Michelle Obama Speaks With Young Women From Her Chicago High School About 'Becoming'
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Former First Lady Michelle Obama adds the title author to her resume this week. Her new memoir, "Becoming," is out tomorrow. Our co-host Audie Cornish talked to Michelle Obama about the book in her hometown of Chicago.
AUDIE CORNISH, BYLINE: Michelle Obama was reluctant to get into politics. It's as much of a surprise to her as anyone that she ended up married to a president. And we'll hear more about that transition in another part of the program. But throughout her career, she has always embraced the role of mentor and advocate for young people. So we invited three young women from her high school alma mater to join the conversation.
MICHELLE OBAMA: Hi.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Hi (laughter).
OBAMA: How are you? You guys look great.
CORNISH: These are students who are upperclassmen at Whitney Young Magnet High School in Chicago.
ALEXANDRA SWAIN: I'm Alexandra Swain. I'm a junior. I'm 16.
CATALINA TORRES REYES: I'm Catalina Torres Reyes. I'm 17. I'm a senior.
KANYINSOLA ANIFOWOSHE: My name is Kanyinsola Anifowoshe. I'm 17. I'm a senior, and...
CORNISH: The girls were a lot like a young Michelle Obama might have been - hyper-prepared, great grades, school leadership titles at the ready for their college applications. And even today, Obama brought a copy of the book loaded with brightly colored Post-its.
OBAMA: I'm still not ready to, like, write in it.
CORNISH: And the students were equally prepared with carefully crafted questions.
ALEXANDRA: Feel as though my foot's in, you know, the black world and in the white world being biracial.
CATALINA: Multiple highly ranked institutions, that it's my responsibility to change their primarily white...
KANYINSOLA: Feel like every day you wake up, and there is something new that happens that kind of throws you off balance. What advice...
CORNISH: Going to a magnet school means they travel from vastly different parts of the city. They have different family backgrounds and circumstances. Mrs. Obama says she experienced the same thing, and it was one of the first big transitions of her life.
OBAMA: You know, one of the things going to Whitney Young was that that was the first time I really met black bourgeois people, you know, black professionals, you know, kids who had travelled the world and gone skiing and had professional parents. We grew up in a working-class neighborhood, and it took me a while to sort of understand that there was even a whole nother world of black people, you know?
One of my best friends was Jesse Jackson's daughter, and that was a whole different culture of being politically active and marching and, you know, doing things that the Robinsons on Euclid Avenue - we were just listening to jazz and hanging out. And we knew what we knew.
CORNISH: Another formative moment - going to Princeton. The young women in this room - black, biracial and Latino - had questions about that time in the life of the first lady because she writes about a sense of isolation that they understood that they might feel as they entered majority white campuses.
You're not always dealing with, like, a kind of overt racism. I mean, I think there's a section in the book where you mention the fact about your roommate at Princeton who changed rooms unbeknownst to you because her parents had concerns about having a black roommate, which didn't come out until you were on the campaign trail, right?
CORNISH: This is not even something you knew.
OBAMA: And they volunteered it. I was sort of like...
CORNISH: But did you feel that at the time?
OBAMA: ...Cathy (ph)...
OBAMA: I didn't know, girl.
OBAMA: You know what? I didn't feel that, but I felt distant from her.
CORNISH: You describe the students at Princeton as being a poppy seeds in a bowl of rice. It was really a very stark description and that your response to it was to overperform.
OBAMA: Yeah, yeah. Well, when you come from a school where your own guidance counselor tells you you're not good enough, there's just that little seed of doubt that somebody says, yeah, you're not quite ready.
CORNISH: Yeah. But they're...
OBAMA: You're not quite...
CORNISH: ...Quick to provide...
OBAMA: Exactly - that they're quick to provide when you're - you know, you're thinking, my GPA is pretty good. I was walking around Whitney Young thinking I'm pretty - I was the senior class treasurer. I was at the top of the class. Why would you say that? So while I overcame that, I pushed through that and applied anyway, you enter with a doubt, right? You enter with, I have something to prove, obviously. I had to prove it to my own high school. And maybe they were right. So you go in with a feeling like, well, I certainly can't not show up. I've got to prove to these people that I belong here.
CORNISH: There are echoes of this in how she talks about her experience in the White House. Her reaction to President Obama's re-election was that America had answered a question. Are we good enough? Yes, we are. And this period of her life is also where the main theme of the book comes into play. Michelle Obama calls herself a box-checker. She's someone who likes things in an orderly way. But over and over again, she's drawn to people who did not live their lives that way.
OBAMA: I call it making your swerve. And some of it happened because I met people who weren't box-checkers, you know? I had a good roommate that - she was carefree, and she loved love. She was Jamaican. And she was Suzanne (ph). Suzanne was - well, she went in as a premed because both of her parents were doctors, and she decided - don't want to be premed; it's too hard. So she switched her major. And I was like, what are you doing? She was like, that wasn't fun for me anymore.
But then I lost Suzanne. Suzanne died suddenly. She was in her 20s. And shortly thereafter, I lost my father. And I write about that. And then somewhere in there, I met this really weird guy named Barack Obama who was swerving all over the place and was...
OBAMA: He didn't have a box.
CORNISH: He was a human swerve, it sounded like.
OBAMA: He didn't have a check.
OBAMA: He didn't have anything, right? So that was a culmination of loss and realization and growth and just a wakeup call for me. And I thought to myself, if I died today, is this where I want to be? And it wasn't just one thing. It was a few things that made me step back and say, all right, put down the boxes and the checks, and now you have to do the hard work of thinking about who you want to become.
CORNISH: She of course became first lady, a transition that wasn't easy. But her description of politics as mean and her insistence that she would not run for office herself drew this question from senior Kanyinsola Anifowoshe.
KANYINSOLA: For one, what gives you hope, and what helps you to continue to have hope? And what advice would you give to people who do really care about the world and the future of our country and of our city but feel like there are so many things to think about, so many things to focus on every single day?
OBAMA: Well, first of all, young people like you give me hope because here's the thing that does happen. Each generation does get better. That's why I always want to invest in young people - because the future is yours, you know? The country that's being created now is the one you will raise your children in. So we need you engaged and involved.
So my advice is, don't be discouraged, you know? There have been harder times in our nation's history than this. So I do want you all to do the work to find your passion because you will have the greatest impact if you're doing something that you believe in and that you care about. You may have to do a little box checking like me, but you will be far more effective if you're checking boxes and thinking about what you value. So be encouraged. Be incredibly encouraged because I'm encouraged every time I meet young people. I feel like, OK, we're going to be all right.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CHANG: Our colleague Audie Cornish talking to former First Lady Michelle Obama about her new memoir, "Becoming."
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.