Michelle Obama unsurprisingly and publicly acknowledges she had a big role to fill in becoming the first Black First Lady. Often seen striding across the stage exuding confidence and grace, she certainly appears to do so with ease. However, this is not always the case.
“What surprised me was that at many times in [Michelle’s] life, she felt vulnerable,” said Peter Slevin, author of “Michelle Obama, a Life” and professor at Northwestern University. “She saw life as terrifyingly random.” Disappointing the American people has been a fear for the First Lady, especially since her position was made much more difficult in many ways by her race. However, her prominent display of emotion and admirable background have made her an inspiring and relatable figure to many.
Slevin recognized the power of the First Lady’s story. He believed she deserved to be the center of her own narrative, leading him to produce her first biography. In his opinion, the book needed to be written with a knowledge of Chicago, a familiarity with her birth place and home. After all, the book is populated with people who knew her from growing up in the South Side.
Slevin had concerns when writing the first autobiography of the First Lady, especially with his identity as a white man. Political bias was kept minimal as an act of storytelling, yet portraying Mrs. Obama’s story without one’s own identity interfering is no easy task. Slevin also struggled to not allow President Obama’s story to overshadow that of his wife. “Barack Obama is central to the book, most importantly because he’s her husband,” said Slevin. “They have tremendous influence on each other, but I tried to keep the focus on her.”
Readers share varying opinions regarding how successful Slevin was in keeping the focus on the First Lady rather than the President. Joe Wilkinson, Northwestern sophomore, believes that “when Barack showed up [in the narrative], he was very present, especially during the campaign chapters. But, of course, that is also her story as well.” Carter Mohs, also a sophomore at Northwestern, found multiple chapters to include “more information on Barack than expected, but at the same time, important to the story.”
Although Mrs. Obama is married to the President, her voice is not always seen to be political; she has defined her position as the First Lady of the United States in her own unique way and Slevin constructed the first narrative of her life in “Michelle Obama, a Life.”
THE OBAMA PRESIDENTIAL CENTER
The Obama presidential center, soon to be located in Jackson Park, is intended to give back to the neighborhoods of Chicago’s South Side where our president once called home. This site beat out Washington Park in a competition held after Chicago was deemed the most appropriate city to house the center. According to Mike Strautmanis, head of civic engagement for the Barack Obama Foundation, no one appreciates the South Side more than the president and first lady, making the choice of location an easy one.
The Barack Obama Foundation is intended to provide a platform for the post-presidency; following President Obama’s transition of power, the foundation as a whole will begin to contemplate what comes next in his career. Another large role taken on by the foundation is all of the planning and preparation that goes into the Obama presidential center. The team will oversee construction and design of the center and will continue to operate it following its opening in 2021.
The foundation also aims to engage the surrounding community, especially since this is a project that a lot of the community has shown interest in. Einnaf Austin, Hyde Park resident and mother of two, says she is extremely pleased with the choice of location for the center. “It needs to come to Chicago,” she says. “I have two little brown-faced boys and that’s something they can really look up to.”
Not all interviewees shared as much excitement over the center, but everyone agreed that the location of Jackson Park was the practical alternative. “Why not?” says Christopher Bennett, Hyde Park resident, in reference to the choice in location. “It makes sense. His house is right over here.”
The presidential center also creates many opportunities for revitalization in the surrounding community. According to Michael Strautmanis, the foundation hopes that the project will spark economic opportunity as well as contribute to the culture of the South Side. However, culture is not something that the area lacks. “I think that [two] of the best things about the South Side of Chicago are the people and the history,” he says. “The idea of a vibrant, diverse community that is rooted in the African American experience [is] special.”
Although the election inspired many citizens to become involved, people of color confronted about their reactions to the various candidates had distanced themselves from the election altogether.
Clarence Turner, Hyde Park resident, says that although he’s been voting since the age of 18, the majority of black people he knows have no desire to participate in the election. “It’s because of the system,” he claims. “It doesn’t do anything for anybody.” In fact, according to CNN, only 24.4 million ballots have been cast by Black voters as of Nov. 1, a major dip in numbers. Turner additionally claims that President Obama does not act in the favor of people of color and never has over the course of his presidency. “A lot of people are disillusioned about that,” he says.
Turner himself intends to vote for Donald Trump as he admires Trump’s bold, brash behavior. “He speaks his mind,” Turner says. “The rest of them are all cowards.” However, no issues involving actual policy are of importance to Turner because he believes every politician to be a liar. This justification is debatably a prevalent indication of lack of education amongst a faction of the voting population in Hyde Park, and even throughout the entire nation.
Emily Peterson, student at the University of Chicago, says voters are worked up about issues that they don’t necessarily understand. “I think people are actually very unaware but remain very vocal,” she says. “[This election] indicates a concerning polarization of political views coming to surface, a lot of which is associated with uneducated views about racism and poverty.” Peterson spoke in detail about policy, particularly regarding health care, military spending and immigration. The majority of her connections in the area plan on participating in the election. Petersons says she plans to vote for Clinton because of the candidate’s alignment with some of her own political views and a powerful dislike for Trump.
Michael Peres, also a resident of Hyde Park, expresses similar sentiments about the Republican candidate. “My immediate reaction is that [Trump] is not a president that I would like to have for this country,” Peres says.
Regardless of candidate preference, race or class, each interviewee expressed concerns over what this election says about the state of our nation. “We are in a situation where the separation between segments of our population is enormous,” Turner says. “It has never been so bad in my memory as it is now.”
The general consensus regarding the election outcome for Hyde Park residents and visitors was one of acceptance bordering on impassivity. This is unsurprising as according to CNN, voter turnout was at a 20-year low on Tuesday with nearly 55 percent of the voting population casting a ballot. Some were unhappy with either candidate; some thought the odds of Hillary Clinton winning were too high for their vote to make an impact.
Ralph Brown, an accountant based out of Hyde Park, expressed frustration over low voter turnout as nearly everyone he knew managed to exercise their right. “Some people of different minorities didn’t go out and vote,” Brown said. “That really affected us as a whole in terms of getting our candidate in there. If you don’t go out and vote, how will your candidate win?”
Paul Janas, Hyde Park resident, agrees, saying, “I think it’s sad that people thought there was a foregone conclusion and didn’t show up.” He considers the election outcome to be indicative of suppressed racism against President Obama in action. His high regard for women in general also made the election results all the more disappointing for him, especially since around 53 percent of white female voters cast a vote in Trump’s favor.
Though all interviewees allegedly voted for Clinton, most did not characterize themselves as Clinton supporters. Rather, they were repelled by Trump’s stances and rhetoric, finding him to be untrustworthy, and opted for the other viable option. Miguel Andrade, former student at the University of Chicago, has numerous connections within communities personally offended by the future president’s words. “I had access to a lot of tears shed over this election and it has led to a lot of conversations from people who have been hurt,” he said. “I’ve heard from a lot of people who are reminded of abusive relationships.”
However, Andrade does not agree with many in that Trump intends for his policies to hurt Americans and maintains that he deserves a chance. “It’s horrifying that his win is tainted,” said Andrade. “I would like to see him adopt a conciliatory approach to the people that he’s hurt along the way.”