Unpacking Michelle Obama’s toolbox

Review: Vivien Horler

The Light We Carry – Overcoming in uncertain times, by Michelle Obama (Viking/ Penguin)

If there is one quote associated with former US First Lady Michelle Obama, it is probably: “When they go low, we go high.”

In this, Obama’s second book after her best-selling memoir Becoming, she says whenever she is interviewed or sits down with a new group of people, someone will ask her: “What does it mean to go high?”

She first uttered the sentence at the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, when Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were running for president. And we know how that turned out.

All she was doing, she says, was sharing a motto her family tried to live by, “a convenient bit of shorthand Barack and I used to remind ourselves to hang on to our integrity when we saw others losing theirs”.

Going high is like drawing a line in the sand – thinking: what side of this do I want to be on? Going high is always always a test, which is why, she says, she said it at the convention: the US was being tested, was facing a moral challenge.

Today with everything that has happened over the past few years: Trump, Covid, the war in Ukraine, George Floyd’s murder, the invasion of the Capitol building, the Taliban’s take on gender equality, people ask her: “Are we still supposed to be going high?”

The answer, she says, is yes, always yes. “We must commit and recommit ourselves to the idea. Operating with integrity matters. It will matter forever. It is a tool.”

It is not about whether people should fight for fairness, decency and justice – it’s about how to fight.

In 2016, she says, she was agitated and provoked after eight years of seeing her husband’s work undermined, his character denigrated, attempts to call his citizenship into question. “And I was angry that the chief instigator of that bigotry was now out campaigning to be president.”

But she cautions that going high means taking a moment to think. It is about resisting the temptation to “participate in shallow fury and corrosive contempt and instead figuring out how to respond with a clear voice to whatever is shallow and corrosive around you. It’s what happens when you take a reaction and mature it into a response”.

This is because emotions are not plans and they don’t solve problems. “If you don’t do something constructive with them, they’ll take you straight into the ditch.

“My power has always hinged on my ability to keep myself out of the ditch.”

I think these are wise words, which can be applied to all sorts of situations, from campaigning against fossil fuels or statues to an argument with a spouse or a friend.

At the beginning of this book Obama says her intent in writing it is to show people how she has coped in difficult situations. She doesn’t have a magic formula for success, but she has tools to help her deal with her life, to help her stay balanced and confident. The motto about going high is one of them.

This volume is less of a memoir than Becoming was, although there are many glimpses into Obama family life, and making the adjustment from a fairly ordinary black family lifestyle to the extraordinary experience of living in the White House.

In one incident early in their stay she tells how her daughter, then around seven or eight, invited a friend to play, and how this invitation affected Olivia and her mother Denielle. First they needed to be cleared and the Secret Service visited them a few days in advance to give a briefing.

Then the day came, and Denielle was told she could drive up to the White House but wasn’t allowed to get out of the car. Awed by the whole experience, she had her hair done and the car cleaned.

When it came to picking Olivia up, Denielle was warned again: “Do not get out of your car, ma’am.”

But Michelle thought it was kind of weird to surrender Oliva to an usher to take her down to the driveway. Mothers go out and meet the mothers of their children’s friends, and so Michelle went down.

This involved alerting the Secret Service who then surrounded Denielle’s car. Michelle beckoned to Denielle to get out of the car so they could chat, which a wide-eyed Denielle, looking from the security to the president’s wife, slowly and rather reluctantly did.

They’re now great friends, and laugh about it – but what a strange way to live.

Other tools in Obama’s toolbox, which have chapters to themselves, are on the importance of keeping busy – she turned to knitting during the lockdown; kindness; not allowing fear to paralyse you; the importance of the family she grew up with and their values; her friends, her relationship with Barack; and the people who have helped her.

She credits her mother, Marian Robinson, who stayed n the White House with the family for the full eight years of Barack Obama’s presidency, with a great deal of common sense.

Her mother emphasised how important it was to “light up” when your children came into a room. Not to look at them critically but to give the impression, usually true, that you were pleased to see them.

She also talks about having a problem at high school with a maths teacher she felt did not liked her.

Her mother told her that liking Michelle was not the teacher’s job; the teacher’s job was to help transfer knowledge from her head to Michelle’s. She added: “If you want to be liked, come home. We’ll always like you here.”

Much of the book talks about being black and how to be proudly black in a white-oriented society. And what it’s like to be a black outlier and have your right to be constantly challenged.

There were a few times when I began to feel the text was a bit self-helpy, and I skimmed a few pages.

But this is a wise book, most of it accessible and interesting, and it is a reminder of the fundamental importance of being a good person.

The last words go to her: “What I want to say, then, is stay vigorous and faithful, humble and empathetic. Tell the truth, do your best by others, keep perspective, understand history and context. Stay prudent, stay tough, and stay outraged.”

  • The Light We Carry was one of Exclusive Books’ top reads for August.








Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *