There are chapters on leading with kindness, on partnering (where she spills just enough tea on Barack to make it fun) and on decoding fear. Not ignoring or denying it, but making sure we don’t squander an opportunity because of it. In a chapter on parenting and being parented, Obama offers advice from the writer Toni Morrison: “When a kid walks in the room, your child or anybody else’s, does your face light up? That’s what they’re looking for.”
A chapter on “being seen” is particularly fascinating. Needless to say, a young Black girl from the South Side of Chicago who went to Princeton after being told by a high school guidance counselor that she wasn’t “Princeton material” — a remark that lives rent-free in her head to this day — and who became our first Black first lady has a lot to say about coping with the feelings of Otherness. She describes how “an arsenal of phrases” — such as “affirmative action,” “scholarship kid,” “gender quota” and “diversity hire” — can be turned into “weapons of disdain.” Obama writes, “The message is deeply familiar: I don’t see you as being entitled to what you’ve got. All I can say is don’t listen. Don’t let that poison inside.”
Does it give me pause that sometimes Obama seems a little too efficient, too capable? Well, in any situation, she does acknowledge the team of people behind her, and she also notes that she begged her mother to come and live in the White House to help her out and give her daughters a sense of normalcy. Still, one can only take so much. I’ve decided that the sweaters she knits are missing stitches, and one arm is longer than the other. In other words, like a sweater I would knit.
Finally, Obama devotes a chapter to discussing the phrase she’s most often asked about, the one that she delivered at the 2016 Democratic National Convention and that will inevitably appear in her obituary: “When they go low, we go high.” She writes, “What does it really mean to go high? It seems possible that I might spend years trying to answer this question.” What does it mean when, as a nation, we suffer punches to the gut year after year — Charleston, Charlottesville, white supremacy, mass shooting, and the knee-jerk “thoughts and prayers” that followed? I won’t get into the details here, but it’s an argument of great moral clarity that involves “drawing a line in the sand,” then asking yourself, “Which side of this do I want to be on?” It’s about not looking away, even when we want to.
“My goal was always to do serious work in a joyful way, to show people what’s possible if we keep choosing to go high,” Obama writes. Will that suffice? Well, we saw Alex Jones ordered to pay more than a billion dollars for torturing the Sandy Hook families. And we just had a midterm election where the lows of big lies, fake outrage and charlatanism were (mostly) rejected by the electorate. As a country, we’re enjoying this moment — let’s hope it’s more than a moment — of “going high.” That’s a light we can all carry.
Judith Newman writes the Help Desk column for the Book Review. She is the author of “To Siri With Love: A Mother, Her Autistic Son and the Kindness of Machines.”
THE LIGHT WE CARRY: Overcoming in Uncertain Times, by Michelle Obama | 335 pp. | Crown | $32.50