Monday, December 1, 2008

Your Black World: How Black America Shaped Michelle Obama

Michelle Obama may be the pride of the South Side, but her undergraduate years at Princeton also helped shape her worldview.

A new biography, Michelle (Simon & Schuster), by Washington Post reporter Liza Mundy, delves into Obama's years at the elite university, in particular Obama's senior thesis, "Princeton-Educated Blacks and the Black Community.''

"The question of what upper-income blacks owe to the less fortunate was a major preoccupation," Mundy writes.

Michelle Obama grew up here as the daughter of a city worker who provided a modest middle-class lifestyle for Michelle, his wife and son. Neither of her parents had a college degree, and Obama grew up speaking, as she put it, "two languages.'' In order not to alienate some of her childhood friends, she said she had to be "smart without acting smart.''

But after graduating from Whitney Young High School in Chicago, Obama seemed to sense that her future promised a more prestigious social position.

For her 1985 thesis research, Obama mailed questionnaires to black Princeton alumni, asking whether they were more comfortable spending time with blacks or with whites, and how they felt about African Americans who weren't doing as well as they were.

Mundy writes that Obama was curious about obligations that educated blacks may feel to help improve the life of the black lower class. In her thesis, Obama asked about "feelings of shame or envy toward the Black lower class."

"When you think of lower-class Black Americans and the life they lead, how true for you personally are the following statements?" she asked.

Among the answers: "I feel proud that I have been strong enough to avoid remaining in, or falling into, that life," and "I feel lucky that I was given opportunities that they are not given." Black Princeton alumni were also asked if they "feel guilty that I may be betraying them in some way," as well as "I feel ashamed of them," and "Their situation is hopeless."

For Obama, who graduated with honors with a degree in sociology and a minor in African-American studies, predominantly white Princeton made her, for the first time, self-conscious about her race, says Mundy.

"My experiences at Princeton have made me far more aware of my Blackness than ever before," Obama wrote in her thesis. "I have found that at Princeton no matter how liberal and open-minded some of my White professors and classmates may try to be toward me, I sometimes feel like a visitor on campus, as if I really don't belong. ... It often seems as if, to them, I will always be Black first and a student second."

Mundy says Obama was anticipating that life would put "her further into a white-dominated culture, and did not look forward to it."

Princeton "will likely lead to my further integration and/or assimilation into a White cultural and social structure that will only allow me to remain on the periphery of society; never becoming a full participant," Obama wrote.

Given that Obama would become first lady, Mundy calls her conclusion "one of the most ironic sentences ever written."

Her thesis found that when African Americans are at Princeton as students, they tended to identify more with their race, but after graduating, less so. Obama, now 44, pledged not to forget the black underclass.

Some commentators such as Christopher Hitchens have suggested that in the thesis, Obama was advocating racial separatism. Mundy said it's difficult to make conclusions because parts of the report are "dense and turgid.''

But Mundy, also a Princeton grad, sympathetically describes the thesis as the work "of a young woman who badly missed her parents" and unaware that it could be manipulated by her future husband's political enemies some day.

Princeton "was a real crossroads of identity for Michelle,'' Charles Ogletree, her adviser at Harvard Law School, tells Mundy.

Obama's question to herself was whether she would retain the identity given to her by her African-American parents, or whether the education from an elite university would transform her into something different, said Ogletree.

"By the time she got to Harvard, she had answered the question,'' said Ogletree. "She could be both brilliant and black."

From Chicago Sun-Times

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