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  • Writer's pictureKaren Herbert

Discovering Common Ground with Michelle Obama

Updated: Apr 29, 2023

With Michelle Obama! That's right, the Internet's Best Karen read Becoming by the former First Lady and was surprised by the similarities in our backgrounds. Isn't that what we all need to do, find common ground so the "Others" aren't really so "Other" anymore?

It began with our birth month - January. Michelle Robinson was born on the 17th, just a few years after I was born during that same January week. Both of us entered the world at the tail end of the Boomer Generation under the same Zodiac sign. Her parents, Frazier and Marian Robinson, were born in the 1930s, as were my parents.

Michelle Robinson's family lived in an apartment on the second floor of her great-aunt’s house on the South Side of Chicago. My parents first lived with my grandmother in Kansas City, and that's where I spent my baby and toddler years. Our homes were both in segregated areas within these Midwestern cities, which is both a similarity and a contrast. Had we been in the same city, we would have never met, and I feel like we could have been friends in some utopian neighborhood in the otherwise racially-charged 1960s.

Frazier Robinson, her father, was a city water plant employee and her mother was a stay-at-home mom. My father was from a working-class family like Robinson’s and was able to attend a university with the benefit of the GI Bill. My mother's father was a union carpenter, and she stayed home with us, too. Our early memories are alike in many ways.

"...I was just a kid, a girl with Barbies and blocks, with two parents and an older brother who slept each night with his head about three feet from mine. My family was my world, my center of everything." (pg. 4)

Michelle Robinson grew up with home-cooked meals, piano lessons, visits with grandparents, and extended family. I grew up with home-cooked meals, a keen desire for piano lessons that was never realized, visits with grandparents and extended family. The book relates many instances of holidays and visits, playing with cousins just as I did. Another sort of sweet common memory is how both our fathers loved to drive!

"My father loved any excuse to drive. He was devoted to his car, a bronze-colored two-door Buick Electra, which he referred to with pride as "The Deuce and a Quarter." He kept it buffed and waxed and was religious about the maintenance schedule..." (pg. 15)

Michelle and The Deuce and a Quarter (Obama-Robinson Family Archives))

My dad had a series of company cars and kept them all in good condition. He drove all over his sales territory without complaint and drove us on vacation, too. One of my last memories of my dad is him driving across the country to visit me in our new South Carolina home. But my dad never had to worry about his car being vandalized or keyed when he visited friends in another neighborhood. That happened to Frazier Robinson when he drove the family to visit friends that had moved out to the suburbs. I wondered if my white relatives would have done something like that to a Black family that parked on our street.

I continued to find commonalities as I read. She portrayed herself as a "people pleaser" growing up, and I'm the same way. People pleasers almost always do well in school. There was a key difference, though. As the South Side demographics changed and schools got shortchanged, Marian Robinson got Michelle and several other students moved to a special program. Later, Michelle would ride a bus three hours a day to attend a magnet high school. Schools in my area were highly rated - and all-white - while I was growing up.

One memory she related made me smile, as it is something I remember about my own time living at home. I could hear my own parents exactly as she recounted.

I'd catch the flicker of television light coming from my parents' room and hear them murmuring quietly, laughing to themselves. Just as I never wondered what it was like for my mother to be a full-time at-home mother, I never wondered then what it meant to be married. I took my parents' union for granted. It was the simple solid fact upon which all four of our lives were built." (pg. 51)

Both sets of our parents valued higher education. Reading Becoming, I learned that it was always Michelle’s and her brother’s goal to go to college, and the Robinsons did everything possible to ensure that happened. Both of them were accepted to Princeton and attended this Ivy League institution. My father was a first-generation college graduate and strongly encouraged me and my siblings to go to college as well, and all five of us did attend college and graduate.

Michelle Robinson ended up attending Princeton University. Her brother was ahead of her, and it seemed that made the transition a bit easier for her. She would be in the minority - at the time Princeton was mostly white and male. Men outnumbered women 2 to 1 and Blacks were less than 9% of the freshman class. As she described how she adapted and met the challenges, I was reminded of my college days at a majority male engineering college. But since my skin was the same color as those males, I didn't have that extra layer of "Other." I never had to worry that other students resented or hated me for who I was.

Michelle Robinson at Princeton (Obama-Robinson Family Archives)

"It takes energy to be the only black person in a lecture hall or one of a few nonwhite people trying out for a play or joining an intramural team. It requires effort, an extra level of confidence, to speak in those settings and own your presence in the room." (pg. 75)

The book continued and our stories diverged. Michelle Robinson graduated from Harvard Law School began working as a lawyer after graduation; I worked as a chemical engineer. Both of us went back to our hometowns. She met the man she would marry, as did I. (She's the one that chose a future President in case you missed that.) We both had trouble conceiving our children and rejoiced when fertility treatments worked. Of course, that meant balancing work and family for both of us. Michelle Obama detailed much of how she juggled and figured things out, the same of any other working mother in the 1990s and 2000s.

Of course, the Michelle Obama story kept going, all the way to the White House! I enjoyed reading about family life in the White House from a mother's point of view and found she still worried about her daughters, but also she cared about all the children in our country and began initiatives in mentoring and the "Let's Move" program.

Barack Obama, Michelle Obama, White House, Pete Souza
Family time at the White House. Photo Credit: Pete Souza, Time

To learn more about Becoming, visit here. There is a Young Reader version available and a Netflix documentary. I highly recommend reading this book - while it's a personal history, it's also full of hope and patriotism. A very positive story about how a young girl who felt sometimes that she wasn't enough because of the color of her skin became the First Lady of the United States.

There is one last connection I have to Michelle Obama, though it's not related to any commonality and rather tangential. In 2011, my sister and I were in Georgetown, South Carolina. We visited the Gullah Museum of South Carolina, a small building tucked away in a residential area. It was full of traditional crafts, educational materials, and Gullah story quilts. The owner and creator of the quilts, Vermelle "Bunny" Smith Rodrigues, proudly showed us the Michelle Obama story quilt. She explained that Michelle had roots in the Gullah culture - her ancestors were slaves brought to the South Carolina shores and she still has family in what is called the Low Country and Sea Islands of the state. The quilt has panels that tell the amazing and wonderful story of a woman who went from a slave cabin to the White House. We were honored to see this work of art that is now in the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

Michelle Obama, Story Quilt, Gullah Museum
Michelle Obama Story Quilt, photo taken by Karen

Disclaimer: I received no compensation for this article; I purchased the book myself.

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1 Comment

Feb 26, 2021

I doubt I’ll read the book, but thanks for providing a glimpse and the comparisons.

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