"You’re still running, because we’re no different from the immigrant families that are moving in today," she said at the 2019 Obama Foundation Summit

By Sandra Sobieraj Westfall
October 29, 2019 02:01 PM
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Home on the South Side of Chicago on Tuesday, Michelle Obama likened her childhood experience in the 1970s to what immigrant families face in American neighborhoods today.

The former first lady, 55, recalled at the Obama Foundation Summit how her parents — whom she called “magical” for how they instilled her and older brother Craig Robinson with confidence in their own intelligence — moved to a white neighborhood for better schools when she was little.

The city’s South Side was then home to “a million Craigs, Michelles and Baracks,” Obama said: young black children eager to play and learn and grow.

“We were doing everything we were supposed to do — and better,” she said in an on-stage conversation with Robinson. “But when we moved in, white families moved out.”

“I want to remind white folks that y’all were running from us. And you’re still running,” she said. “Because we’re no different from the immigrant families that are moving in today. … But because we can so easily wash over who we really were — because of the color of our skin, because of the texture of our hair — that’s what divides countries, the artificial things.”

Obama says she grew up feeling “a sense of injustice.”

“You know this when you’re young,” she said. “You know when people are running from you.”

From left: Michelle Obama and brother Craig Robinson in 2012
Alex Wong/Getty
Michelle Obama speaking in July
Chuck Kennedy

She remembered school days and playing outside with friends named Rachel and Susan. “There were no gang fights, no territorial battles. Yet, one by one, they packed their bags and they ran from us. You could feel people disinvesting in you. You could feel it in the schools—”

Added Robinson, “You could feel it in the parks.”

He remembered hours playing basketball at their neighborhood park. “After every game I had to run home and yell up at the window to my mom, ‘I’m alive!’ and then run back to the next game. But each year, you’d find more and more bottles, more glass broken … people didn’t care about where we went to play.”

The summit, held on the campus of the Illinois Institute of Technology, brought students and community activists — from 41 countries and the Obama Foundation’s various leadership and education programs — with thought leaders, artists and cultural leaders including Charles Barkley, Ava DuVernay, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Billy Porter. The day of discussion focused on the theme “Places Reveal our Purpose.”

In the opening session, Obama and her brother looked through family photos and spoke about their roots and the values they learned at their parents’ kitchen table. As if to underscore how far their journey carried them, Obama struggled with one photo to name the room in the White House that was pictured.

A staff member called out that it was the executive mansion’s Old Family Dining Room.

“Family dining room! Lord, that was a long time ago,” Obama replied.

Then, recalling that the photo was taken on Inauguration Day 2013, when husband Barack Obama was sworn-in for his second term as president, Mrs. Obama made clear (once again, in the face of repeated speculation she would someday run for office) that she is done with politics: “The last election. Thank you, Jesus!”

The Obamas in 2015
Pete Souza/Getty Images

In the free-wheeling and informal conversation, Robinson teased his sister, who spent the year on a global book tour for her bestselling memoir, Becoming. “Everybody knows our business now thanks to that book you wrote,” he said.

“I grew up my whole life as Craig’s sister,” Mrs. Obama countered. “Now the tables have turned! He can’t even get through an airport without someone saying you look like—”

“I can’t go anywhere with this face,” Robinson interrupted. “And then they tell me, ‘Remember in Chapter 6—.’ ”

President Obama, 58, who was closing the daylong summit, said at Monday night dinner for summit attendees that he and the former first lady knew from the start that Chicago’s South Side was the right place for their post-White House foundation — and eventual presidential library.

“It was natural for Michelle and I to say, ‘Well, we should do it in this place,’ where I became a man and where Michelle grew up, and where our children were born.”