In her book, Michelle Obama recalls her Chicago upbringing: ‘Am I good enough?’
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WASHINGTON – In her memoir “Becoming,” Michelle Obama writes about happily growing up in a cramped apartment at 7436 S. Euclid Ave.; white flight from South Shore; Whitney Young High School; her dad, a precinct captain who loved his Buick; the discovery of a black elite; and her friendship with Santita Jackson, the daughter of the civil rights leader, Rev. Jesse Jackson.
Obama’s book tour kicks off Tuesday at the United Center with Oprah Winfrey returning to Chicago for a conversation with the former first lady before an audience of about 14,000.
Obama’s first book signing will take place on Tuesday afternoon before the “show” at the Seminary Co-op, 5751 S. Woodlawn Ave., not far from the Obamas’ Kenwood home.
Being a South Sider has always been a central part of Obama’s story – specifically, growing up in a close-knit family of modest means, the daughter of Fraser and Marian Robinson, whose own lives were impacted by the Great Migration and racism in the north and south.
Obama is 54, and the Chicago-related portions of the memoir put her life in the context of not only her family but of the larger, race-based issues Chicago was grappling with as she grew up.
“Decline can be a hard thing to measure, especially when you’re in the midst of it,” Obama writes.
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“Every September, when (her brother) Craig and I showed up back at Bryn Mawr Elementary, we’d find fewer white kids on the playground. Some had transferred to a nearby Catholic school, but many had left the neighborhood altogether.
“At first it felt as if just the white families were leaving, but then that changed, too. It soon seemed that anyone who had the means to go was now going. Much of the time, the departures went unannounced and unexplained” until a “For Sale” sign appeared or a moving van pulled up.
After Bryn Mawr, Obama attended Whitney Young High School on the West Side, a magnet school for top students.
Obama wrote, “My worries about high school, if they were to be cataloged, could mostly be led under one general heading: Am I good enough?”
Whitney Young opened her eyes about class and race and North Side Chicago.
“At Whitney Young, I met white kids who lived on the North Side — a part of Chicago that felt like the dark side of the moon, a place I’d never thought about nor had reason to go to.
“More intriguing was my early discovery that there was such a thing as an African-American elite. Most of my new high school friends were black, but that didn’t necessarily translate, it turned out, to any sort of uniformity in our experience.
“A number of them had parents who were lawyers or doctors and seemed to know one another through an African-American social club called Jack and Jill. They’d been on ski vacations and trips that required passports. They talked about things that were foreign to me, like summer internships and historically black colleges.”
After school, Obama and her pals sometimes headed to Water Tower Place. “Once there, we rode the escalators up and down, spent our money on gourmet popcorn from Garrett’s, and commandeered tables at McDonald’s for more hours than was reasonable, given how little food we ordered. We browsed the designer jeans and the purses at Marshall Field’s…. surreptitiously tailed by security guards who didn’t like the look of us.”
Other Chicago highlights from “Becoming”
On going downtown from the South Shore bungalow owned by her mother’s aunt Robbie, a piano teacher, and her husband, Terry Shields:
“My family made trips into the heart of the city only a handful of times a year, to visit the Art Institute or see a play, the four of us traveling like astronauts in the capsule of my dad’s Buick.”
On the changing neighborhood, racially mixed when she was a kid, almost all black by the time she left for college in 1981:
“Craig and I were raised squarely in the crosscurrents of that flux. The blocks surrounding us were home to Jewish families, immigrant families, white and black families, folks who were thriving and some who were not.”
On how her father, who worked for the City of Chicago at the Water Filtration Plant near Navy Pier, loved taking his family for rides in his Buick:
“Sometimes we’d end up in a neighborhood to the south, an area known as Pill Hill due to an apparently large number of African-American doctors living there. It was one of the prettier, more affluent parts of the South Side…”
“….Every year for the Air and Water Show, we packed a picnic and drove north along Lake Michigan to the fenced-off peninsula where my father’s water filtration plant was located.”
On how that Buick was scratched when visiting African-American friends who moved from South Shore to Park Forest, a community that seemed all white to her mother:
“I just remember the way my dad’s body stiffened slightly when he reached the driver’s side door and saw what was there. Someone had scratched a line across the side of his beloved Buick, a thin ugly gulch that ran across the door and toward the tail of the car. It had been done with a key or a rock and was in no way accidental.”
On her father being a precinct captain:
“He enjoyed his work as a precinct captain for the city’s Democratic Party. He’d held the post for years, in part because loyal service to the party machine was more or less expected of city employees.”
On her friendship with Santita Jackson, the daughter of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, and how she ended up marching in a Bud Billiken parade:
“Unlike at my apartment on Euclid, where life ran at an orderly and predictable pace, where my parents’ concerns rarely extended beyond keeping our family happy and on track for success, the Jacksons seemed caught up in something larger, messier, and seemingly more impactful.”
However, there was something “about politics in general, that made me queasy. For one thing, I was someone who liked things to be neat and planned in advance, and from what I could tell, there seemed to be nothing especially neat about a life in politics.”
As for the Billiken parade, “We’d been conscripted at the last minute, maybe by her mother or father, or by someone else in the movement who’d caught us before we could follow through on whatever ideas we’d had for ourselves that day. But I loved Santita dearly, and I was also a polite kid who for the most part went along with what adults told me to do, and so I’d done it. I’d plunged myself deep into the hot, spinning noisiness of the Bud Billiken Day Parade.”