In advance of her highly anticipated memoir, Becoming, the former first lady opens up to close friend OPRAH WINFREY about love, leadership and her inspiring journey from the South Side of Chicago to the White House and beyond
MICHELLE OBAMA: Well, I start the preface right at one of the first weeks after we moved into our new home after the transition — our new home in Washington, a couple miles away from the White House. It’s a beautiful brick home, and it’s the first regular house, with a door and a doorbell, that I have had in about eight years.
OW: Eight years.
MO: And so that toast story is about one of the first nights I was alone there — the kids were out, Malia was on her gap year, I think Barack was travelling, and I was alone for the first time. As a first lady, you’re not alone much. There are people in the house always, there are men standing guard. There is a house full of SWAT people, and you can’t open your windows or walk outside without causing a fuss.
OW: You can’t open a window?
MO: Can’t open a window. Sasha actually tried one day — Sasha and Malia both. But then we got the call: “Shut the window.”
MO: So here I am in my new home, just me and [my dogs] Bo and Sunny, and I do a simple thing. I go downstairs and open the cabinet in my own kitchen — which you don’t do in the White House because there’s always somebody there going, “Let me get that. What do you want? What do you need?” — and I made myself toast. Cheese toast. And then I took my toast and I walked out into my backyard. I sat on the stoop, and there were dogs barking in the distance, and I realised Bo and Sunny had really never heard neighbour dogs. They’re like, What’s that? And I’m like, “Yep, we’re in the real world now, fellas.”
OW: In reading the book, I can see how every single thing you’ve done in your life has prepared you for the moments and years ahead. I do believe this.
MO: That’s if you think about it that way. If you view yourself as a serious person in the world, every decision that you make really does build to who you are going to become.
OW: Yes, and I can see that from you in the first grade. You were an achiever with an A+++ attitude.
MO: Yeah. Looking back, I realised there was something about me that understood context. My parents gave us the freedom to have thoughts and ideas very early on.
OW: They basically let you and [your brother] Craig figure it out?
MO: Oh gosh, yeah, they did. And what I realised was that achievement mattered, and that kids would get tracked early, and that if you didn’t demonstrate ability — particularly as a black kid of the South Side from a working-class background — then people were already ready to put you in a box of underachievement. I didn’t want people to think I wasn’t a hardworking kid. I didn’t want them to think I was ‘one of those kids’. The ‘bad kids’. There are no bad kids — there are bad circumstances.
OW: You mention this phrase that I like so much, I think it should be on a T-shirt or something. “Failure,” you say, “is a feeling long before it becomes an actual result. It’s vulnerability that breeds with self-doubt and then is escalated, often deliberately, by fear.” Failure is a feeling long before it becomes an actual result. You knew this when?
MO: Oh, first grade. I could see my neighbourhood changing around me. We moved there in the 1970s. We lived with my great-aunt in a very little apartment over a home she owned. She was a teacher and my great-uncle was a Pullman porter, so they were able to purchase a home in what was then a predominately white community. Our apartment was so small that what was probably the living room was divided up into three ‘rooms’. Two were for me and my brother; each fit a twin bed, and it was just wood panelling that separated us — there was no real wall, we could talk right between us. Like, “Craig?”, “Yep?”, “I’m up. You up?” We would throw a sock over the panelling as a game.
OW: The picture you paint so beautifully in Becoming is that the four of you — you, Craig and your parents — each was a corner of a square. Your family was the square.
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