Michelle’s father wanted her to succeed in elite society, so she left the neighborhood for Princeton University, a place where she felt more like an outsider than Obama ever could have. She hung out at the Third World Center, part of a tight-knit circle of friends who didn’t belong to eating clubs, and worked an after-school job every day, waking up at dawn to do her schoolwork. Her thesis, “Princeton-Educated Blacks and the Black Community,” sought to answer the question of whether black students like herself—in 1985, the year of her graduation, this was a small group—would choose to assimilate to the white professional world or decide to aid lower-income communities after graduation. The thesis speaks of an experience of alienation felt by many rising black Americans trying to make it in the white world, but to some eyes it may make her seem insufficiently grateful for the fruits of her success. “I sometimes feel like a visitor on campus; as if I don’t really belong,” Michelle writes in her introduction. “Regardless of the circumstances under which I interact with whites at Princeton, it often seems as if, to them, I will always be a black first and a student second.”
Earlier this year, reporters tracked down the student who was assigned to be Michelle’s freshman-year roommate but transferred out of her room because her mother was unhappy that she had been assigned a black roommate. “Honest to God, Michelle doesn’t even remember that girl,” says Angela Acree about Michelle’s reaction to reporters’ calls on the topic. “She didn’t tell Michelle why she was leaving—she just left. Michelle was like, ‘Aiight!’ ” She laughs. “What I can’t believe is that Princeton actually agreed to move the girl’s room—and they gave her a single! They should’ve put her in a room with eight other white girls and been like, ‘Okay, you happy now?’ ”
“The fact that Barack did not choose a lighter-skinned woman sends a message to me,” says one supporter. Says another, “When I look at Michelle, Barack doesn’t have to be any blacker for me.”
Michelle and Barack’s trajectories crossed at Sidley Austin, a white-glove law firm in Chicago, in 1989. Obama was a first-year associate from Harvard Law School, from which Michelle had graduated the year before. Obama spent three years in between college and law school working as a community organizer in Chicago, so by the time he reached Harvard he was more of a fully formed personality. He moved easily in circles at school where Michelle wasn’t as comfortable, becoming the first black student to helm the Harvard Law Review. He thought deeply about the same conflict that Michelle wrote about in her thesis. “I could work in the black community as an organizer or a lawyer and still live in a high-rise downtown,” he writes, in Dreams From My Father. “Or the other way around: I could work in a blue-chip law firm but live in the South Side and buy a big house, drive a nice car, make my donations to the NAACP.”
At the firm, Michelle was assigned to be Barack’s mentor, but she began with suspicions. “Everyone was raving about this smart, attractive, young first-year associate they had recruited from Harvard,” she’s said. “Everyone was like, ‘Oh, he’s brilliant.’ I said, ‘Okay, this is probably just a brother who can talk straight.’ ”
On one level, it’s obvious that Michelle completed Barack’s American story, the one he told in Dreams From My Father. His fluid identity can startle people. But the couple’s all-American nuclear family—sold with masterful stagecraft on magazine covers from Essence to People to Ladies’ Home Journal—is reassuring. “She’s my rock,” he says, at every opportunity.
To black people, Michelle represents authenticity. It’s hard to overstate black love for her: “The fact that, as a successful black male, Barack did not choose a lighter-skinned woman, as most of them do, sends a message to me,” says a black female supporter at the Pontiac rally. “Michelle is highly sophisticated, yet she comes from the most humble background possible—no one can say she grew up in Martha’s Vineyard and she’s not really black,” says supporter Alicia Nails, a lecturer at Wayne State University, standing nearby. “I’ll tell you my personal philosophy about people: If I want to know who you are, I look at who you sleep with, and who you give your name. When I look at Michelle, Barack doesn’t have to be any blacker for me.”
On their first date, Barack and Michelle ate ice cream from a Baskin-Robbins and went to see Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. It’s a heavily symbolic moment, so perfect that it could’ve been scripted. Afterward, they discussed the scene where Mookie, played by Lee, throws a garbage can through the front window of Sal’s pizzeria to start a race riot. “I think that specific scene represented the character’s frustration with the lack of opportunity and feelings of powerlessness that he saw within his own community,” says Michelle. “And that’s what is so wonderful about the excitement surrounding Barack’s candidacy—his campaign is really about bringing people together to realize their own power in more productive ways.”