PeterSlevin—journalist, author, and professor at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University— joined Jim Braude and Margery Eagan on Boston Public Radio to discuss his new book, "Michelle Obama: A Life."
On her childhood on the South Side of Chicago:
SLEVIN: Michelle Obama, then Robinson, was close physically, geographically to a very long extended family. They lived upstairs...in a very small apartment. Craig Robinson once told me 'if you said it was 1100 square feet, I'd say you were lying.' It was a one bedroom apartment. They were just a terribly close family. Michelle was extremely tight with her father, who was very gregarious and generous, worked as a Democratic precinct worker, and her mom, who was a stay-at-home mom until Craig and Michelle went to high school.
The parents carved up one of the rooms and basically put a partition down the middle so that Craig and Michelle could have some space. But it was the kind of space where they had plenty of time to talk into the night. Michelle said when she was in high school--she was very determined as a student, very disciplined--the house would be nervous with everyone on top of each other. She would sometimes get up at 4, 4:30, 5:00 in the morning to study when it was quiet.
On her first experiences at Princeton:
SLEVIN: [Michelle] arrived at Princeton at 1981. She was 17 years old. Her brother Craig was already there, he'd been there for 2 years. He was a basketball star. On the first day, when Michelle showed up, Craig dropped by to see if she was there. She wasn't. Michelle's new roommate took note that Craig was there and went off and mentioned to her mother...that she was actually about to room with an African American student. The student's mother went nuts, by her own description. She essentially begged, pleaded, and tried to cajole the Princeton authorities into removing her white daughter out of that room because she didn't want her living with a black student.
On going from the South Side of Chicago to the Ivy League:
SLEVIN: She was coming from a very, very different place, and did not always feel welcome. In fact, she writes about the fact that some white classmates and some white faculty at Princeton, as well-meaning as they might have been, saw her as a black person first and a student second.
On how her career changed after her husband became president:
SLEVIN: It cannot have been easy, and friends told me of the sort of road she has traveled along that way. Consider that after about 2007 her identity in most Americans minds was connected with Barack Obama. That's one of the reasons I wrote the book. She's such a remarkable character, I thought she should not always be seen as 'wife.' She gave up that identity, she had to. She had to quit her job, she left her hometown, she had a very prominent civic profile on her own in Chicago. She's really had to reinvent her life.
SLEVIN: She will have turned 53 three days before they leave in January 2017. She'll be doing some writing. She has also said she wants to continue working on education, which is one of her most recent projects, helping disadvantaged students get into higher education and higher training. She calls it the most important civil rights challenge of our generation.
To hear more from author Peter Slevin, tune in to Boston Public Radio above.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.