Chapters 5 & 6

Summary: Chapter 5

At his parents’ insistence, Craig is attending a predominantly white Catholic school with not only a strong basketball program but a rigorous curriculum. Marian has gone back to work, as an executive assistant, to help pay for tuition. Meanwhile, Michelle has tested into Whitney Young High School, a new magnet school. Ninety minutes away by bus, it serves mostly Black and Hispanic students. Michelle and a few classmates from the South Shore find that at Whitney Young, nobody gets criticized for being smart. Michelle is not among the most gifted students, but she finds that through hard work, she can perform at their level. 

Some of Michelle’s classmates have wealthy parents and are used to foreign travel. Michelle, by contrast, does not bother telling her parents about her French class’s planned trip to Paris. When they hear about the trip from another parent, they insist that Michelle go. Michelle becomes good friends with Santita Jackson, daughter of the civil rights leader, the Reverend Jesse Jackson. As Michelle and Santita sometimes get caught up in the tumult of Rev. Jackson’s public activities, Michelle realizes that life in politics is messy, not neat and predictable the way someone like her would prefer.

By the time Michelle is a senior, Craig is playing basketball at Princeton—as a starter, to his father’s delight. Michelle, who has often happily followed her brother’s lead, wants to attend Princeton, too. Despite a school counselor’s suggestion that Michelle may not be “Princeton material,” she gets in, thanks partly to a recommendation letter from an assistant principal whose kids she once babysat.

Summary: Chapter 6

In August of 1981, Michelle arrives at Princeton with her father and her boyfriend, David. He was Michelle’s coworker during a summer job, but although he cares about her, she realizes he is not the man for her. She awkwardly ends the relationship by being too busy for a final goodbye, before David and her father leave town. 

At first, certain aspects of Princeton life baffle Michelle, such as the question “You row crew?” Being Craig’s younger sister, however, occasionally opens doors for her. She sometimes encounters racism, but the most significant instance is unknown to her at the time. Partway through her freshman year, one of her white roommates moves out. Only years later does Michelle learn that the roommate’s mother did not want her daughter rooming with a Black girl.

The Third World Center (TWC) is a social hub for students of color. Michelle becomes good friends, and then roommates, with Suzanne, a carefree spirit from Jamaica. Rooming with Suzanne forces Michelle to realize that not everyone values having files alphabetized and clothes folded and put away. One day, this lesson will help her put up with a husband who has the same casual attitude about organizing his belongings. Michelle has a work-study job as the assistant to the TWC director, a Black single mother from New York, and often babysits the director’s young son. At the director’s urging, Michelle starts a small after-school program for children of Black Princeton staff. 

During her regular calls home, Michelle gets updates about aging relatives but never hears anything from her father about his own deteriorating condition. The reality hits home for her when her parents drive to Princeton to watch Craig play a home game, and Michelle sees her father in a wheelchair.

Analysis: Chapters 5 & 6

In Chapter 5, teenage Michelle questions for the first time whether she is good enough and battles the fear of failure. Michelle’s acceptance into Chicago’s first magnet school, Whitney Young, is a milestone for two main reasons. First, it is the first time she is setting off to a school on her own rather than following in her brother’s footsteps. Second, at school, Michelle is now surrounded by highly intelligent students and is no longer part of a smaller standout group. In this new high-pressure environment, Michelle is compelled to represent her neighborhood, and she worries that she won’t be good enough. Her repetitive “Not enough. Not enough” thoughts are a manifestation of her self-doubt. This doubt is reinforced when her school counselor dismisses her ambitions to attend Princeton. Michelle ultimately silences these doubts by studying hard, achieving good grades, and becoming her own advocate. Her determination results in several college acceptance offers and ultimate acceptance into Princeton. 

Michelle’s Whitney Young experience also exposes her to new socioeconomic challenges and political experiences. Though Michelle’s middle-class upbringing has fulfilled her basic needs and provided some limited luxuries, many of her fellow students come from far wealthier and more sophisticated backgrounds. Michelle’s understanding of what her parents have given her shows that she values their hard work, and her unwillingness to ask for more suggests both contentment and respect. Her parents’ insistence that she attend the Paris trip with her classmates indicates that they view Michelle as an extension of themselves and want her to have every opportunity for growth that they have not had. Michelle’s friendship with Santita Jackson also exposes her to both a higher level of wealth and the high-profile world of politics. Perhaps foreshadowing her own life when her husband enters politics, Michelle agrees that Rev. Jackson’s ideals are important, but the disruptions his campaigns bring to family life are jarring. Through time spent with Santita, Michelle learns early on that politics are messy and require a sacrifice of order and control. These teenage experiences broaden Michelle’s understanding of who she is, what she wants to become, and what she’d like to avoid. 

In Chapter 6, when Michelle attends Princeton, she finds herself for the first time navigating a white male-dominated environment. Though she gains some footing on campus during summer orientation, when the entire student populace returns to campus in the fall, Obama describes the stark otherness of the small Black student population as “poppy seeds in a bowl of rice.” Though Michelle learns the language of Princeton life and feels happy and pampered as a student, she recognizes the extra effort required to be the only Black student in the room, and she feels most comfortable in her social connections with Black and Latino students. Obama realizes that the larger goal of Princeton administrators was to create a campus atmosphere of ethnic blending, though, with a less than 9% Black freshman class, this objective was improbable. Obama also notes that the expectation to assimilate is also often unjustly placed on minorities. Through her work at the Third World Center, Michelle’s participation in advocacy efforts for minority students lay foundations that will become important in her later career choices, and her after-school program for kids foreshadows her later work with children as First Lady. She also continues to strive for overperformance, in part because she wants to prove she deserves to be at Princeton because of her academic successes and not because of affirmative action.