Michelle Learns About Barack Obama’s Heritage

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Becoming" by Michelle Obama. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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In what ways were Michelle and Barack Obama’s upbringings different? Why did Barack move around a lot as a child?

Michelle Obama’s childhood was stable and focused around family and education. On the contrary, Barack had a mixed heritage, lived in Hawaii and Indonesia, and had loose ties with his family.

Continue reading to learn more about Barack Obama’s heritage and how it differed from Michelle’s.

Barack’s Heritage

Michelle soon learned there was a huge difference between her stable upbringing and Barack’s more loosely tied family. Barack Obama’s heritage was mixed: His white mother, Ann Dunham, was originally from Kansas but her family moved to Hawaii. She was studying at the University of Hawaii when she met Barack’s Black father (also named Barack Hussein Obama), who was a Kenyan student. 

After giving birth to Barack, Ann discovered that Barack Sr. had a wife in Nairobi. Ann divorced him and later married Lolo Soetoro, an Indonesian man who was studying in Hawaii. Ann and Lolo took Barack with them to live in Jakarta, Indonesia, but after four years, Ann sent young Barack back to Oahu, where she thought he’d have better educational opportunities. During most of his school years, Barack lived on Oahu with his grandparents, Ann’s parents. 

Barack also had two half-sisters: Maya, who lived in Oahu, and Auma, who lived in Nairobi. 

Although Barack’s early life was unconventional and somewhat unstable, he didn’t yearn for something different. He told Michelle that he loved Ann, he loved his grandparents, he loved his life in Hawaii, and that was all that mattered.  

Michelle Hears Barack Speak

One night, one of Barack’s colleagues from his old community-organizing job asked if he would lead a training session at a Black parish in Roseland. The town had been devastated in the 1980s by steel mill closures. Michelle decided to go along to hear him speak. 

The parishioners were at first skeptical of Barack but very quickly caught on to the power of his message. His words were simple: You either give up, or you work for change. Michelle, too, was moved by Barack’s talk. She saw authenticity in his optimism—he fully believed that people could work for and achieve a better world. 

Barack Goes Back to Harvard 

Barack told Michelle he loved her shortly before heading back to Cambridge and Harvard Law School, nearly 1,000 miles away. He intended to keep in touch with Michelle by writing letters to her—after all, he had written to his long-distance family all his life. 

But Michelle came from a family of talkers—the Robinsons discussed everything over the dinner table. She insisted that they call each other on the phone, and Barack agreed. 

Michelle Meets Barack’s Family

When Michelle went on recruiting trips, she occasionally had the chance to visit Barack at Harvard. He lived in a spartan apartment and drove a sputtering, yellow Datsun with a rust hole in the floor. Michelle, in contrast, enjoyed the many material perks that came with her high-paying job. 

The Christmas after their first summer in Chicago, Michelle traveled to Honolulu with Barack to meet the grandparents who raised him, his mother Ann, his half-sister Maya, and some of Barack’s high school friends. On that trip, Michelle learned that everyone in the family called him by his nickname, Barry. 

Michelle felt comfortable and relaxed among Barack’s family and friends. She saw how devoted he was to his family. She watched Barack’s serious political side recede and his laid-back “Hawaiian personality” take over. 

On a day trip to the north shore of Oahu, the couple sat on the beach together talking. They discussed what kinds of parents they’d like to be someday, and what kind of house they’d like to live in. Michelle realized she saw Barack as her potential lifelong partner.

Michelle Learns About Barack Obama’s Heritage

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Michelle Obama's "Becoming" at Shortform .

Here's what you'll find in our full Becoming summary :

  • How Michelle Obama went from the South Side of Chicago to the White House
  • Why much of her success came from her being determined from a young age
  • How Michelle Obama continues to push herself and discover new opportunities

Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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