Feedback
News

The Life and Times of Michelle Obama Examined in New Biography

“Michelle Obama: A Life” sets out to be the definitive historical biography of the First Lady. The 432-page hardcover tome was a true labor of love for Peter Slevin, a first time author who worked as a journalist for the Miami Herald and The Washington Post during a career spanning thirty years.

“Michelle Obama is a real player in the national conversation right now,” said Slevin. “I wanted to understand what she is doing in The White House and why, where those ideas came from, really where that passion came from.”

“The more I worked on the book, the more clear it became that what she’s doing now connects very closely with her upbringing, with the lessons of her childhood and her experiences along the way,” Slevin, who worked on the biography for four-plus years, added.

“I learn in the book that she is motivated to make a difference. I describe it in the book as ‘to unstack the deck in a society defined by great inequality.’”

Courtesy White House

Slevin, currently a professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, pored over hundreds of thousands of Mrs. Obama’s own words (via his exhaustive research of interviews, speeches and other published materials) and talked to numerous family members, friends and professional colleagues.

The author interviewed Mrs. Obama twice while on the campaign trail in 2007 however The White House didn’t make any new interviews with the First Lady possible for the book.

Through richly detailed prose, the narrative and tone of the book takes form as if Michelle Obama wrote it herself. “Her voice carries through the book,” Slevin, 58, noted. “The book starts in her voice where she talks to some kids in Anacostia and it ends with [her] remarks at Maya Angelou’s memorial service. So even though I wasn’t able to interview Mrs. Obama, her voice carries throughout.”

The seasoned writer, who spent parts of his career reporting from over 50 different locations, notably London and Berlin, revealed that he was surprised by his discovery of some of the outward disrespect people have shown FLOTUS.

“One of the things I did not appreciate was the vitriol that she faces as a black woman in this role,” Slevin revealed. “You can see it in emails and photo-shopped pictures and comment sections on websites. This is a job she didn’t ask for; this is a job for which she is not paid. She is doing a remarkable service and yet there are some people out there who can barely contain their anger and their vitriol.”

“I think part of the vitriol is about what a polarized country we are now,” he further elaborated when probed about why Mrs. Obama could be seen as a polarizing figure. “It’s not just about Michelle Obama but I also think that part of it is that a lot of people in this country don’t know, as Gwen Ifill has pointed out, how to or what to think about an outspoken, accomplished African American woman. And I think that it is unquestionable that some of it is about race and I say race but of course I mean racism.”

There are tons of little-known nuggets revealed in the book, offering readers a closer look at the Mrs. Obama they never knew..

  • One year while working as a research assistant for law professor Randall Kennedy, she and her friends would sit in front of a big television set in the Harvard’s Black Law Students Association’s office on Thursday nights and watch ‘The Cosby Show’ and ‘L.A. Law.’
  • Michelle LaVaughn Robinson (her full maiden name) once dated Patti LaBelle’s adopted son, Stanley Stocker Edwards.
  • The law firm Michelle Obama decided to start her career, Sidley & Austin, had one black attorney whose clients included Muhammad Ali and Don King. At the firm, her assignments as a young associate ranged from AT&T, Coors and the purple dinosaur Barney.
  • A photo of dance legend Judith Jamison performing Alvin Ailey’s iconic ‘Cry’ hung in the first Chicago apartment Barack and Michelle Obama owned
First Lady Michelle Obama claps during the entertainment portion of the State Dinner for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India, left, and his wife, Mrs. Gursharan Kaur, held in a tent on the South Lawn of the White House, Nov. 24, 2009. Pete Souza / The White House

As a parent, Slevin noted that Michelle Obama was always clear that she saw her first job to be raising two great daughters who will lead meaningful lives and who will be protected as much as possible from the difficulties of having two parents in the public eye.

“When she said that she would be Mom-In-Chief, part of that was to give herself a little time to figure out what role she would play as First Lady,” he furthered. “But a big part of it was she really meant it. She wanted to make sure that Malia and Sasha were in a good place.”

There are many examples in the book of her parenting choices. “She wanted each of the girls to play two sports but they could only choose one of the sports and she [Mrs. Obama] would choose the second, because she wanted the girls to know what it was to be good at something they had not chosen,” noted Slevin.

Out of all the subjects he could’ve chosen to make his mark in literary form, Slevin felt that the First Lady was the perfect choice. “I never wanted to write a book until I felt that I had something to say and until I had a story that excited me and Michelle Obama’s life is that story,” he explained.

“I thought she deserved a book where she is at the center of that narrative, where she is not just “Wife Of The More Famous Barack Obama.”

Peter Slevin
Author Peter Slevin. 2014 photo by Andrew Johnston. Andrew Johnston