© 2021
Telling West Virginia's Story
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

Michelle Obama Recounts Struggle To Find Her Place In The World In 'Becoming'

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Former first lady Michelle Obama is an extremely private person, but that is about to change. Her new memoir, "Becoming," is out tomorrow. Our co-host Audie Cornish talked to Michelle Obama shortly before the midterm elections in her hometown of Chicago.

AUDIE CORNISH, BYLINE: The bulk of this book is Michelle Obama's personal story - her childhood on the South Side of Chicago, her struggle to define herself as an individual, a professional and a wife. When Obama delves into politics, it is for the most part about her evolution as a political wife, a transformation she was reluctant to make and one that at times was fraught, such as when she was criticized for this speech she gave while her husband was running for president.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MICHELLE OBAMA: For the first time in my adult lifetime, I'm really proud of my country, and not just because Barack has done well but because I think people are hungry for change.

I was accused of not loving my country (laughter). First of all, after not wanting to be in politics but supporting my husband because I love my country - I mean, my decision to support him had nothing to do with what was good for me. And the notion that because I love this country so much, I'm willing to sacrifice a good man that I think would be good for the country to do it and a decision to not support him would be selfish - how am I not going to fully support him? If he weren't my husband, I'd want him to run.

And here I am working through it out there, you know, rolling up my sleeves. And I get accused of being not just - you know, not just someone who doesn't love their country but as an angry black woman. I mean, I wasn't always beloved.

CORNISH: No, no.

OBAMA: (Laughter).

CORNISH: You write, a pernicious seed had been planted, a perception of me as disgruntled and vaguely hostile, lacking in some expected level of grace.

OBAMA: I was called Obama's baby mama. And I put all that down because I also want young people to know - you see me here now, but there are highs and lows and rough patches and things you have to overcome. So do I regret saying it? No. I talk about how I had to sort of learn from that, how it hit me in the gut and almost took me off the campaign trail.

CORNISH: Right. Didn't - the campaign staff actually brought you...

OBAMA: Yeah. Yeah.

CORNISH: ...In for a, quote, unquote, "intervention" (laughter).

OBAMA: A little intervention, right? And up until that point, I had gotten no help whatsoever.

CORNISH: Right. I think we've been talking a lot about this in the last couple of months, about Serena Williams, for instance, or other black women in public life who have said that they feel, quote, unquote, "tone policed" or the way you react to things is somehow judged differently. We didn't talk about those things then. Is what you feel like you were going through at the time?

OBAMA: Absolutely. You know, and again, in all fairness, it's not just me. What I learned is that I have to be in control of my image, my voice. I have to be thoughtful. And also, because I'm a black woman, I am toned. There's a different judgment about my facial expressions. If I'm too vigorous in my reply, people will think I'm being uppity. You're judged in your community because you're not black enough. And then you get out in the world, and you're too black. And it's a careful tightwalk (ph) that we all walk as underrepresented people in the world because people aren't used to your voice. So that period in my life told me I have to define me on my own terms before others define me, you know?

CORNISH: So when Melania Trump says she's - you know, could be one of the most bullied people in the world, is that something that you can identify with?

OBAMA: I can't because, you know, I wrote about the fact that - you know, how I learned not to sort of take myself so seriously in this role was when I would meet military families. And I would see the sacrifice that these families would make because they had a loved one serving and dying and putting their life at risk. I admired them. And it made me feel like, let me not complain out loud about anything that's happening to me. My reflections now are this is how I felt in the moment.

But as I grew in the role, it's like, let me - you know, this country is complicated, but there are so many good people in there, millions of them, more people who are open to diversity, who are ready to give you a chance. I saw that in Iowa. When I went from door to door in strange people's homes, before I was Michelle Obama - nobody knew me - I could walk in someone's living room, they would open their house to me, and we would just talk just like regular people.

CORNISH: But you're describing - I think, you know, after your husband's election, there was this talk of a post-racial America. But your life, your description - you were not forged in a post-racial America, and it didn't really sound like your experience as first lady was that as well.

OBAMA: I don't even know where that narrative came from, that somehow the election of a black man to the White House would just end racism and all the woes of a nation that had been built on it. I am not thinking today that because I was first lady that racism is over and children will eat healthy and life is good. I am making my mark in hopes that my grandchildren will experience something better than I did just as my parents laid down markers so that my life would be better than theirs. We don't fix things in a lifetime.

CORNISH: I think one of the things people have talked about in recent weeks is thinking back to your Democratic National Convention speech.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

OBAMA: That when someone is cruel or acts like a bully, you don't stoop to their level. No, our motto is when they go low, we go high.

(CHEERING)

CORNISH: There are a couple Democrats now - Eric Holder is one of them - who have sort of said, well, I don't really think that's the environment we're in anymore. And do you still feel that way?

OBAMA: I think even more now because I think we - what's the alternative? Are we all just going to go low? Are we all just going to be in the mud, kicking and screaming, wreaking havoc and fear? Is that the recommendation? I think we're living in a time that proves that point even more so. We have to be thinking about what we want real outcomes to be. And I know I think about that. Now is the time for us all to do our best to add to the solution and go as high as we can as often as we can. It is the simple thing, Audie, that we teach our children.

CORNISH: But, you know, we brought this up when we first walked in about being in a political moment where it feels like every day there's something new, right? And...

OBAMA: But having something new happen - yes. So what does that make you feel, that you should go out there and curse somebody out, push somebody down, you know? I mean - so, yes, bad stuff happens. There are disappointments in life. But how do you choose to be in that moment?

CORNISH: But aren't you still affected by this, right? I mean, we're seeing...

OBAMA: Absolutely. But that's...

CORNISH: Like, you had a pipe bomb attempt at your home a few weeks ago. I mean, does this...

OBAMA: But that's separate from what - how you're affected by it, you know? Going high doesn't mean don't feel upset. You know, it doesn't mean that your - you know, your hurt, your fear is unfounded. So, yes, it is disturbing to watch a negative national discourse. It's unsettling. So I approach this as a mother, you know, how I want to raise my kids and the kind of home I want them to be in, the kind of world I want them to live in.

(SOUNDBITE OF MIRROR MARU'S "CASHMERE CAT")

CHANG: Our co-host Audie Cornish talking to former first lady Michelle Obama. Obama's new memoir is called "Becoming." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


WVPB is local news, education, music, and entertainment for West Virginia.
Your donation today will help keep us strong and vital.