Chapters 3 & 4

Summary: Chapter 3

With memories still raw of a neighborhood fire that claimed the lives of three children, Fraser Robinson allows Craig to conduct drills on how to get Fraser to safety in the event of an emergency. Realistic about the burdens his illness places on others, Michelle’s father values opportunities to be useful. He serves as a precinct captain for the Democratic party and in that capacity regularly makes the rounds of the neighborhood, often with a reluctant Michelle in tow. Doing rounds with her father helps Michelle become more outgoing.

Michelle’s grandfather Southside helps, too, by hosting lively family gatherings at his house. He also buys Michelle a dog that stays with him but is officially hers. Michelle’s grandfather Dandy, her father’s father, is a more intimidating figure. He shouts a great deal—at the television, at idle young men in his neighborhood, and at his wife, LaVaughn. Michelle is the only one in the family to regularly argue back at Dandy. It bothers her that LaVaughn, by day a successful bookstore manager, should at night meekly submit to being yelled at. Some of Dandy’s anger comes from bitterness over unfulfilled dreams of college, and over jobs he was denied at a time when Black men were often excluded from labor unions.

During a visit at Dandy and LaVaughn’s, one of Michelle’s cousins asks why she talks “like a white girl.” Michelle’s parents, and Dandy, too, have always insisted that she use proper English and enunciate. Now, her way of speaking and presenting herself is raising suspicions in others. Someday, when her husband is elected president, he will face similar questions.

Summary: Chapter 4

As better-off families move out of Michelle’s neighborhood, her school struggles to maintain instructional quality. Marian Robinson serves tirelessly on the PTA, raising funds for school equipment, hosting dinners for teachers, and backing the principal’s plans to create a multi-grade program for gifted students. When Michelle is placed in the program, she excels. At home, Michelle’s mother keeps a clean house, finds budget-conscious ways for the family to celebrate Christmas, and wisely lets Craig find his own way in a relationship with a girl. Every spring, as Michelle learns years later, Marian entertains thoughts of leaving Fraser, and every spring she puts those thoughts aside. She will stay in the same house another forty years, long after her husband has passed away.

At fourteen, Michelle is starting to enter womanhood. She spends less time with Southside and more time with two sisters who are her best friends. Together, the three of them try on clothes and learn how to appreciate boys and attract their attention. Another friend helps Michelle arrange her first kiss, with a boy the friend knows from choir. Michelle also learns that her body can attract unwanted looks and comments from men. Her parents turn the upstairs back porch into an enclosed space and reassign bedrooms so that Craig and Michelle each get a room to themselves. Gradually, Michelle is becoming more and more her own person.

Analysis: Chapters 3 & 4

These chapters demonstrate a core principle of the Robinson family that helps shape Michelle in childhood: a person’s time is a gift to be given to others in service of a greater good. Both Fraser and Marian find ways to contribute to and support their community in an attempt to uphold and improve it. When she accompanies her father on his visits to community members as Democratic precinct chair, Michelle sees that personal connections with voters have a positive impact on local politics. Though young Michelle doesn’t enjoy the visits, during which her father takes extra time to talk with voters about their personal and family issues as well as their community-related concerns, she understands her father’s commitment to fixing problems. Meanwhile, as wealthy and white families continue to leave the neighborhood, her mother demonstrates the importance of education as she heavily invests time in improving Bryn Mawr, their neighborhood school. This lays the foundation of Michelle’s later belief that education is one of the most important factors in improving people’s lives. Her parents’ actions also show her that investing time in the community is an effective way to ensure it will best serve its residents.

Obama also illustrates the struggle with Black identity that can arise from being well-educated and therefore perceived as “other.” When Michelle is about ten years old, her distant cousin asks her why she talks like a white person. Michelle’s insistence that she doesn’t shows her mortification at being singled out as “other” within her own culture. She understands, however, that her family has encouraged this otherness in an attempt to elevate Michelle and Craig beyond their middle-class upbringing. Though Obama presents this one instance in her childhood, she connects this racial-identity struggle to the one she and her husband will later face during his presidential campaign. The idea that one’s appearance and actions must align to be considered trustworthy plays out on a smaller scale in this scene in which she is questioned for her use of proper diction. Here, she combats the problem by falling silent and hiding any hint of privilege so as not to be rejected, but in doing so, she excludes herself.