March 2, 2008


The Other Obama: Michelle Obama and the politics of candor. (Lauren Collins, March 10, 2008, The New Yorker)

Fraser Robinson and Marian Shields, who both grew up on the South Side of Chicago, married in 1960. Craig was born two years later, and on January 17, 1964, Marian gave birth to Michelle LaVaughn, whom Fraser nicknamed Miche. She and Craig looked so much alike (and still do) that people often mistook them for twins. Fraser, who was partially handicapped by multiple sclerosis, worked swing shifts as a city pump operator, while Marian tended to the children. The family lived in a modest house that they rented from a relative in the South Shore neighborhood. “If I had to describe it to a real estate agent, it would be 1BR, 1BA,” Craig told Peter Slevin, of the Washington Post. “If you said it was eleven hundred square feet, I’d call you a liar.”

Money was scarce but sufficient. Fraser took pride in providing for his family. “If the TV broke and we didn’t have any money to have it fixed, we could go out and buy another one on a charge card, as long as we paid the bills on time,” Marian told me. Saturday nights were spent at home playing Chinese checkers, Monopoly, or a game called Hands Down (like spoons, with bluffing). It was a simple time. “I probably had two sleepovers my entire life,” Craig said. “We were home folks.” Many years, the family drove to Dukes Happy Holiday Resort, in Michigan, for a week’s vacation.

The Robinsons went to church occasionally, but if they subscribed to any credo it was that of freethinking. From a young age, Craig and Michelle were encouraged to make choices, and to contend with the consequences. “More important, even, than learning to read and write was to teach them to think,” Marian Robinson said. “We told them, ‘Make sure you respect your teachers, but don’t hesitate to question them. Don’t even allow us to just say anything to you. Ask us why.’ ” Craig recalls, of Michelle, “I wouldn’t say she ran roughshod over her friends, but she was sort of the natural leader.”

Craig became a basketball star at a parochial school, while Michelle rode the bus, and then the El, to attend classes at Whitney M. Young Magnet High School. Michelle’s Class of ’81 yearbook—she was treasurer of her class—includes a picture of her as a serious-looking young lady in a bright-yellow silk shirt. She did not play varsity sports, even though people were always telling her she should. Craig told me, “That’s the best way to get her not to do something. She didn’t want to play just because she was tall and black and athletic.” Bernadette McHale, one of her teachers, recalled, “Our first full graduating class was in ’78, so it was pretty experimental to come here. She made a decision to choose an integrated environment that had more diversity in both curriculum and population.”

Craig was recruited to play basketball at Princeton, and Michelle—who figured she could cut it if he could—followed him there. Princeton in 1981 was not particularly hospitable to minorities of any sort. “It was a very sexist, segregated place,” Angela Acree, who was Obama’s roommate there for three years, recalled. She continued, “We couldn’t afford any furniture, so we just had pillows on the floor, and a stereo.” Their social lives revolved around gatherings at the Third World Center, rather than the university’s eating clubs. Acree recalled, “The white people didn’t dance—I know that sounds like a cliché—and they also played a completely different kind of music, whereas we were playing R. & B., Luther Vandross, Run-D.M.C., at the T.W.C.”

Yeah, those Ivies in the '80s were like South African townships but without the tunes....

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 2, 2008 8:37 AM

Actually, I was there then...and what the article says about the music is right. The Clubs played mostly undanceable white-boy southern rock. It was great for getting drunk to, but useless for dancing (which is part of getting girls...which the drunk white guys were too drunk to care about).

Even I (Jew from NJ) sought refuge at the Third World Center, where the music was much better...

Posted by: Foos at March 2, 2008 1:18 PM