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Michelle’s story begins in late-1960s Chicago, in a South Shore bungalow. Her parents, Fraser and Marian Robinson, rent a cramped upstairs apartment from Marian’s aunt Robbie and uncle Terry, who live downstairs. Terry, a retired railway porter, is always well-dressed and never says much. Robbie teaches piano in her home, with a stern, demanding teaching style. Michelle’s older brother, Craig, takes lessons, and when Michelle is about four, she wants lessons, too. Their family is full of music lovers, especially on Michelle’s mother’s side—people like Grandfather Shields, Robbie’s younger brother, who likes to play albums on his elaborate stereo system. His nickname became “Southside” when he moved into the neighborhood near Michelle’s family. He will later buy Michelle her first album, Stevie Wonder’s Talking Book.
The chipped middle C key on Robbie’s piano makes it easy for Michelle to find her way on the keyboard. Because she works hard, she improves rapidly, but she and Robbie start to clash when Michelle insists on playing harder songs than Robbie thinks she is ready for. Michelle’s parents find the conflict amusing. The day comes when Michelle must perform at the annual recital Robbie puts on for all her students. Michelle’s father drives the family to the downtown venue in his beloved Buick Electra. He parks as close to the entrance as possible, as has been his habit ever since he began having trouble walking and was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Once seated at the pristine keyboard of the baby grand piano onstage, Michelle cannot find middle C. But after Robbie quietly places her fingers in the right position, Michelle is on her way.
When Michelle starts school, she is eager to succeed, and her mother is strongly supportive. After Michelle complains about her boring, unruly second-grade class, her mother gets Michelle and several other gifted students moved up into a better-run third-grade class. In other areas of life, however, Craig is the gifted one. He is a talented basketball player and has an easy time making friends, whereas Michelle is less sociable and prefers to stay at home. At age ten, she does manage to earn a mean girl’s respect by going after the girl with her fists.
In the 1970s, white families and well-off Black families are leaving the South Shore. Michelle’s parents stay. Although her father never finished community college, he has a steady job at a water filtration plant that allows the family to afford a few modest luxuries. Every year, the Robinsons, plus an aunt and two cousins, spend a week at a resort. In the pool, Michelle’s father can forget about his diminished leg strength and playfully toss the children around, like the muscular athlete he once was.
When some close friends of the Robinsons buy a home in the suburbs, the Robinsons drive down for a visit. Craig quickly makes new friends on the basketball court, but Michelle and her parents find the environment sterile. The other family is light-skinned enough to pass unnoticed in the overwhelmingly white neighborhood, but by the time the Robinsons are ready to head home, someone has put a long scrape in the side of the Buick.
Michelle Obama’s memoir traces her life, but it focuses on the theme of becoming: she believes that one becomes oneself over time and that the self is always growing and changing. In these opening chapters of the first section of the book, “Becoming Me,” Obama describes how familial love and dedication can foster self-worth and success. Michelle’s childhood neighborhood is small and filled with supportive family. Her mother, Marian’s, decision to teach her to read at an early age shows her keen attentiveness to Michelle’s intelligence. When she later intervenes at Michelle’s school, helping create a gifted classroom where Michelle can thrive, Marian prevents Michelle from being stifled by an ill-equipped educator. Michelle’s father, Fraser, offers her an example of hard work and stoicism as he quietly accepts his diagnosis of multiple sclerosis and continues to be lovingly present for his family despite his growing disability. Though Aunt Robbie’s piano teaching methods are strict and frustrating for Michelle, she learns the important correlation between rigor and success. Michelle’s grandfather Southside provides her with an environment of indulgence and celebration and a lasting love of jazz music. Each member of Michelle’s family serves a role in the development of her bright mind and exploration of her abilities and interests.
The slow decline of the Robinson family’s South Shore neighborhood described in these early chapters represents a major setback for Black America as a whole: the larger migration of more affluent American families away from the cities and into the suburbs. It also underscores the underlying racism that was not always apparent to Michelle as a child but became glaringly obvious to her as an adult. Though the Robinsons are comfortable and happy in their ethnically diverse middle-class neighborhood, Michelle and Craig realize that fewer white students attend their elementary school each year, and later, that non-white affluent families are also leaving the city for the promises of better education and more freedoms in the suburbs. Obama notes, however, that many of the new suburban neighborhoods had quotas on how many Black families would be permitted. On her first trip to the suburbs, Michelle’s uneasy feeling arises from the lack of livelihood and visual diversity in the Stewarts’ neighborhood. When they return to their car to find it scratched, it becomes apparent that the Robinsons are a foreign presence that the white neighbors won’t tolerate even for a brief visit.
These early chapters also present Fraser’s car as a symbol of familial closeness and safety against the outside world. Though Michelle and Craig’s South Shore neighborhood world is small, their father’s Buick Electra 225, which the Robinson family lovingly dubs “the Deuce and a Quarter,” allows Michelle and her brother to safely view the larger world around them. The car becomes an extension of their second-floor apartment on Euclid Avenue as they talk and eat while traveling to other neighborhoods to explore other parts of Chicago and beyond. For Michelle’s father, the car represents freedom, as he can move around freely without exerting his deteriorating muscles. When the car is maliciously scraped while parked in the Stewart family’s white suburban neighborhood, the vandalism is interpreted as an attack on the Robinson family and is a perceived threat to both their freedom and safety as Black Americans. Michelle’s father is quick to have the mark removed and thereby restore control over his family’s dignity, safety, and freedom.