It isn’t enough just to march. It isn’t enough just to be woke. All of that’s important because you have to find ways to connect with people and get some attention on your cause. But if the folks going to those marches aren’t also marching to the polls when the time comes, they’re silencing their own voices. Being a voter is the way we truly make ourselves heard in this democracy. If you like what’s happening, you’ve got to turn out to make that known. If you’re looking for something to change, you’ve got to turn out to make that known, too. It’s true no matter who’s in the White House or whether we feel good or bad the morning after an election. If you aren’t voting—in every election, at every level—then you’re giving your power away to somebody else who’s willing to show up. And you might not like what they decide to do with that power.
The good news is, it feels like a lot of people already got the message. I’ve been encouraged by the stories of activists organizing in places like Cleveland and Philadelphia to vote local prosecutors into office who they felt would better represent their communities on issues of justice and equality. These are big, consequential steps that will make a difference in a lot of people’s lives. And it’s proof that the system can work—but it only works if we all show up to vote, in every election and at every level. So I hope they’re proud of those successes but not satisfied by them. Because we’ve still got a long, long way to go.
EBONY: The motto from your speech at the 2016 Democratic Convention—“When they go low, we go high”—became your most inspirational phrase. Is there another message you wished had become as universally praised and quoted?
OBAMA: As I mentioned, I try not to worry about things that I can’t control, and trying to figure out whether or not a line or a phrase is going to catch on is a great way to write a terrible speech.
But looking back, I’m glad that “We go high” took hold the way it did. I said it in the middle of a really difficult and combative campaign, and I think the country was hungry for something positive. It’s an idea that steadied Barack and me for many years, as all manner of smears and attacks came our way, a mantra we adopted to make sure that we didn’t stoop down to our detractors’ level. Even if it might feel good in the moment, we knew that over the long run, going low never works out. Everyone just ends up filthy.
We also thought that part of our responsibility as president and first lady was to exhibit a level of composure and integrity and set a good example for the country, especially for kids. We knew that kids were watching everything we did, and they’re not shy about asking questions: What’s that word mean? Why are they acting like that? Can I do that, too? I hoped that we could be an ally to every parent in this country, even if some of those parents didn’t agree with our politics. We tried to be our best selves. We tried to stay optimistic, as hard as it was sometimes. Because in the end, I think that’s the kind of country we all want to be a part of—one where we try to see the best in each other rather than automatically assuming the worst.
“I have to say that I wish the world turned to Black women more often than it does—I think it’s because we’ve got a perspective all our own.”
Photo credit: Miller Mobley
Hair: Yene Damtew
Makeup: Carl Ray