Failure is a feeling long before it becomes an actual result.
Obama first states these words in Chapter 4 when explaining Bryn Mawr’s fight to remain afloat despite the “ghetto mentality” that was dismantling its South Shore neighborhood. By the time Michelle enters the seventh grade, her school has become predominantly Black and poor as white and affluent families leave the city in search of better opportunities in the suburbs. Obama explains how the fear of being stuck in worsening circumstances became a driving force for these families, and that fear exacerbated the problem until it became a reality. Though her own family shows commitment to their neighborhood and resiliency to override the fear, real estate agencies prey on the self-doubt of other families and convince them to sell their homes and get out before it’s too late. Obama returns to the idea of failure as a feeling before it is a result in Chapter 5, when her Whitney Young guidance counselor suggests that she is not Princeton material. Though Michelle’s family has encouraged her to reach far in achieving her goals, here she sees her guidance counselor plant a seed of doubt. Michelle ultimately rejects the suggestion that she will fail if she tries and instead pushes forward to succeed in gaining acceptance to Princeton.
I wanted to live with the hat-tossing, independent-career-woman zest of Mary Tyler Moore, and at the same time I gravitated toward the stabilizing, self-sacrificing, seemingly bland normalcy of being a wife and mother.
Obama narrates these lines in Chapter 12, illustrating one of the main themes of the book: the difficulty of balancing a fulfilling career and a happy home life. Michelle’s mother had stayed at home throughout her childhood and sacrificed her career ambitions to support her children. Michelle took this support for granted at the time, but she later reflects on what her mother must have sacrificed. After all of her hard work to succeed in school and her various jobs, Michelle doesn’t want to give up her ambitions, but she wants to provide the same firm foundation for her children that her family provided for her. Additionally, she is worried that Barack’s intense drive and focus could run her over, and she wants to preserve her own identity as opposed to being subsumed into his. This conflict later grows stronger as she becomes First Lady, a role that is often viewed primarily as being supportive to a husband. Although being First Lady is not a career in name, it requires great time and effort. Michelle must find ways to inhabit the role while remaining true to herself and her professional ambitions.
We grow up with messages that tell us that there’s only one way to be American—that if our skin is dark or our hips are wide, if we don’t experience love in a particular way, if we speak another language or come from another country, then we don’t belong. That is, until someone dares to start telling that story differently.
Obama uses these words in Chapter 24 to describe her thoughts after she sees the musical Hamilton in which an ethnically diverse cast portrays the story of the founding of the United States while highlighting the important roles of minorities. This idea of opening up the White House, the presidency, and the conception of the United States to more economically and racially diverse people has been very important to Michelle. Throughout her life, Michelle has maintained connections to the Black community while fostering connections with Americans from other backgrounds. She and Barack know that they are different from the past occupants of the White House, and in response, they embrace and celebrate diversity within its walls. Michelle brings many different kinds of people to the White House for performances, parties, and political initiatives. Her efforts to make the setting less formal and more open and welcoming show the importance of the White House as a symbol of belonging to all Americans.