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Isabel Wilkerson on Michelle Obama and the Great Migration

Isabel Wilkerson on Michelle Obama and the Great Migration


This was where their temperaments and upbringing were at odds. She wanted the kind of family stability she had grown up with. “Barack had always had his eyes on some far-off horizon, on his notion of the world as it should be,” she writes. “Just for once, I wanted him to be content with life as it was.” By then, they had been through five campaigns in 11 years. “Each one had put a little dent in my soul and also in our marriage,” she writes. Bottom line: She didn’t want him to run for president, especially not then. They talked about it over and over. She agreed to support him, she writes, because “I loved him and had faith in what he could do.” Speaking in London in early December, she was more candid, saying “deep down” she believed “there’s no way he’s going to win. And we can just sort of get this out of the way. … That was my whole plan.”

The plan backfired spectacularly, and the pressures would be immense. “We knew that as a black candidate he couldn’t afford any sort of stumble,” she writes. When she began stumping for her husband in Iowa, campaign advisers told her that her mission was to energize volunteers and win over local leaders in talks across the state. But she says she was given “no script, no talking points, no advice.” She had to figure out on her own what her message would be, and decided to be herself in what would be the public introduction of the frank and down-to-earth persona that would land her the nickname “the Closer.” “I didn’t sugarcoat my feelings about politics,” she writes. “The political world was no place for good people,” she told audiences, explaining how she’d been “conflicted about whether Barack should run at all, worried about what the spotlight might do to our family.”

True to her fears, the bigger the two of them got, the greater the scrutiny and criticism. Just before the Wisconsin primary, a 10-second clip from a 40-minute speech in Milwaukee began to circulate online. In it, Michelle opened up about how the outpouring of support for her husband’s campaign had made her feel hopeful, given the country’s divisive history. “For the first time in my adult lifetime,” she said, “I’m really proud of my country.” The condemnation was immediate. People fell over themselves to declare how much they loved their country. “In trying to speak casually,” she writes, “I’d forgotten how weighted each little phrase could be.” She worried that she had sunk her husband’s chances on the eve of a tight race. She called him while he was en route to Texas, and apologized. He shrugged it off. “I know this stuff is rough,” he said. “But it’ll blow over. It always does.”

When he finally won the Democratic nomination, she joined him on stage in Minnesota and greeted him with what she considered “a playful fist bump,” only to see it interpreted on Fox News as “a terrorist fist jab.” A news chyron on the same network called her “Obama’s Baby Mama,” playing to an ugly stereotype about urban black women, “implying an otherness that put me outside even my own marriage.” Over time, people would critique the width of her hips and the color of her nail polish. “I am telling you this stuff hurt,” she writes. As it was, the government had assigned her husband Secret Service protection earlier than any presidential candidate, a full year and a half before he could even become president-elect, owing to the seriousness of the threats against him. She didn’t want to think about the dangers they faced, much less talk about them, though privately she was grateful for the people of all backgrounds who clasped her hands at campaign events and told her, “We’re praying nobody hurts you.”



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