Michelle Obama’s Biographer on Nation’s First African American First Lady

StoryNovember 13, 2008
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Since the start of the presidential campaign, Michelle Obama has been more scrutinized than the spouse of any other presidential candidate. Scant attention has been paid to her personal history as the descendant of slaves, an upbringing in the South Side of Chicago, and work in community organizing. We speak to Washington Post writer Liza Mundy, author of the new unauthorized biography Michelle. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: In just over two months, this country will have its first African American First Lady. Since the start of the presidential campaign, Michelle Obama has been more scrutinized than the spouse of any presidential candidate.

But most accounts have either focused on her sense of fashion or tried to portray her as a caricature, as scant attention has been paid to Michelle Obama’s personal history. Her ancestors were slaves. Her grandfather was part of the Great Migration, out of the South, north. She herself grew up in the South Side of Chicago in the midst of the civil rights era, was closely involved in community organizing work.

I wanted to turn right now to Michelle Obama, during the Democratic National Convention, her address.

    MICHELLE OBAMA: And Barack stood up that day, and he spoke words that have stayed with me ever since. He talked about the world as it is and the world as it should be. And he said that, all too often, we accept the distance between the two, and we settle for the world as it is, even when it doesn’t reflect our values and aspirations.

    But he reminded us that we also know what the world should look like. He said we know what fairness and justice and opportunity look like. And he urged us to believe in ourselves, to find the strength within ourselves to strive for the world as it should be. And isn’t that the great American story?

    It’s the story of men and women gathered in churches and union halls, in high school gyms, and people who stood up and marched and risked everything they had, refusing to settle, determined to mold our future into the shape of our ideals. And it’s because of their will and determination that this week we celebrate two anniversaries: the eighty-eighth anniversary of women winning the right to vote and the forty-fifth anniversary — and the forty-fifth anniversary of that hot summer day when Dr. King lifted our sights and our hearts with his dream for our nation.

AMY GOODMAN: Michelle Obama addressing the Democratic National Convention in Denver this past August.

We’re joined now here in Washington, D.C. by Washington Post staff writer Liza Mundy. She is the author of a new biography of Michelle Obama. It’s called Michelle: A Biography.

And we welcome you to Democracy Now!, Liza.

LIZA MUNDY: Thank you so much. It’s great to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Well, Monday was quite a scene at the White House, having Barack Obama and Michelle Obama, the President-elect and I guess the First-Lady-to-Be, walking into the White House, the White House built by slaves in this country. Now, Barack Obama, the son of a Kenyan man and a white woman from Kansas, is not the descendant of slaves, but Michelle Obama is. Can you, Liza, tell us her story? Tell us where her family comes from, and then talk about Michelle herself, when she was born, where she was born.

LIZA MUNDY: Yes, it is. I mean, she embodies an extraordinary American narrative. And her family’s story is a classic strand of African American history, and therefore of American history. Her father’s family is from Georgetown County, South Carolina, which at one point produced much of the country’s rice. And at one point, 85 percent of the population of Georgetown County was enslaved. Her great-great-grandfather would have been a slave at one point in his life. Her great-grandfather, Frasier Robinson, worked during Reconstruction. He was a kiln laborer for Atlantic Coast Lumber Company.

And then, her grandfather, who was also named Frasier Robinson, picked up and moved north, in his case to Chicago, with the Great Migration along with millions of other African Americans, and settled on the South Side of Chicago, which is a large portion of the city. And the reason that African Americans were attracted to that part of the city was because there were so many working class jobs. There were, of course, stockyards and steel mills and railroads and a lot of labor and, you know, certainly better opportunity for work than there was in the South. But the South Side of Chicago was a very, very segregated —- the whole city of Chicago was very segregated. And there were serious racial hostilities there into the 1960s. Martin Luther King attempted to bring the civil rights movement north to Chicago and had a very hard time advocating for fair housing and to get rid of segregation, and the city did not receive him warmly. But -—

AMY GOODMAN: On that note, Liza, I wanted to turn to August 1966 — this would have been when Michelle Obama was just a couple years old — but the housing march in Chicago led by Dr. Martin Luther King, again, two years after Michelle Obama was born. This is Dr. King in Chicago.

    REV. DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.: …and Chicago on the day that we marched through that narrow street, and we marched by four or five thousand people that day, but they were in trees. It was the most serious — I guess we marched about five miles then. But they had at least 10,000 whites assembled on us. And there must have been about 4,000 police trying to protect us. But every minute almost, somebody’s nose was getting broken. You look — everywhere you turn. And the policemen were going ahead, and they were finding people in these trees. The were ordering them, “Come out of the trees,” because they were in these trees to shoot or anything.

    They were saying to us yesterday, “Don’t march.” I listened to them, but I said to myself, our marching feet have done too much now to give up. If you want us to end our moves into communities, open these communities. I don’t mind saying to you, I’m tired of the tensions surrounding our days. I don’t mind saying to you, I’m tired of living every day under the threat of death. I have no martyr complex; I want to live as long as anybody in this building. And sometimes I begin to doubt whether I’m going to make it through, I must confess. Yes, I’m tired of going to jail. I’m tired of all of the surging murmur of life’s restless sea. So I tell anybody, I’m willing to stop marching. I don’t march because I like it; I march because I must and because I’m a man and because I’m a child of God.

    I just gave up. I wouldn’t say I was so afraid as that I had yielded to the real possibility of the inevitability of death. I mean, I had concluded.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Martin Luther King in Chicago. This was the Chicago that Michelle LaVaughn Robinson grew up in, Liza Mundy.

LIZA MUNDY: That’s exactly right. She would have been two years old in 1966. And what is so interesting about her life is that she has traveled through these post-civil rights landscapes. And when she was a very young girl in sometime in the late ’60s, her family was able to move into a neighborhood that formerly had been available only to white people. And, you know, before that, it was so important, African American children were taught which neighborhoods were hospitable and safe to them and which were unsafe. And this previously would have been a neighborhood that probably would have been unsafe.

Her family was able to move into this neighborhood, and one of her first experiences as a girl would have been witnessing white flight, as African American families moved up socio-economically, were able to get out of the neighborhoods that they had been pretty much compelled to live in for decades. And she, as a child, would have witnessed — you know, would have witnessed the white neighbors moving away. And in a period of about ten years, this very nice neighborhood in South Side Chicago went from being all-white to being all-black.

AMY GOODMAN: And socio-economically, where did it stand, the South Side of Chicago, where Michelle grew up?

LIZA MUNDY: The South Side is — you know, it’s varied socio-economically. This neighborhood, South Shore, I think would be described as middle class. It has some working class parts. But Jesse Jackson, Sr. also lives in South Shore in a very nice part of that area. And Michelle, when she was in high school, was very close friends with his daughter Santita. So the interesting thing about South Side is, you know, it did suffer segregation and oppression, but it also produced artists, it produced Richard Wright, it produced any number of jazz artists and blues artists, and also, you know, developed its own political base, so — you know, and powerful local politicians. And so, growing up in that area, she was able to meet and become friends with people who would be allies for her husband later on.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Liza Mundy, the biographer of Michelle Obama. Her book is called Michelle. We’ll be back with her in a minute.



We’re here in Washington, D.C., speaking with Washington Post reporter Liza Mundy. She wrote a biography of Michelle Obama. Michelle Obama did not authorize the biography or participate in it. The biography is called Michelle.

So, she was born, just six months before the Civil Rights Act was signed into law, in the South Side of Chicago, Michelle LaVaughn Robinson. Where did “LaVaughn” come from?


LaVaughn was a family name on her father’s side. It had been her father’s mother’s name.


And talk about her growing up, her going to schools in the South Side, and then being moved out, going to school for the gifted, and then what that moving out meant, ultimately, going to Princeton.


Yes, well, you know, her mother Marian was able to stay home, because her father had a job with the City of Chicago working in a water treatment plant tending boilers. And, you know, there’s not a long tradition in the African American community of mothers being able to stay home with their children, but her mother was able to do that and taught both Michelle and her older brother Craig. And so, they were both able to read when they went to kindergarten. And she attended a local elementary school, where she skipped the second grade and was a very high-performing student. And it was a good local elementary school.

And then, right when she was a young teenager, the City of Chicago opened some magnet high schools, in part as an effort to provide African American children with better school resources than they had had up to then, because along with segregated housing, segregated schools had been a major issue in Chicago, as well. And so, the city opened up magnet high schools, open to children from different parts of the city. And it was also an effort to stem white flight and to keep white students in the city and to get some integrated schools, because obviously cities were under — you know, were being watched by federal authorities to make sure that their school systems became integrated.

So, you know, at a very young age, she left every morning her house in South Side, and she took both a bus and a train to go to Whitney Young Magnet High School in a different part of the city. It took about an hour and a half to get there. I was thinking about this, because my daughter is thirteen, and I was thinking, you know, how adventurous and self-sufficient you need to be as a young teenager to make that trip by yourself every morning.

So, this was a high school that was for academically motivated students. It provided them with extra resources. And I think it must have been — I talked to a number of her classmates who remember her and described the school as having been a very inclusive and happy place, basically, in the sense that it was integrated. White students, for the most part, came from families that wanted them to be in a diverse environment. And in the mid-‘70s, that was more unusual than it is now. I think we now accept diversity as something desirable in a school population, but that was a little bit forward-thinking then.

And the African American students were in the majority at the school and held positions of leadership. Michelle was the school treasurer her last two years at the school, and she was also in the National Honor Society. And there’s a lovely photo in her school yearbook of her standing with the other National Honor Society students, and she’s standing beside a white girl named Kristy McNulty, who I tracked down in Phoenix. And she remembers the moment when the shutter of the camera went off, and Michelle Robinson reached out and put her arm around Kristy. And there’s a lovely photo of the two of them standing there — well, all of the National Honor Society students, but you can see Michelle Robinson’s arm around her white classmate. And she was described as being a very inclusive person who moved between different social groups and didn’t confine herself to any one clique. And it just seems to have been a very nice environment in which to learn and to learn about, you know, students of other races. And that really would’ve been her first opportunity, I think.


And, Liza Mundy, you write about how she ends up at Princeton, and you talk about her first year. She’s rooming with a white classmate, except the white classmate’s mother then intervenes.


Yes. This would have been in 1981, and she happened to draw a classmate from the South whose mother was unhappy to find that her daughter had been placed with a black student and petitioned the school and made phone calls to try and get her moved. And both the classmate and her mother have come forward, you know, in recent months to talk about this and to express their contrition, you know, and to say essentially they realize now that the joke was on them. They’re very sorry to recall that episode. And so, that, unfortunately, was sort of her introduction to the Princeton campus.

And I guess I was particularly interested in this part of her life because I was on the campus at about the same time. I started in 1978, and we would have overlapped by a year. And, you know, at that time, women had only been on the campus at Princeton for about a decade, and African Americans were just ten percent of the student body and had only been there in any numbers for about the same period of time.

And the president of Princeton, William Bowen, was in the vanguard of shaping a national policy on affirmative action and did believe and still does believe that it’s legitimate for universities to take race into consideration in college admissions as one criterion among many. And that policy was favored by many, but was opposed by some alumni and students, and there was a fair amount of crossfire on campus at the time.

You know, so once again, Michelle Robinson would have been experiencing the opening up of American landscapes that had been closed to African Americans, but, you know, not opening up easily. And, you know, it’s not like she was really welcomed with open arms. Certainly she was by many, but there was a fair amount of conversation going on, and I talked, again, to classmates who said, you know, that they did not feel completely welcome on campus at the time.


Talk about the — well, it has become infamous — thesis of Michelle Obama, well, then Michelle Robinson, which I thought was very interesting, when you laid out exactly what she was trying to do in the survey that she conducted of black Princeton alumni.


Well, I think that every Princeton alumnus felt — you know, we all felt a collective shudder when we learned that her thesis had been posted online, because, you know, anybody who’s written a senior thesis would identify. You know, God forbid my thesis ever be posted online. I know the circumstances under which they’re written, and, you know, paragraphs written at the last minute at the suggestion of your adviser. And then twenty-five years later, somebody’s picking over the sentences, you know, to use them against your husband. It’s really just mindboggling.

But what she did in her thesis, I mean, she was exploring, I think, as many of us were, the extent to which she had been changed by Princeton. She was exploring, you know, the fact she had come from this large African American community in South Side Chicago, asking herself, “Do I still belong to that community? Am I still that person? Or, have I been changed by this very different environment that I find myself in?” And she surveyed African American alumni to find out whether they had felt the urge to assimilate into white society or to self-segregate before they were at Princeton, when they were at Princeton and after they were at Princeton. And she found that the majority of alumni did find that it was when they were at Princeton that they felt the urge more to stick together.

And there was a building on campus called the Third World Center that was available to students of color as, you know, a support, a place just to be together and seek mutual support. And she posited that one reason was because when they were in high school, students would have been able to go home at night to their families, and if they were in integrated high schools, they still would have had the support of their parents at the end of the day. And she posited that, perhaps, lacking that support network, students turned to each other more in the environment of college than either before or after.

And there were times, reading her thesis, when I just thought that she might have been a young person who missed her family. You get that sense, that she missed the support that her parents provided. And her brother Craig was at Princeton for two years when she was there — I mean, he was there for four years, but he would have graduated her sophomore year, and I think she must have missed him, as well.


You talk about how she moves on to Harvard Law School and how she actually ends up in the same building as Barack, though she wasn’t there at the same time. He was president of the Harvard Law Review, but she was working at Legal Aid, helping in the community.


Yes, I think this is such an interesting image. They both spent a lot of time in Gannett House, which, just as you say, the upper floors house the Harvard Law Review. And Barack Obama was the first African American president of the Law Review, and that was a major achievement and attracted national publicity and articles in The New York Times and the LA Times and really put him on the map at a young age and helped get him his first book contract, and he would use that to write Dreams from My Father. And so, he was on the upper floors, you know, rubbing shoulders with other editors and — you know, all of whom would go on to prestigious careers and be law clerks for Supreme Court justices.

But Michelle, when she was there, worked in the basement of Gannett House, and she was working for the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau. And that was also a prestigious position to hold, but she was working on behalf of poor people in Cambridge and surrounding counties, helping them with housing issues and child custody issues and, you know, pro se divorces and things like that.

And I think, somehow, that’s kind of a telling juxtaposition, because I do sometimes think that in her rhetoric, she — you know, he tends to be sort of loftier in his rhetoric, and she sometimes tends to be sort of more realistic and sometimes maybe a little bleaker. And I think that, you know, it just reminds us how in touch she is with people who have not fared as well as she has in the post-civil rights era.


So she goes home. She goes back to Chicago, after having graduated from Harvard Law School, and she makes this transition from — well, she goes into corporate law, but then she moves out. And this is also the time when she meets Barack Obama.


Yes, and I think she has always struggled with sort of the question of what success is for her, whether it lies in doing good or doing well, and I think, you know, spent a little bit of time in corporate law, in part to start paying off her student loans, but also — and she talks about this in her thesis — being attracted to some of the, you know, advantages of having an Ivy League education, the economic advantages.

So, yes, she does spend three years at Sidley Austin and was very well-liked by her associates there and was also a very ambitious person. Her supervisor described her as quite possibly the most ambitious associate he had ever seen, and this was someone who had supervised a lot of associates. And at times she became impatient with the low level of the work that falls to first- and second-year associates.

So, I think, you know, she left the firm, in part because she wanted, definitely, to do community work, but also I think she wanted work that would give her more authority, more executive authority, sooner, because, obviously, at a big law firm you have to wait usually seven years to make partner, and she had been marked out as a likely future partner.

So, she went to work for the City of Chicago in the economic planning division. This is when she met and was mentored by Valerie Jarrett, who is obviously a major player in the Obama campaign now. And I think there was sort of a lovely irony here, since for years and years and years, African Americans had been segregated and hemmed in by city planners in Chicago. Now, she and Valerie Jarrett were the city planners, and I think that’s, you know, just sort of one indication of how things were changing, because she has really lived this post-civil rights era life. And you can just — you can track the opening up of opportunities in the country by tracking her life.


Liza Mundy, I want to thank you very much for being with us. I hope to do part two with you. Michelle: A Biography is her book.

Tomorrow, we will have an exclusive hour, the first national broadcast hour with Bill Ayers and his wife and lawyer Bernardine Dohrn.

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