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New Book Details The Life and Times of Michelle Obama

Peter Slevin's biography 'Michelle Obama' explores race, discrimination, opportunity

  • Northwestern journalism professor writes first comprehensive biography of first lady
  • Book chronicles Obama’s unlikely rise from segregated South Side to White House
  • Slevin: ‘If Barack was a helium balloon, Michelle was the one holding the string’
  • Discussion, book signing and reception with author Slevin at Northwestern on April 21

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Like many professional women, Michelle Obama was struggling with work-life balance and frustrated with a partner who was less involved than she’d expected, according to a new biography from a Northwestern University journalism professor. 


One night, while stewing over the fact that she was the one who dragged herself out of bed at 4 a.m. to feed daughter Sasha, she had an epiphany. If she wasn’t available, Barack Obama would have to do it.

“So she started slipping out of the house before dawn to drive to a gym in Chicago’s West Loop,” Northwestern University Associate Professor Peter Slevin wrote in ‘Michelle Obama: A Life.’ “By the time she arrived home, Barack would have Sasha and Malia up and fed.”


A dedicated partner but a force in her own right, Obama handled the problem with characteristic pluck, according to Slevin’s lively and meticulously researched book, the first comprehensive look into the life of the most unlikely first lady in recent history.

Obama listened to her mother’s advice (“don’t sweat the small stuff”) and made peace with the situation and her husband, who at the time was campaigning for the U.S. Senate.

“Her friends call her the most strategic person they have ever met,” Slevin said. “No other modern first lady was so urban, so mindful and outspoken about inequality, or so consistently engaged.”

Slevin, a former Washington Post reporter and faculty member at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications, chronicled Obama’s trajectory from her working class childhood on Chicago’s largely segregated South Side to Princeton, Harvard, and ultimately, the White House.  Probing deep into her family history -- dating back to slavery -- he explored the myriad forces that shaped, challenged and inspired her along the way.

Obama is not without self-doubt and criticism, and Slevin writes about her very human and personal choices that play out in the glare of political life. But overall, she is portrayed as a tough, competitive, organized and determined woman, one who has doggedly worked to “‘unstack the deck’ for minorities and the poor.” She is also someone who can keep the president grounded. “If Barack was a helium balloon, Michelle was the one holding the string,” Slevin wrote. 

“Michelle Obama has a tremendously engaging story, one that gave me the chance to write about history, Chicago, race and gender,” Slevin said of the former Michelle LaVaughn Robinson. “These are conversations that have been going on her whole life.”

Published by Knopf, ‘Michelle Obama: A Life’ will go on sale April 7. The ambitious biography already “has Washington buzzing with its portrait of the country’s first African-American first lady,” according to The New York Times.

Slevin will discuss his biography on April 21 at 4 p.m. at the McCormick Foundation Center  Forum, 1870 Campus Drive in Evanston. A book signing and reception will follow the event, which is hosted by Medill and the Department of African-American Studies.

Highlights include:

  • Few people know about Obama’s 20-year career in Chicago. Slevin shows how tenaciously she fought to expand minority contracting at the University of Chicago. Slevin also details how Obama lobbied for greater economic diversity at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools while on the board.

  • For the first time, the achievements of Obama’s relatives are highlighted. One of Obama’s inspirations was her great-great aunt, Ora Higgins, who earned two degrees from Northwestern and played an instrumental role in integrating the large mail-order retailer Spiegel in the 1940s. She lived until 2012 and Michelle knew her well. Obama’s uncle, Nomenee Robinson, graduated from Harvard Business School after serving in the Peace Corps. During his reporting, Slevin found a New York Times photograph of him with Jackie Kennedy when she visited India in 1962 as first lady. “Her relatives were anchored on the south side of Chicago at a time when it was a very segregated city and the opportunity for African-Americans was very narrow,” Slevin said.

  • Readers gain insights into Obama’s parenting style. Obama, who lifted weights, jumped rope, kickboxed and played tennis to keep fit, decreed that the girls would each play two sports, Slevin wrote. But there was a catch: The girls would pick one sport, Michelle would select the other. “I want them to understand what it feels like to do something you don’t like and to improve, because in life you don’t always get to do the things you want,” Obama said, according to the book.

  • Obama’s mother and father, Marian and Frasier Robinson, are two of the most intriguing characters of the book. African-American parents face a fundamental tension in raising children, Slevin said. “The message they have to convey -- ‘yes it’s a racist world, but no, it won’t hold you back’ -- is the message Michelle heard,” he said. In the book, Obama describes her late father -- a gregarious city water plant worker afflicted with multiple sclerosis – as “the voice in my head that keeps me whole and keeps me grounded.” Marian Robinson, who moved into the third floor of the White House, offered a different kind of support. “I can always go up to her room and cry, complain, argue,” Obama said, according to the book. “And she just says, “Go on back down there and do what you’re supposed to do.”

Slevin began reporting on the Obamas during the 2007 presidential campaign while working as the Washington Post’s Chicago Bureau Chief. After following Michelle Obama to a half-dozen states, he realized she had already become a point of reference and contention who deserved to be at the center of her own narrative.

During more than seven years of research for the book, Slevin interviewed Obama’s relatives and friends, mentors and former colleagues. He drew on unpublished or largely unknown interviews with Obama, her mother and her husband.

Though he wasn’t able to interview Obama beyond the two sessions held after the first presidential campaign, her voice carries throughout the book, pulled from those interviews, as well as her own speeches or writing dating back to the 1980s, when she was a student at Princeton and Harvard. Slevin also conducted countless interviews with people who knew her, all the way back to elementary school.

“We can learn something about Michelle by exploring her friends,” he said.  

Slevin wrote much of the book at Deering Library on the Northwestern campus; he received tremendous help from student research assistants and several faculty members expert in Chicago and African-American history. Among them were Martha Biondi, Mary Pattillo, Henry Binford and Darlene Clark Hine, who was awarded a National Humanities Medal by President Obama in 2013.  

“Whether I was trying to solve a riddle of the reporting, the thinking or the writing, it was very energizing to work on,” Slevin said. He wrote in the acknowledgements, “Truth be told, there was never a day when I did not look forward to working on this project.”

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