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You know almost everything there is to know about Barack Obama – even where he was never born and the things that never happened to him. But how much do you know about Michelle, the first African American first lady of the United States?
Released in November 2018, her memoir “Becoming” is your chance to get to know her better – from her humble Chicago to her world-changing initiatives and her thoughts on politics and Trump.
So, get ready to learn how Michelle Robinson became Michelle Obama and how Michelle Obama became one of the most iconic women of our time.
Michelle LaVaughn Robinson was born on January 17, 1964, in Chicago, Illinois, as the second of two children of Fraser Robinson III – a creative jazz-loving Democratic precinct captain – and Marian Shields Robinson – a generous and caring full-time housewife.
Michelle was raised on the upper floor of a two-story house located about nine miles south of Grant Park – where, just four years after her birth, a violent clash would break out between the police and Vietnam War protesters during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Her uncle Terry and her aunt Robbie lived, quite taciturnly, on the first floor of the house.
Fifteen years before her parents started renting out the floor from Terry and Robby, in 1950, Chicago’s South Side had been 96% white. By the time Michelle would leave the place for college in 1981, it would be about 96% black. Raised “in the crosscurrents of that flux,” Michelle and her two years older brother Craig spent a wonderful childhood in a diverse environment, surrounded by “a motley mix of last names – Kansopant, Abuasef, Yacker.”
Just like Craig, Michelle was a precocious child. When she was in second grade, she revealed to her parents that her classes were boring and that she hated them. Her mother got her tested and Michelle was allowed to move up one grade, a decision that greatly influenced her life. In 1977, she was enrolled in the ninth grade at the “striking and modern” Whitney M. Young High School, Chicago’s first magnet high school. It took her two busses and about an hour and a half to get there, but it was worth it.
Michelle excelled at her high school and was on track to be in the top 10% of her class. Even so, when the time came, her college counselor told her not being sure if Michelle was a Princeton material. And Princeton – ever since her brother Craig got into it on a basketball scholarship two years before – was Michelle’s top (if not only) choice.
Fortunately, even then, Michelle was aware that “failure is a feeling long before it’s an actual result.” So, instead of allowing her counselor’s assessment to topple her confidence, she used it as a springboard for inspiration. “I wasn’t going to let one person’s opinion dislodge everything I thought I knew about myself,” she writes. “Instead, I switched my method without changing my goal.” Six or seven months later, Princeton offered her admission.
There, for the first time in her life, Michelle realized the meaning of the word “division”: 9 out of 10 students at Princeton were white. Fortunately, however, Princeton had an organization known as the Third World Center (TWC), which was formed precisely because of this: to support students of color. And even more, fortunately, at its head was Czerny Brasuell, “a smart and beautiful black woman, barely thirty years old, a swift-moving and lively New Yorker who wore flared jeans and wedge sandals and seemed always to be having four or five ideas at once.”
For all students of color at Princeton, Brasuell was “an über-mentor,” an “ultrahip and always outspoken defender in chief,” and Michelle became not only her protégé but also her assistant. She learned a lot from her, including how to be a parent long before she became one: Brasuell was a single mother of a very bright boy named Jonathan, whom Michelle babysat often.
After taking her LSAT test, Michelle went straight from Princeton to Harvard Law School, after which she moved back to Chicago to start working for a respected high-end law firm called Sidley & Austin. It was there, in her office on the 47th floor, that she met an attractive young man by the name of Barack Obama.
His reputation had preceded him: even before his interview at Sidley & Austin, word had spread around the company that one of his professors at Harvard deemed him “the most gifted law student she’d ever encountered.” On top of that, some of the secretaries who had seen him claimed he was also cute.
Michelle was skeptical at first, but it didn’t take long after being assigned as Obama’s adviser to change her mind. Even though Barack was a smoker – and Michelle hated smokers – he did manage to get through to her, and the minute she allowed herself to feel anything for him, “the feelings came rushing – a toppling blast of lust, gratitude, fulfillment, wonder.” After the first kiss, “everything felt clear” for the future Mrs. Obama.
Even so, Barack had to pass one more rigorous test to prove himself worthy of becoming Michelle’s husband: her brother. And Craig’s test was a strange one, indeed: “a high-octane weekend basketball game with a bunch of his buddies.” Smooth on the floor and not afraid to shoot when open, Barack passed the test with flying colors. “He’s no ball hog,” Craig said to Michelle after the game. “But he’s got guts.” In October 1992, soon after Barack had finished his studies at Harvard Law School, the two married.
The Obamas didn’t have a great honeymoon. It even had to be cut short, because Barack was enlisted to help the Project VOTE! Initiative. Michelle herself was working on a couple of projects as well at the time, chiefly through the help and influence of her friend Valerie Jarrett, Barack’s would-be senior advisor. “Tired and stressed,” described this time Barack in his future book, “The Audacity of Hope,” “we had little time for conversation, much less romance.”
Thanks to Barack’s dedication and charisma, the 1992 Project VOTE! campaign was an overwhelming success, adding more than 150,000 new African American voters to Chicago’s rolls. Soon after, a magazine article suggested that Obama should run for office. Barack, however, shrugged off the idea because he had something else on his mind: to write a memoir of his life. However, as soon as he completed the book – titled “Dreams from My Father” – Barack started a political campaign for the Illinois Senate.
He was elected in 1996 and held the position for the next eight years, during which the Obama family grew for two more members: Malia and Natasha. As difficult as juggling around with his duties and responsibilities was for Barack, Michelle felt the burden of his rapid political evolution several times over because she and her children were often carelessly pulled under the limelight by Barack’s opponents.
For example, a year after Malia was born, she got an ear infection in Hawaii, just at the time the Illinois Senate announced an emergency vote on a rather important gun control bill. Barack chose to remain with the family, as Malia wasn’t allowed to fly in her condition. His attitude earned him a few rather unpleasant descriptions, ranging from an “educated fool” to a “gutless sheep” – and even to a characterless individual “using his child as an excuse not to go to work” and “a white man in blackface.” Barack wasn’t hurt by these comments since he expected them; Michelle, however, was deeply affected.
In time, Barack started skipping family dinners. Michelle wasn’t too pleased about this, and she was even less pleased when Barack told her that he had an intention to run first for U.S. senator and then for president. The only reason why Michelle didn’t raise too many objections was her confidence that her husband – then still just a little-known state senator – would lose the race to U.S. Senate. She even made him swear to give up politics altogether if that happened.
As it often happens, life had very different plans: Barack’s keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention instantly catapulted him into the national spotlight. When his Republican opponent for the Illinois senator seat, Jack Ryan, dropped out of the race due to a sex scandal, suddenly everybody started talking about Barack becoming the first African American president.
And as you know full well – just four years after a landslide 2004 election to the U.S. Senate – he did become just that.
Now, of course, becoming the first lady doesn’t mean that you stop being a mother. However, being a mother at the White House is completely different from being a mother anywhere else. And possibly that’s why, very soon after moving to the White House, Michelle received a phone call from none other than Barack’s opponent in “the brutal 2008 primary,” Hillary Clinton. After all, Hillary had some ideas about what it means to be both a first lady and a mother – and she wanted to share them with Michelle.
The first thing that struck Michelle was something unexpected: friends of Malia and Sasha couldn’t just pop up to visit and play at their house anymore. Likewise, they couldn’t just run out to the garden without having their Social Security numbers checked by the authorities. Michelle made it her obligation to find a way to tell her children that the White House was their home and that they should treat it as such. So, under her watch, running and jumping in the hallways of the presidential home was more than allowed.
Determined to use her position to make some good in the world, a year after becoming the first lady, Michelle started the Let’s Move! initiative. Up to this day, its ambitious objective – to reduce childhood obesity to 5% by 2030 – has been continuously chased in four different ways:
The results? Forty-five million kids are now eating healthier food, and 11 million are physically way more active than about a decade ago. This success inspired Michelle to start the Joining Forces initiative (which helped more than 1 million veterans and their spouses get a job) and, then, the Let Girls Learn initiative, which is still empowering girls by granting them their right to education worldwide.
Barack and Michelle Obama remained in power for eight years. Looking back today, Michelle is quite happy with what the two had accomplished. However, she’s not that happy with the man who came to the office after them. Politics aside, says Michelle, this is a man who was heard by the entire country to have habitually bullied women – and who not only got away with it but became the most powerful man in the world as well. What kind of a message does his election send?
“It’s been distressing to see,” she writes, “how the behavior and the political agenda of the current president have caused many Americans to doubt themselves and to doubt and fear one another. It’s been hard to watch as carefully built, compassionate policies have been rolled back, as we’ve alienated some of our closest allies and left vulnerable members of our society exposed and dehumanized. I sometimes wonder where the bottom might be.”
However, as deeply as Michelle cares about the future of the United States, she is still not at all fond of politics. “I have no intention of running for office, ever,” she makes things clear as day. “I’ve never been a fan of politics, and my experience over the last ten years has done little to change that. I continue to be put off by the nastiness – the tribal segregation of red and blue, this idea that we’re supposed to choose one side and stick to it, unable to listen and compromise, or sometimes even to be civil. I do believe that at its best, politics can be a means for positive change, but this arena is just not for me.”
An intimate and powerful memoir, Michelle Obama’s “Becoming” tells an inspiring story of triumphs and disappointments – and does so “with unerring honesty and lively wit.”
It is everything one would expect it to be – a book worthy of being remembered by history as the debut autobiography of the first African American first lady in the history of the United States.
We’re eagerly awaiting for the sequel.
Be truthful to yourself and the ones you love – but invite others in as well. As Michelle writes: “There’s power in allowing yourself to be known and heard, in owning your unique story, in using your authentic voice. And there’s grace in being willing to know and hear others.” This is, after all, how we become.
Michelle Obama, born Michelle LaVaughn Robinson in 1964 in Chicago, is a lawyer, writer, and wife of former United States President Barack Obama. She was an intelligent, motivated, and happy child who proved herself a worthy student and went on to earn a law degree from Har... (Read more)
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