Darlene Clark Hine

This month the Oxford African American Studies Center presents the work of Darlene Clark Hine, Editor in Chief of Black Women in America. For the first installment of the online version of African American National Biography Hine writes on the life of Michelle Obama, the First Lady of the United States.

Obama, Michelle (17 Jan. 1964– ), First Lady of the United States of America, lawyer, and healthcare executive was born Michelle LaVaughn Robinson in Chicago’s South Side to working class parents. Her father, Fraser Robinson III, was a city employee, who worked tending boilers at a water-filtration plant in the city until his death due to complications from multiple sclerosis. Her mother, Marian Shields Robinson, worked as a secretary for the Spiegel catalogue store before becoming a-stay-at-home mother. Michelle’s older brother, Craig, born in 1962, would, like his sister, graduate from Princeton University. He later became the head basketball coach at Oregon State University.

As Barack Obama noted in his March 2008 speech on race at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, his wife “carries within her the blood of slaves and slave owners.” And, indeed, genealogical research has revealed that Michelle Obama’s earliest known paternal ancestor, her great-great grandfather, Jim Robinson, was born a slave in 1850, on a rice plantation in the South Carolina lowcountry. While information regarding her earliest ancestors remains sketchy, fragments about her paternal grandparents reveal that her grandfather, Fraser Robinson Jr. (b. 1912), and his wife, LaVaughn, were part of the Great Migration generation. LaVaughn’s origins were in Mississippi, while Robinson moved from Georgetown County, South Carolina, to South Side Chicago. There he landed a job with the post office. One of his sisters migrated to Princeton, New Jersey, where she worked as a maid and was there when both Craig and Michelle attended Princeton University. About her family history, Michelle has declared, “You’ve got to be able to acknowledge and understand the past and move on from it. You have to understand it, and I think a lot of us just don’t have an opportunity to understand it—but it is there” (Murray). She has also noted the linked fate of black and white Americans: “Somewhere there was a slave owner—or a white family in my great-grandfather’s time that gave him a place, a home that helped him build a life—that again led to me. So who were those people? I would argue they’re just as much a part of my history as my great-grandfather” (Murray).

An honor student, Michelle Robinson graduated from Chicago’s first magnet school for the academically gifted, Whitney Young High School, in 1981, where, among her classmates was Santita Jackson, the daughter of the Reverend Jesse Jackson. After graduating in 1985 from Princeton University with a major in sociology and a minor in African American studies, she continued her professional education at Harvard Law School and earned her degree in 1988. She got by on student loans combined with income from her work at Harvard Legal Aid Bureau. In that position, she assisted people on low incomes with housing and child custody problems in the greater Cambridge area. Armed with a law degree she returned to Chicago to work as an associate at the Sidley & Austin law firm, specializing in copyright and trademark law. In June 1989, Michelle met, and began dating, Barack Obama, a Harvard Law School student who was a summer associate at the firm. They married on 3 October 1992 in the Trinity United Church of Christ, pastored by the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. The Obamas had two children, Malia Ann, born in 1998, and Natasha (Sasha), born in 2001.

Commitment to family and community, and the problems of balancing those values with work has been central to Michelle Obama’s private and professional life. The importance of family to Obama’s intellectual development, her commitment to personal professional achievement, and her interest in improving the lives of working-class blacks can be seen in her 1985 undergraduate senior year thesis, “Princeton-Educated Blacks and the Black Community.” She dedicated the thesis to her mother, father, and special friends and expressed gratitude to them for “loving me and always making me feel good about myself.” The dedication hints at the forces that the young Michelle Robinson viewed as a threat to her sense of worth and belonging, and that challenge the self-esteem of other young black women in her situation. The dedication becomes more poignant when she describes her feelings of alienation at Princeton. She wrote, “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.” She continued, “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” (Robinson, p. 2). Based upon a survey of graduates of Princeton University, young Michelle arrived at a jarring conclusion in her thesis. She found that “more respondents tended to identify,” with working-class blacks during their time at Princeton “in every measured respect.” However, after graduating from Princeton, as they became engrossed in building careers and moved away from their communities of origin, black Princeton graduates registered decreased levels of identification with or feelings of responsibility toward “lower class” blacks and their communities (Robinson, p. 53). To be sure, she carefully noted, “There are other Blacks who, in being integrated have not lost touch. They have maintained an awareness of and a sincere appreciation for the uniqueness of the Black culture” (Robinson, p. 54). In her professional career, Michelle Robinson Obama would be one of those black Princeton graduates determined not to lose touch with the community values that formed her and to maintain contact with the community, family, and friends who nurtured her.

After three years working in corporate law, Obama decided that it did not offer her sufficient fulfillment. She pursued and secured a job in public service. Valerie Jarrett, then deputy chief of staff to Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley, hired her as an assistant commissioner of planning and development and as a member of the mayor’s staff. Valerie subsequently became a close friend of the Obamas and accompanied them to the White House in January 2009. About Michelle, Jarrett explained to Vanity Fair, “She just knew the private practice of law was not sufficiently satisfying, and she was willing to walk away from a huge salary potential and all the trappings of power that go along with it” (Bennetts).

Her next job would connect her even closer to the poor black communities she desired to serve. In 1992 Barack Obama had been instrumental in founding the board of directors of Public Allies. He resigned shortly before Michelle became the founding executive director of the Chicago office of Public Allies in early 1993. Through this agency she provided leadership training for young adults. Three years later, in 1996, she accepted a position as associate dean of student services at the University of Chicago. In 2002 she joined the administration of the University of Chicago Hospitals as executive director of community affairs and was promoted to vice president, shortly thereafter. In 2007 she reduced her work hours and then took a leave in order to work three days a week on her husband’s campaign for the presidency of the United States. She loved him, believed in him, and decided to help make his dream—and the dream of millions of African Americans—a reality.

On 10 February 2007 Michelle stood by her husband on the steps of the Old State Capitol building in Springfield, Illinois, as he announced his candidacy for president of the United States in the 2008 election. For twenty-one months she played an invaluable role in humanizing, normalizing, and explaining her husband to a skeptical public that often questioned his ethnicity, citizenship, religion, experience, and vision, and challenged her pride in her country. Indeed, since Barack Obama’s first major political race—his failed bid to oust Congressman Bobby Rush in 2000—it was Michelle who most eloquently challenged those who questioned whether he was “black enough.” Responding to a reporter who raised the issue during that election, Michelle stated, with clear anger, “I’ve grown up in this community. I’m as black as it gets. I put my blackness up against anybody’s blackness in this state. And Barack is a black man. And he’s done more in terms of meeting his commitments and sticking his neck out for the community than many people who criticize him. . . . And I can say that, cause I’m black” (Mundy, p. 135).

However, one group of citizens stood firm in their commitment to Michelle and by extension to her husband. African American studies scholar and biographer Paula Giddings of Smith College confided, “many of us [meaning black women] began to take him (Barack Obama) seriously only after we saw and heard Michelle.” She continued, “that Barack Obama would choose for his life partner a nearly six-foot-tall, incredibly smart, loquacious lioness of a woman told us virtually all we needed to know about his fundamental character—and the way he felt about us.” Giddings concluded by affirming and claiming Michelle as being, “[O]ur first lady who makes us feel that we are supposed to be here” (Giddings, pp. 76, 79).

Barack Obama’s successful bid for the nation’s highest office made possible the first black first lady. But he would not have acquired the presidency had it not been for her. And not only because she has had “veto power” over his decisions to run, first for the U.S. Senate in 2004, and then for the presidency. Their fates were inextricably interlinked. It is well to put Michelle’s position of first lady into a broader context of black women’s long struggle for elective office in the federal government. In 1968 Shirley Chisholm (D-NY) became the first black woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. In 1972 she made a serious bid for the Democratic Party’s nomination, establishing the plausibility of an African American candidacy for president. Barbara Jordan (D-TX) became the first African American woman from the South to win a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives and in 1976 she became the first African American keynote speaker at a Democratic National Convention. The major gains for black women in politics came even later. In 1992—assisted by Project Vote organizer Barack Obama—Carol Moseley Braun (D-IL) was the first black woman elected to the United States Senate. In 2001 Condoleezza Rice became the first African American woman to serve as National Security Adviser, and in 2005 was the first black, female U.S. Secretary of State. During Obama’s presidential bid, black women including Oprah Winfrey and Atlanta mayor Shirley Franklin endorsed Obama’s candidacy and galvanized millions of others. This was important during the Democratic Primary inasmuch as the majority of prominent African American leaders and politicians, including black Congresswomen Maxine Waters (D-CA) and Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-OH) were aligned in support of New York senator Hilary Rodham Clinton. Black women voters were less divided. In recent elections, black women have been 60 percent of the black vote, and in the 2008 primaries, the vast majority supported Obama over Clinton—arguably providing his margin of victory in terms of the popular vote. In the 2008 General Election, over 95 percent of the African American vote went to Barack Obama, and the figure for black women was even higher. One exit poll from North Carolina suggested that 100 percent of black women in that state supported Obama.

Michelle Obama has indicated that as first lady her primary responsibility will be to be “Mom-in-Chief,” that is, to make sure that their daughters are taken care of and that they make a smooth transition to their new life and new school. Toward this end her mother, Marian Robinson, decided to join the family in the White House to provide a degree of continuity for her grandchildren at a time of extraordinary change in their lives. In so doing, the Obamas and Robinsons are relying on the traditional kin networks that have always sustained black families.

In her official capacity as first lady, Michelle Obama has signaled that she will focus attention on the needs of military families. With the United States involved in two major wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and with many personnel forced to serve several successive tours of duty, military families, like the military itself, have been overstretched. The New York Times has noted that, as a result of such strains, nearly one in five service members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan have symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder or major depression. In addition to this signature issue, First Lady Obama has also shown an interest in helping communities improve public education and in addressing women’s frustration about achieving a manageable work/family balance.

Ultimately, Michelle Obama serves as a powerful role model for African American girls and women who see in her the possibility to reverse, if not completely to destroy the negative stereotypical images of black women. As the youngest first lady since Jacqueline Kennedy, she shares with that predecessor an interest in fitness and style, and although she refers to herself as “the little black girl from the South Side of Chicago,” she is an important agent of change in the larger society’s perception of black women (Samuels). She represents the millions of professional women juggling demands of career and family. Moreover, as one woman declared, “Michelle is not only African American, but brown. Real brown. . . .It’s nice to see a brown girl get some attention and be called beautiful by the world” (Samuels). Through the power of her example, Obama helps young black women see themselves and their possibilities in an entirely new light.

Further Reading

  • A PDF file of Michelle L. Robinson’s Princeton senior thesis, “Princeton-Educated Blacks and the Black Community” can be found online at www.suntimes.com/news/1307497,CST-NWS-mobama01.article.
  • Bennetts, Leslie. “First Lady in Waiting,” Vanity Fair Online, 27 Dec. 2007 (www.vanityfair.com/politics).
  • Giddings, Paula J. “The Woman Beside Him.” Essence, January 2009.
  • Herrmann, Andrew. “How Princeton shaped Michelle Obama’s views,” Chicago Sun Times, 1 Dec. 2008.
  • Mundy, Liza. Michelle: A Biography (2008).
  • Murray, Shailagh. “A Family Tree Rooted In American Soil: Michelle Obama Learns About Her Slave Ancestors, Herself and Her Country,” Washington Post, 2 Oct. 2008.
  • Samuels, Allison. “What Michelle Means to Us,” Newsweek, 1 Dec. 2008.
  • Summers, Carrie E. “Our First Lady: Michelle Obama,” Today’s Black Woman, March 2009.

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