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It hurts to live after someone has died. It just does. It can hurt to walk down a hallway or open the fridge. It hurts to put on a pair of socks, to brush your teeth. Food tastes like nothing. Colors go flat. Music hurts, and so do memories. You look at something you’d otherwise find beautiful—a purple sky at sunset or a playground full of kids—and it only somehow deepens the loss. Grief is so lonely this way.
The day after my father died, we drove to a South Side funeral parlor—me, my mother, and Craig—to pick out a casket and plan a service. To make arrangements, as they say in funeral parlors. I don’t remember much about our visit there, except for how stunned we were, each of us bricked inside our private grief. Still, as we went through the obscene ritual of shopping for the right box in which to bury our dad, Craig and I managed to have our first and only fight as adult siblings.
It boiled down to this: I wanted to buy the fanciest, most expensive casket in the place, complete with every extra handle and cushion a casket could possibly have. I had no particular rationale for wanting this. It was something to do when there was nothing else to do. The practical, pragmatic part of our upbringing wouldn’t allow me to put much stock in the gentle, well-intentioned platitudes people would heap on us a few days later at the funeral. I couldn’t be easily comforted by the suggestion that my dad had gone to a better place or was sitting with angels. As I saw it, he just deserved a nice casket.
Craig, meanwhile, insisted that Dad would want something basic—modest and practical and nothing more. It suited our father’s personality, he said. Anything else would be too showy.
We started quiet, but soon exploded, as the kindly funeral director pretended not to listen and our mother just stared at us implacably, through the fog of her own pain.
We were yelling for reasons that had nothing to do with the actual argument. Neither of us was invested in the outcome. In the end, we’d bury our dad in a compromise casket—nothing too fancy, nothing too plain—and never once discuss it again. We were having an absurd and inappropriate argument because in the wake of death every single thing on earth feels absurd and inappropriate.
Later, we drove Mom back to Euclid Avenue. The three of us sat downstairs at the kitchen table, spent and sullen now, our misery provoked all over again by the sight of the fourth empty chair. Soon, we were weeping. We sat for what felt like a long time, blubbering until we were exhausted and out of tears. My mother, who hadn’t said much all day, finally offered a comment.
“Look at us,” she said, a little ruefully.
And yet there was a touch of lightness in how she said it. She was pointing out that we Robinsons had been reduced to a true and ridiculous mess—unrecognizable with our swollen eyelids and dripping noses, our hurt and strange helplessness here in our own kitchen. Who were we? Didn’t we know? Hadn’t he shown us? She was calling us back from our loneliness with three blunt words, as only our mom could do.
Mom looked at me and I looked at Craig, and suddenly the moment seemed a little funny. The first chuckle, we knew, would normally have come from that empty chair. Slowly, we started to titter and crack up, collapsing finally into full-blown fits of laughter. I realize that might seem strange, but we were so much better at this than we were at crying. The point was he would have liked it, and so we let ourselves laugh.
Losing my dad exacerbated my sense that there was no time to sit around and ponder how my life should go. My father was just fifty-five when he died. Suzanne had been twenty-six. The lesson there was simple: Life is short and not to be wasted. If I died, I didn’t want people remembering me for the stacks of legal briefs I’d written or the corporate trademarks I’d helped defend. I felt certain that I had something more to offer the world. It was time to make a move.
Still unsure of where I hoped to land, I typed up letters of introduction and sent them to people all over the city of Chicago. I wrote to the heads of foundations, community-oriented nonprofits, and big universities in town, reaching out specifically to their legal departments—not because I wanted to do legal work, but because I figured they were more likely to respond to my résumé. Thankfully, a number of people did respond, inviting me to have lunch or come in for a meeting, even if they had no job to offer. Over the course of the spring and summer of 1991, I put myself in front of anyone I thought might be able to give me advice. The point was less to find a new job than to widen my understanding of what was possible and how others had gone about it. I was realizing that the next phase of my journey would not simply unfold on its own, that my fancy academic degrees weren’t going to automatically lead me to fulfilling work. Finding a career as opposed to a job wouldn’t just come from perusing the contact pages of an alumni directory; it required deeper thought and effort. I would need to hustle and learn. And so, again and again, I laid out my professional dilemma for the people I met, quizzing them on what they did and whom they knew. I asked earnest questions about what kind of work might be available to a lawyer who didn’t, in fact, want to practice law.
One afternoon, I visited the office of a friendly, thoughtful man named Art Sussman, who was the in-house legal counsel for the University of Chicago. It turned out that my mother had once spent about a year working for him as a secretary, taking dictation and maintaining the legal department’s files. This was back when I was a sophomore in high school, before she’d taken her job at the bank. Art was surprised to learn that I hadn’t ever visited her at work—that I’d never actually set foot on the university’s pristine Gothic campus before now, despite having grown up just a few miles away.
If I was honest, there’d been no reason for me to visit the campus. My neighborhood school didn’t run field trips there. If there were cultural events open to the community when I was a kid, my family hadn’t known about them. We had no friends—no acquaintances, even—who were students or alumni. The University of Chicago was an elite school, and to most everyone I knew growing up, elite meant not for us. Its gray stone buildings almost literally had their backs turned to the streets surrounding campus. Driving past, my dad used to roll his eyes at the flocks of students haplessly jaywalking across Ellis Avenue, wondering how it was that such smart people had never learned to properly cross a street.
Like many South Siders, my family maintained what was an admittedly dim and limited view of the university, even if my mom had passed a year happily working there. When it came time for me and Craig to think about college, we didn’t even consider applying to the University of Chicago. Princeton, for some strange reason, had struck us as more accessible.
Hearing all this, Art was incredulous. “You’ve really never been here?” he said. “Never?”
“Nope, not once.”
There was an odd power in saying it out loud. I hadn’t given the idea much thought before now, but it occurred to me that I’d have made a perfectly fine University of Chicago student, if only the town-gown divide hadn’t been so vast—if I’d known about the school and the school had known about me. Thinking about this, I felt an internal prick, a small subterranean twinge of purpose. The combination of where I came from and what I’d made of myself gave me a certain, possibly meaningful perspective. Being black and from the South Side, I suddenly saw, helped me recognize problems that a man like Art Sussman didn’t even realize existed.
In several years, I’d get my chance to work for the university and reckon with some of these community-relations problems directly, but right now Art was just kindly offering to pass around my résumé.
“I think you should talk to Susan Sher,” he told me then, unwittingly setting off what to this day feels like an inspired chain reaction. Susan was about fifteen years older than I was. She’d been a partner at a big law firm but had ultimately bailed out of the corporate world, just as I was hoping to do, though she was still practicing law with the Chicago city government. Susan had slate-gray eyes, the kind of fair skin that belongs on a Victorian queen, and a laugh that often ended with a mischievous snort. She was gently confident and highly accomplished and would become a lifelong friend. “I’d hire you right now,” she told me when we finally met. “But you just finished telling me how you don’t want to be a lawyer.” Instead, Susan proposed what now seems like another fated introduction, steering me and my résumé toward a new colleague of hers at city hall—another ship-jumping corporate lawyer with a yen for public service, this one a fellow daughter of the South Side and someone who would end up altering my course in life, not once, but repeatedly. “The person you really need to meet,” Susan said, “is Valerie Jarrett.”
Valerie Jarrett was the newly appointed deputy chief of staff to the mayor of Chicago and had deep connections across the city’s African American community. Like Susan, she’d been smart enough to land herself a job in a blue-chip firm after law school and had then been self-aware enough to realize that she wanted out. She’d moved to city hall largely because she was inspired by Harold Washington, who’d been elected mayor in 1983 when I was away at college and was the first African American to hold the office. Washington was a voluble politician with an exuberant spirit. My parents loved him for how he could pepper an otherwise folksy speech with Shakespeare quotes and for the famous, mouth-stuffing vigor with which he ate fried chicken at community events on the South Side. Most important, he had a distaste for the entrenched Democratic machinery that had long governed Chicago, awarding lucrative city contracts to political donors and generally keeping blacks in service to the party but rarely allowing them to advance into official elected roles.
Building his campaign around reforming the city’s political system and better tending to its neglected neighborhoods, Washington won the election by a hair. His style was brassy and his temperament was bold. He was able to eviscerate opponents with his eloquence and intellect. He was a black, brainy superhero. He clashed regularly and fearlessly with the mostly white old-guard members of the city council and was viewed as something of a walking legend, especially among the city’s black citizens, who saw his leadership as kindling a larger spirit of progressivism. His vision had been an early inspiration for Barack, who arrived in Chicago to work as an organizer in 1985.
Valerie, too, was drawn by Washington. She was thirty years old when she joined Washington’s staff in 1987, at the start of his second term. She was also the mother of a young daughter and soon to be divorced, which made it a deeply inconvenient time to take the sort of pay cut one does when leaving a swishy law firm and landing in city government. And within months of her starting the job, tragedy struck: Harold Washington abruptly had a heart attack and died at his desk, thirty minutes after holding a press conference about low-income housing. In the aftermath, a black alderman was appointed by the city council to take Washington’s place, but his tenure was relatively short. In a move many African Americans saw as a swift and demoralizing return to the old white ways of Chicago politics, voters went on to elect Richard M. Daley, the son of a previous mayor, Richard J. Daley, who was broadly considered the godfather of Chicago’s famous cronyism.
Though she had reservations about the new administration, Valerie had decided to stay on at city hall, moving out of the legal department and directly into Mayor Daley’s office. She was glad to be there, as much for the contrast as anything. She described to me how her transition from corporate law into government felt like a relief, an energizing leap out of the super-groomed unreality of high-class law being practiced on the top floors of skyscrapers and into the real world—the very real world.
Chicago’s City Hall and County Building is a flat-roofed, eleven-story, gray-granite monolith that occupies an entire block between Clark and LaSalle north of the Loop. Compared with the soaring office towers surrounding it, it’s squatty but not without grandeur, featuring tall Corinthian columns out front and giant, echoing lobbies made primarily of marble. The county runs its business out of the east-facing half of the building; the city uses the western half, which houses the mayor and city council members as well as the city clerk. City hall, as I learned on the sweltering summer day I showed up to meet Valerie for a job interview, was both alarmingly and upliftingly packed with people.
There were couples getting married and people registering cars. There were people lodging complaints about potholes, their landlords, their sewer lines, and everything else they felt the city could improve. There were babies in strollers and old ladies in wheelchairs. There were journalists and lobbyists, and also homeless people just looking to get out of the heat. Out on the sidewalk in front of the building, a knot of activists waved signs and shouted chants, though I can’t remember what it was they were angry about. What I do know is that I was simultaneously taken aback and completely enthralled by the clunky, controlled chaos of the place. City hall belonged to the people. It had a noisy, gritty immediacy that I never felt at Sidley.
Valerie had reserved twenty minutes on her schedule to talk to me that day, but our conversation ended up stretching for an hour and a half. A thin, light-skinned African American woman dressed in a beautifully tailored suit, she was soft-spoken and strikingly serene, with a steady brown-eyed gaze and an impressive grasp of how the city functioned. She enjoyed her job but didn’t try to gloss over the bureaucratic headaches of government work. Something about her caused me instantly to relax. Years later, Valerie would tell me that to her surprise I’d managed to reverse the standard interview process on her that day—that I’d given her some basic, helpful information about myself, but otherwise I’d grilled her, wanting to understand every last feeling she had about the work she did and how responsive the mayor was to his employees. I was testing the suitability of the work for me as much as she was testing the suitability of me for the work.
Looking back on it, I’m sure I was only capitalizing on what felt like a rare opportunity to speak with a woman whose background mirrored mine but who was a few years ahead of me in her career trajectory. Valerie was calm, bold, and wise in ways that few people I’d met before were. She was someone to learn from, to stick close to. I saw this right away.
Before I left, she offered me a job, inviting me to join her staff as an assistant to Mayor Daley, beginning as soon as I was ready. I would no longer be practicing law. My salary would be $60,000, about half of what I was currently making at Sidley & Austin. She told me I should take some time and think about whether I was truly prepared to make this sort of change. It was my leap to consider, my leap to make.
I had never been one to hold city hall in high regard. Having grown up black and on the South Side, I had little faith in politics. Politics had traditionally been used against black folks, as a means to keep us isolated and excluded, leaving us undereducated, unemployed, and underpaid. I had grandparents who’d lived through the horror of Jim Crow laws and the humiliation of housing discrimination and basically mistrusted authority of any sort. (Southside, as you may recall, thought that even the dentist was out to get him.) My father, who was a city employee most of his life, had essentially been conscripted into service as a Democratic precinct captain in order to even be considered for promotions at his job. He relished the social aspect of his precinct duties but had always been put off by city hall cronyism.
And yet I was suddenly considering a city hall job. I’d winced at the pay cut, but on some visceral level I was just intrigued. I was feeling another twinge, a quiet nudge toward what might be a whole different future from the one I’d planned for. I was almost ready to leap, but for one thing. It wasn’t just about me anymore. When Valerie called me a few days later to follow up, I told her I was still thinking the offer over. I then asked a final and probably strange question. “Could I please,” I said, “also introduce you to my fiancé?” I suppose I should back up here, rewinding us through the heavy heat of that summer, through the disorienting haze of those long months after my father died. Barack had flown back to Chicago to be with me for as long as he could around my dad’s funeral before returning to finish at Harvard. After graduation in late May, he packed up his things, sold his banana-yellow Datsun, and flew back to Chicago, delivering himself to 7436 South Euclid Avenue and into my arms. I loved him. I felt loved by him. We’d made it almost two years as a long-distance couple, and now, finally, we could be a short-distance couple. It meant that we once again had weekend hours to linger in bed, to read the newspaper and go out for brunch and share every thought we had. We could have Monday night dinners and Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday night dinners, too. We could shop for groceries and fold laundry in front of the TV. On the many evenings when I still got weepy over the loss of my dad, Barack was now there to curl himself around me and kiss the top of my head.
Barack was relieved to be done with law school, eager to get out of the abstract realm of academia and into work that felt more engaging and real. He’d also sold his idea for a nonfiction book about race and identity to a New York publisher, which for someone who worshipped books as he did felt like an enormous and humbling boon. He’d been given an advance and had about a year to complete the manuscript.
Barack had, as he always seemed to, plenty of options. His reputation—the gushing reports by his law school professors, the New York Times story about his selection as president of the Law Review—seemed to bring a flood of opportunity. The University of Chicago offered him an unpaid fellowship that came with a small office for the year, the idea being that he’d write his book there and maybe eventually sign on to teach as an adjunct professor at the law school. My colleagues at Sidley & Austin, still hoping Barack would come work full-time at the firm, provided him with a desk to use during the eight or so weeks leading up to his bar exam in July. He was now also considering taking a job at Davis, Miner, Barnhill & Galland, a small public interest firm that did civil rights and fair housing work and whose attorneys had been aligned closely with Harold Washington, which was a huge draw for Barack.
There’s something innately bolstering about a person who sees his opportunities as endless, who doesn’t waste time or energy questioning whether they will ever dry up. Barack had worked hard and dutifully for everything he was now being given, but he wasn’t notching achievements or measuring his progress against that of others, as so many people I knew did—as I sometimes did myself. He seemed, at times, beautifully oblivious to the giant rat race of life and all the material things a thirtysomething lawyer was supposed to be going after, from a car that wasn’t embarrassing to a house with a yard in the suburbs or a swank condo in the Loop. I’d observed this quality in him before, but now that we were living together and I was considering making the first real swerve of my life, I came to value it even more.
In a nutshell, Barack believed and trusted when others did not. He had a simple, buoying faith that if you stuck to your principles, things would work out. I’d had so many careful, sensible conversations at this point, with so many people, about how to extract myself from a career in which, by all outward measures, I was flourishing. Again and again, I’d read the caution and concern on so many faces when I spoke of having loans to pay off, of not yet having managed to buy a house. I couldn’t help but think about how my father had kept his aims deliberately modest, avoiding every risk in order to give us constancy at home. I still walked around with my mother’s advice ringing in my ear: Make the money first and worry about your happiness later. Compounding my anxiety was the one deep longing that far outmatched any material wish: I knew I wanted to have children, sooner rather than later. And how would that work if I abruptly started over in a brand-new field?
Barack, when he showed up back in Chicago, became a kind of soothing antidote. He absorbed my worries, listened as I ticked off every financial obligation I had, and affirmed that he, too, was excited to have children. He acknowledged that there was no way we could predict how exactly we’d manage things, given that neither of us wanted to be locked into the comfortable predictability of a lawyer’s life. But the bottom line was that we were far from poor and our future was promising, maybe even more promising for the fact that it couldn’t easily be planned.
His was the lone voice telling me to just go for it, to erase the worries and go toward whatever I thought would make me happy. It was okay to make my leap into the unknown, because—and this would count as startling news to most every member of the Shields/Robinson family, going back all the way to Dandy and Southside—the unknown wasn’t going to kill me.
Don’t worry, Barack was saying. You can do this. We’ll figure it out.
A word now about the bar exam: It’s a necessary chore, a rite of passage for any just-hatched lawyer wishing to practice, and though the content and structure of the test itself vary somewhat from state to state, the experience of taking it—a two-day, twelve-hour exam meant to prove your knowledge of everything from contract law to arcane rules about secured transactions—is pretty much universally recognized as hellish. Just as Barack was intending to, I had sat for the Illinois bar exam three years earlier, the summer after finishing up at Harvard, submitting myself beforehand to what was supposed to be a self-disciplined two months of logging hours as a first-year associate at Sidley while also taking a bar review class and pushing myself through a dauntingly fat book of practice tests.
This was the same summer that Craig was getting married to Janis in her hometown of Denver. Janis had asked me to be a bridesmaid, and for a whole set of reasons—not the least of which being that I’d just spent seven years grinding nonstop at Princeton and Harvard—I hurled myself, early and eagerly, into the role. I oohed and aahed at wedding dresses and helped plan the bachelorette activities. There was nothing I wouldn’t do to help make the anointed day merrier. I was far more excited about the prospect of my brother taking his wedding vows, in other words, than I was about reviewing what constituted a tort.
This was in the old days, back when test results arrived via the post office. That fall, with both the bar exam and the wedding behind me, I called my father from work one day and asked if he’d check to see if the mail had come in. It had. I asked if there was an envelope in there for me. There was. Was it a letter from the Illinois State Bar Association? Why, yes, that’s what it said on the envelope. I next asked if he’d open it for me, which is when I heard some rustling and then a long, damning pause on the other end of the line.
I had failed.
I had never in my entire life failed a test, unless you want to count the moment in kindergarten when I stood up in class and couldn’t read the word “white” off the manila card held by my teacher. But I’d blown it with the bar. I was ashamed, sure that I’d let down every person who’d ever taught, encouraged, or employed me. I wasn’t used to blundering. If anything, I generally overdid things, especially when it came to preparing for a big moment or test, but this one I’d let slip by. I think now that it was a by-product of the disinterest I’d felt all through law school, burned out as I was on being a student and bored by subjects that struck me as esoteric and far removed from real life. I wanted to be around people and not books, which is why the best part of law school for me had been volunteering at the school’s Legal Aid Bureau, where I could help someone get a Social Security check or stand up to an out-of-line landlord.
But still, I didn’t like to fail. The sting of it would stay with me for months, even as plenty of my colleagues at Sidley confessed that they, too, hadn’t passed the bar exam the first time. Later that fall, I buckled down and studied for a do-over test, going on to pass it handily. In the end, aside from issues of pride, my screwup would make no difference at all.
Several years later, though, the memory was causing me to regard Barack with extra curiosity. He was attending bar review classes and carrying around his own bar review books, and yet didn’t seem to be cracking them as often as I thought maybe he should—as I would, anyway, knowing what I knew now. But I wasn’t going to nag him or even offer myself as an example of what could go wrong. We were built so differently, he and I. For one thing, Barack’s head was an overpacked suitcase of information, a mainframe from which he could seemingly pull disparate bits of data at will. I called him “the fact guy,” for how he seemed to have a statistic to match every little twist in a conversation. His memory seemed not-quite-but-almost photographic. The truth was, I wasn’t worried about whether he’d pass the bar and, somewhat annoyingly, neither was he.
So we celebrated early, on the very same day he finished the exam—July 31, 1991—booking ourselves a table at a downtown restaurant called Gordon. It was one of our favorite places, a special-occasion kind of joint, with soft Art Deco lighting and crisp white tablecloths and things like caviar and artichoke fritters on the menu. It was the height of summer and we were happy.
At Gordon, Barack and I always ordered every course. We had martinis and appetizers. We picked a nice wine to go with our entrées. We talked idly, contentedly, maybe a little sappily. As we were reaching the end of the meal, Barack smiled at me and raised the subject of marriage. He reached for my hand and said that as much as he loved me with his whole being, he still didn’t really see the point. Instantly, I felt the blood rise in my cheeks. It was like pushing a button in me—the kind of big blinking red button you might find in some sort of nuclear facility surrounded by warning signs and evacuation maps. Really? We were going to do this now?
In fact, we were. We’d had the hypothetical marriage discussion plenty of times already, and nothing much ever changed. I was a traditionalist and Barack was not. It seemed clear that neither one of us could be swayed. But still, this didn’t stop us—two lawyers, after all—from taking up the topic with hot gusto. Surrounded by men in sport coats and women in nice dresses enjoying their fancy meals, I did what I could to keep my voice calm.
“If we’re committed,” I said, as evenly as I could muster, “why wouldn’t we formalize that commitment? What part of your dignity would be sacrificed by that?”
From here, we traversed all the familiar loops of the old argument. Did marriage matter? Why did it matter? What was wrong with him? What was wrong with me? What kind of future did we have if we couldn’t sort this out? We weren’t fighting, but we were quarreling, and doing it attorney-style. We punched and counterpunched, dissected and cross-examined, though it was clearly I who was more inflamed. It was I who was doing most of the talking.
Eventually, our waiter came around holding a dessert plate, covered by a silver lid. He slid it in front of me and lifted the cover. I was almost too miffed to even look down, but when I did, I saw a dark velvet box where the chocolate cake was supposed to be. Inside it was a diamond ring.
Barack looked at me playfully. He’d baited me. It had all been a ruse. It took me a second to dismantle my anger and slide into joyful shock. He’d riled me up because this was the very last time he would invoke his inane marriage argument, ever again, as long as we both should live. The case was closed. He dropped to one knee then and with an emotional hitch in his voice asked sincerely if I’d please do him the honor of marrying him. Later, I’d learn that he’d already gone to both my mother and my brother to ask for their approval ahead of time. When I said yes, it seemed that every person in the whole restaurant started to clap.
For a full minute or two, I stared dumbfounded at the ring on my finger. I looked at Barack to confirm that this was all real. He was smiling. He’d completely surprised me. In a way, we’d both won. “Well,” he said lightly, “that should shut you up.”
I said yes to Barack, and shortly after that I said yes to Valerie Jarrett, accepting her offer to come work at city hall. Before committing, I made a point of following through on my request to introduce Barack and Valerie, scheduling a dinner during which the three of us could talk.
I did this for a couple of reasons. For one, I liked Valerie. I was impressed by her, and whether or not I ended up taking the job, I was excited to get to know her better. I knew that Barack would be impressed, too. More important, though, I wanted him to hear Valerie’s story. Like Barack, she’d spent part of her childhood in a different country—in her case, Iran, where her father had been a doctor at a hospital—and returned to the United States for her schooling, giving her the same kind of clear-eyed perspective I saw in Barack. Barack had concerns about my working at city hall. Like Valerie, he’d been inspired by the leadership of Harold Washington when he was mayor, but felt decidedly less affinity for the old-school establishment represented by Richard M. Daley. It was the community organizer in him: Even while Washington was in office, he’d had to battle relentlessly and sometimes fruitlessly with the city in order to get even the smallest bit of support for grassroots projects. Though he’d been nothing but encouraging about my job prospects, I think he was quietly worried I might end up disillusioned or disempowered working under Daley.
Valerie was the right person to address any concerns. She’d rearranged her entire life in order to work for Washington and then lost him almost immediately. The void that followed Washington’s death offered a kind of cautionary tale for the future, one I’d eventually find myself trying to explain to people across America: In Chicago, we’d made the mistake of putting all our hopes for reform on the shoulders of one person without building the political apparatus to support his vision. Voters, especially liberal and black voters, viewed Washington as a kind of golden savior, a symbol, the man who could change everything. He’d carried the load admirably, inspiring people like Barack and Valerie to move out of the private sector and into community work and public service. But when Harold Washington died, most of the energy he’d generated did, too.
Valerie’s decision to stay on with the mayor’s office had required some thought, but she explained to us why she felt it was the right choice. She described feeling supported by Daley and knowing that she was being useful to the city. Her loyalty, she said, had been to Harold Washington’s principles more than to the man himself. Inspiration on its own was shallow; you had to back it up with hard work. This idea resonated with both me and Barack, and inside that one dinner I felt as if something had been cemented: Valerie Jarrett was now a part of our lives. Without our ever discussing it, it seemed almost as if the three of us had somehow agreed to carry one another a good long way.
There was one last thing to do, now that we were engaged, now that I’d taken a new job and Barack had made a commitment to Davis, Miner, Barnhill & Galland, the public interest law firm that had been courting him: We took a vacation, or maybe more accurately we went on a sort of pilgrimage. We flew out of Chicago on a Wednesday in late August, had a long wait in the airport in Frankfurt, Germany, and then flew another eight hours to arrive in Nairobi just before dawn, stepping outside in the Kenyan moonlight and into what felt like a different world altogether.
I had been to Jamaica and the Bahamas, and to Europe a few times, but this was my first time being this far from home. I felt Nairobi’s foreignness—or really, my own foreignness in relation to it—immediately, even in the first strains of morning. It’s a sensation I’ve come to love as I’ve traveled more, the way a new place signals itself instantly and without pretense. The air has a different weight from what you’re used to; it carries smells you can’t quite identify, a faint whiff of wood smoke or diesel fuel, maybe, or the sweetness of something blooming in the trees. The same sun comes up, but looking slightly different from what you know.
Barack’s half sister Auma met us at the airport, greeting us both warmly. The two of them had met only a handful of times, beginning six years earlier when Auma had visited Chicago, but they had a close bond. Auma is a year older than Barack. Her mother, Grace Kezia, had been pregnant with Auma when Barack Obama Sr. left Nairobi to study in Hawaii in 1959. (They also had a son, Abongo, who was a toddler at the time.) After he returned to Kenya in the mid-1960s, Barack senior and Kezia went on to have two more children together.
Auma had ebony skin and brilliant white teeth and spoke with a strong British accent. Her smile was enormous and comforting. Arriving in Kenya, I was so tired from the travel I could barely make conversation, but riding into the city in the backseat of Auma’s rattletrap Volkswagen Bug, I took note of how the quickness of her smile was just like Barack’s, how the curve of her head also resembled his. Auma also clearly had inherited the family brains: She’d been raised in Kenya and returned there often, but she’d gone to college in Germany and was still living there, studying for a PhD. She was fluent in English, German, Swahili, and her family’s local language, called Luo. Like us, she was just here for a visit.
Auma had arranged for me and Barack to stay in a friend’s empty apartment, a spartan one-bedroom in a nondescript cinder-block building that had been painted bright pink. For the first couple of days, we were so zonked by jet lag it felt as if we were moving at half speed. Or maybe it was just the pace of Nairobi, which ran on an entirely different logic than Chicago did, its roads and British-style roundabouts clogged by a mix of pedestrians, bikers, cars, and matatus—the tottering, informal jitney-like buses that could be seen everywhere, painted brightly with murals and tributes to God, their roofs piled high with strapped-on luggage, so crowded that passengers sometimes just rode along, clinging precariously to the exterior.
I was in Africa now. It was heady, draining, and wholly new to me. Auma’s sky-blue VW was so old that it often needed to be pushed in order to get the engine into gear. I’d ill-advisedly bought new white sneakers to wear on the trip, and within a day, after all the pushing we did, they’d turned reddish brown, stained with the cinnamon-hued dust of Nairobi.
Barack was more at home in Nairobi than I was, having been there once before. I moved with the awkwardness of a tourist, aware that we were outsiders, even with our black skin. People sometimes stared at us on the street. I hadn’t been expecting to fit right in, obviously, but I think I arrived there naively believing I’d feel some visceral connection to the continent I’d grown up thinking of as a sort of mythic motherland, as if going there would bestow on me some feeling of completeness. But Africa, of course, owed us nothing. It’s a curious thing to realize, the in-betweenness one feels being African American in Africa. It gave me a hard-to-explain feeling of sadness, a sense of being unrooted in both lands.
Days later, I was still feeling dislocated, and we were both nursing sore throats. Barack and I got into a fight—about what exactly, I can’t remember. For every bit of awe we felt in Kenya, we were also tired, which led to quibbling, which led finally, for whatever reason, to rage. “I’m so angry at Barack,” I wrote in my journal. “I don’t think we have anything in common.” My thoughts trailed off there. As a measure of my frustration, I drew a long emphatic gash across the rest of the page.
Like any newish couple, we were learning how to fight. We didn’t fight often, and when we did, it was typically over petty things, a string of pent-up aggravations that surfaced usually when one or both of us got overly fatigued or stressed. But we did fight. And for better or worse, I tend to yell when I’m angry. When something sets me off, the feeling can be intensely physical, a kind of fireball running up my spine and exploding with such force that I sometimes later don’t remember what I said in the moment. Barack, meanwhile, tends to remain cool and rational, his words coming in an eloquent (and therefore irritating) cascade. It’s taken us time—years—to understand that this is just how each of us is built, that we are each the sum total of our respective genetic codes as well as everything installed in us by our parents and their parents before them. Over time, we have figured out how to express and overcome our irritations and occasional rage. When we fight now, it’s far less dramatic, often more efficient, and always with our love for each other, no matter how strained, still in sight.
We woke the next morning in Nairobi to blue skies and fresh energy, less zonked by the jet lag and feeling like our happy, regular selves. We met Auma at a downtown train station, and the three of us boarded a passenger train with slatted windows to head west out of the city and toward the Obama family’s ancestral home. Sitting by a window in a cabin packed with Kenyans, some of whom were traveling with live chickens in baskets, others with hefty pieces of furniture they’d bought in the city, I was again struck by how strange my girl-from-Chicago, lawyer-at-a-desk life had suddenly become—how this man sitting next to me had shown up at my office one day with his weird name and quixotic smile and brilliantly upended everything. I sat glued to the window as the sprawling community of Kibera, the largest urban slum in Africa, streamed past, showing us its low-slung shanties with corrugated-tin roofs, its muddy roads and open sewers, and a kind of poverty I’d never seen before nor could hardly have imagined.
We were on the train for several hours. Barack finally opened a book, but I continued to stare transfixed out the window as the Nairobi slums gave way to jewel-green countryside and the train rattled north to the town of Kisumu, where Auma, Barack, and I disembarked into the broiling equatorial heat and took a last, jackhammering ride on a matatu through the maize fields to their grandmother’s village of Kogelo.
I will always remember the deep red clay of the earth in that part of Kenya, so rich it looked almost primordial, how its dust caked the dark skin and hair of the children who shouted greetings to us from the side of the road. I remember being sweaty and thirsty as we walked the last bit of the way to Barack’s grandmother’s compound, to the well-kept concrete home where she’d lived for years, farming an adjacent vegetable patch and tending several cows. Granny Sarah, they called her. She was a short, wide-built lady with wise eyes and a crinkling smile. She spoke no English, only Luo, and expressed delight that we’d come all this way to see her. Next to her, I felt very tall. She studied me with an extra, bemused curiosity, as if trying to place where I came from and how precisely I’d landed on her doorstep. One of her first questions for me was, “Which one of your parents is white?” I laughed and explained, with Auma’s help, that I was black through and through, basically as black as we come in America.
Granny Sarah found this funny. She seemed to find everything funny, teasing Barack for not being able to speak her language. I was bowled over by her easy joy. As evening fell, she butchered us a chicken and made us a stew, which she served with a cornmeal mush called ugali. All the while, neighbors and relatives popped in to say hello to the younger Obamas and to congratulate us on our engagement. I gobbled the food gratefully as the sun dropped and night settled over the village, which had no electricity, leaving a bright spray of stars overhead. That I was in this place seemed like a little miracle. I was sharing a rudimentary bedroom with Barack, listening to the stereo sound of crickets in the cornfields all around us, the rustle of animals we couldn’t see. I remember feeling awed by the scope of land and sky around me and at the same time snug and protected inside that tiny home. I had a new job, a fiancé, and an expanded family—an approving Kenyan granny, even. It was true: I’d been flung out of my world, and for the moment it was all good.
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