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The Making of a First Lady

She’s confident and levelheaded, and she carries the nurturing legacy of a close-knit South Shore family, an experience she wanted to re-create in her own home. After years of resenting her husband’s political career, Michelle Obama found her voice and flashed her style on the road to the White House

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Michelle with Barack near the close of the primaries last February
Michelle with Barack near the close of the primaries last February  more photos »

 

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From October 2004: Native Chicagoan Michelle Obama married a skinny kid with a funny name. She’s keeping it real.

Michelle’s father, Fraser Robinson III, was born in 1935 and for 30 years maintained the boilers and pumps at a water-filtration plant, eventually becoming a foreman. His work as a precinct captain for Mayor Richard J. Daley was key to keeping his job and being promoted. He didn’t make much, but the family managed on Fraser’s salary, and Michelle’s mother, Marian, stayed home to rear their children.

The Robinsons lived in a one-bedroom apartment in South Shore—a neighborhood that had changed from all white to all black in the late sixties—on the top floor of a brick bungalow rented from Marian’s aunt. Michelle and her brother, Craig, older by two years, shared the apartment’s living room, which was divided by paneling to create separate bedrooms.

Fraser became progressively disabled by multiple sclerosis, but his determination to dress himself and go to work every morning impressed his children. He walked with two canes and eventually used a motorized cart. “He was my rock,” Michelle has said. Disappointing their father, his children say, was about the worst thing they could imagine. As a boy, Arne Duncan, formerly head of the Chicago Public Schools and recently chosen as Obama’s secretary of education, played basketball with Craig. “Family means everything to the Robinsons,” Duncan says. (Fraser died in 1991, at the age of 56, as he was preparing to leave for work.)

Michelle and Craig attended the neighborhood school, then called Bryn Mawr Elementary, at 73rd Street and Jeffery Boulevard. Both skipped second grade, and Michelle graduated as a salutatorian in 1977. Michelle’s teachers recommended that she attend Whitney M. Young Magnet High School on the West Side, the first magnet school in the Chicago public system.

“We were looking for the top kids we could find,” says Charles Mingo, then an assistant principal at the school, “and the elementary schools referred their top kids to us.” The Robinsons knew that Michelle was mature and ambitious and could handle the transition to a racially mixed school—though she would know virtually no one at the start and would have to ride the CTA an hour and a half each way. 

The plan was for Whitney Young to be 40 percent black, 40 percent Caucasian, and 20 percent others, but it was about 70 percent African American when Michelle arrived. It drew students from all over the city, and members of Michelle’s class of 1981 recall it as largely colorblind, with students united by their ambition and intelligence. “Black students were able to achieve in leadership roles along with white students,” recalls Joe Dudley Jr., a black classmate and friend of Michelle’s.

One white classmate has a different recollection. In an e-mail, Robert Behar, now a physician, wrote that “many of the African American members of the class were very focused on injustice and racism in America. . . . The Chicago we grew up in was filled with racial tension.”

As a student, Michelle was serious, sensible, and straightforward. She worked hard for her good grades, made the honor roll all four years, and was a member of the National Honor Society. Mingo remembers Michelle as “a tall, stately girl, immaculately groomed.” Her classmates do not recall a boyfriend. Norman Collins describes her as a “very respectable young lady” popular enough to have won a class office and social enough to attend sock hops in the gymnasium. She sang in the choir and was also drawn to dance. Michelle’s closest friend at Whitney Young was the Reverend Jesse Jackson’s daughter Santita. “It was clear to me,” Reverend Jackson says, “that drifting into mediocrity was never an option for Michelle.”

After Whitney Young, Princeton was an obvious choice for Michelle. Craig, then a sophomore there, had been recruited from his high school, Mount Carmel, by Princeton’s head basketball coach. Pete Carril, the coach, had heard about Craig from his team captain at Princeton, John W. Rogers Jr., a Hyde Parker, a graduate of the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, and today the chairman of Ariel Investments. (Craig started for the Princeton Tigers as a freshman and became the fourth-highest scorer in the school’s history.)           

In 1981, the year Michelle entered, Princeton had 94 black freshmen in a class of 1,141. “It was a great place to be from,” says Michelle’s college friend Hilary Beard, one of the African American students. “It was not always a great place to be if you were a minority student.”

Although Michelle might not have known it, suggestions of trouble started from day one—move-in day. Catherine Donnelly, the only child of a single mother in New Orleans, was assigned to room with Michelle. Her mother, an eighth-grade biology teacher then about 45, lived through her daughter. Getting into Princeton “was a tremendous achievement for her, as well as for me,” says Catherine, now a lawyer living outside Atlanta. Princeton was not only high prestige but also “the Southernmost in temperament of the Ivies”—a quality that appealed to Donnelly’s mother, who did not then hide her racist views.

The mother drove Catherine to Princeton to help her get settled, and Catherine had yet to meet Michelle when Craig Robinson dropped by to see his sister. That night at dinner, Catherine told her mother about Michelle and about meeting Craig. The mother took the situation as a personal affront, as if Princeton officials had placed her Southern white daughter with an urban African American just because they could—Catherine’s family had no money or influence or social standing.

The next day, in an effort to get Catherine a new room assignment, her mother headed for the housing office and launched a telephone campaign to influential people in New Orleans who had Princeton ties. There were no rooms, but officials promised that as soon as one opened, it would be offered to Catherine. In the second semester, a room became available, and Catherine took it. She says by then her departure had nothing to do with Michelle—“I thought Michelle was terrific, one of the funniest people I’ve ever known.” Catherine moved because of the crowding in their fourth-floor attic walkup, a tiny space jammed with three beds, three dressers, and three desks.

Catherine says she is sure that Michelle didn’t know her mother’s feelings. (Both Catherine and her mother voted for Obama.) Catherine came out as a lesbian soon after arriving at Princeton and socialized with her fellow rugby players, all white, while Michelle was always with other African American students. They barely acknowledged each other on campus. “I won the roommate lottery when I was at Princeton,” Catherine says today. “I missed an opportunity to form an endearing friendship with somebody I knew then was special. I missed it because I didn’t stand up to my mother, and I didn’t make the effort perhaps in part due to the color of [Michelle’s] skin. How absurd!” 

***

Several african american students at Princeton in that era recall a difficult atmosphere. Michelle’s friend Derrick Burns, who later studied computer science at Stanford, wrote in a recent e-mail: “Walking down the sidewalk of Prospect Avenue, passing the eating clubs, to get to the Third World Center and the Engineering Quad, I remember often being completely ignored, to the point that fellow students would not yield the right of way down the sidewalk, forcing me . . . to walk on the adjacent gravel. . . . The education that I received was superlative, but the most generous description of the social experience that I can provide is ‘benign neglect.’”

Donnell Lassiter-Stewart recalls inviting six friends to celebrate her birthday. “The next day I got called to the dean’s office because I was told that [my white roommate] was intimidated by these big black guys I had in the room.” (Most of those guests are physicians today.)

Michelle majored in sociology, with a concentration in African American studies, and participated in a work-study program at the Third World Center, now known as the Carl A. Fields Center for Equality and Cultural Understanding. She helped start an after-school tutoring program for the children of university employees, many of whom worked in maintenance or food services.

Like Craig, Michelle skipped Princeton’s most-storied tradition—the eating clubs. Membership at most clubs required interviews, a process called bicker. Instead, she joined Stevenson Hall, which her sociology professor, Howard Taylor, calls “strictly interracial” and Hilary Beard describes as more like a dining facility than an eating club. “All you had to do was sign up, and they welcomed anybody and everybody.” 

Howard Taylor, then also the director of the school’s Center for African American Studies, says Michelle was “wrestling with the question of just how to be black at Princeton. Do you socialize pretty exclusively with black students or do you try to integrate and associate relatively equally with white students?” Taylor says that Michelle eventually “came down on the side of hanging not exclusively black but for the most part black.” 

To her classmate Beverly Thomison-Sadia, Michelle seemed unusually sure of herself. “Michelle always arrived at her own opinion. It wasn’t the women’s position; it wasn’t the black position. Michelle would take all the information and process it through her experience, her beliefs, her value system, and she would arrive at the Michelle Robinson position or opinion.”            

Michelle’s 66-page senior thesis, “Princeton-Educated Blacks and the Black Community,” created a stir during the presidential campaign when Obama’s opponents thought they had finally found the radical document that could derail his campaign. Michelle had sent surveys to 400 Princeton graduates, says Taylor, one of her thesis advisers, and asked them what it was like to be black at Princeton and what they were currently doing—did they buy into the white corporate world or did they return to their communities to try to help the black cause? In her introduction, Michelle revealed the toll that Princeton had exacted: “My experiences at Princeton have made me far more aware of my ‘Blackness’ than ever before. 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 don’t belong.”

Michelle has not been back to Princeton since she graduated in 1985. She immediately headed to another elite white institution, Harvard Law School. But she would feel more comfortable there.

 

Photograph: Callie Shell/Aurora Photos

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