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Barack and I got married on a sunny October Saturday in 1992, the two of us standing before more than three hundred of our friends and family at Trinity United Church of Christ on the South Side. It was a big wedding, and big was how it needed to be. If we were having the wedding in Chicago, there was no trimming the guest list. My roots went too deep. I had not just cousins but also cousins of cousins, and those cousins of cousins had kids, none of whom I’d ever leave out and all of whom made the day more meaningful and merry.
My father’s younger siblings were there. My mother’s family turned out in its entirety. I had old school friends and neighbors who came, people from Princeton, people from Whitney Young. Mrs. Smith, the wife of my high school assistant principal who still lived down the street from us on Euclid Avenue, helped organize the wedding, while our across-the-street neighbors Mr. and Mrs. Thompson and their jazz band played later that day at our reception. Santita Jackson, ebullient in a black dress with a plunging neckline, was my maid of honor. I’d invited old colleagues from Sidley and new colleagues from city hall. The law partners from Barack’s firm were there, as were his old organizer friends. Barack’s rowdy Hawaiian high school guy posse mingled happily with a handful of his Kenyan relatives, who wore brightly colored East African hats. Sadly, we’d lost Gramps—Barack’s grandfather—the previous winter to cancer, but his mother and grandmother had made the trip to Chicago, as had Auma and Maya, half sisters from different continents, united in their affection for Barack. It was the first time our two families had met, and the feeling was joyful.
We were surrounded by love—the eclectic, multicultural Obama kind and the anchoring Robinsons-from-the-South-Side kind, all of it now interwoven visibly, pew to pew, inside the church. I held tightly to Craig’s elbow as he walked me down the aisle. As we reached the front, I caught my mother’s gaze. She was sitting in the first row, looking regal in a floor-length black-and-white sequined dress we’d picked out together, her chin lifted and her eyes proud. We still ached for my father every day, though as he would’ve wanted, we were also continuing on.
Barack had woken up that morning with a nasty head cold, but it had miraculously cleared as soon as he arrived at the church. He was now smiling at me, bright-eyed, from his place at the altar, dressed in a rented tux and a buffed pair of new shoes. Marriage was still more mysterious to him than it was to me, but in the fourteen months we’d been engaged, he’d been nothing but all in. We’d chosen everything about this day carefully. Barack, having initially declared he was not interested in wedding minutiae, had ended up lovingly, assertively—and predictably—inserting his opinion into everything from the flower arrangements to the canapés that would get served at the South Shore Cultural Center in another hour or so. We’d picked our wedding song, which Santita would sing with her stunning voice, accompanied by a pianist.
It was a Stevie Wonder tune called “You and I (We Can Conquer the World).” I’d first heard it as a kid, in third or fourth grade, when Southside gave me the Talking Book album as a gift—my first record album, utterly precious to me. I kept it at his house and was allowed to play it anytime I came to visit. He’d taught me how to care for the vinyl, how to wipe the record’s grooves clean of dust, how to lift the needle from the turntable and set it down delicately in the right spot. Usually he’d left me alone with the music, making himself scarce so that I could learn, in privacy, everything that album had to teach, mostly by belting out the lyrics again and again with my little-girl lungs. Well, in my mind, we can conquer the world / In love you and I, you and I, you and I… I was nine years old at the time. I knew nothing about love and commitment or conquering the world. All I could do was conjure for myself shimmery ideas about what love might be like and who might come along someday to make me feel that strong. Would it be Michael Jackson? José Cardenal from the Cubs? Someone like my dad? I couldn’t even begin to imagine him, really, the person who would become the “you” to my “I.”
But now here we were.
Trinity Church had a dynamic and soulful reputation. Barack had first started going there during his days as an organizer, and more recently the two of us had formally become members, following the lead of many of our young, professional African American friends in town. The church’s pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, was known as a sensational preacher with a passion for social justice and was now officiating at our wedding. He welcomed our friends and family and then held up our wedding bands for all to see. He spoke eloquently of what it meant to form a union and have it witnessed by a caring community, these people who collectively knew every dimension of Barack and every dimension of me.
I felt it then—the power of what we were doing, the significance of the ritual—as we stood there with our future still unwritten, with every unknown still utterly unknown, just gripping each other’s hands as we said our vows.
Whatever was out there, we’d step into it together. I’d poured myself into planning this day, the elegance of the entire affair had somehow mattered to me, but I understood now that what really mattered, what I’d remember forever, was the grip. It settled me like nothing else ever had. I had faith in this union, faith in this man. To declare it was the easiest thing in the world. Looking at Barack’s face, I knew for sure that he felt the same. Neither one of us cried that day. Nobody’s voice quavered. If anything, we were a little giddy. From here, we’d gather up all several hundred of our witnesses and roll on over to the reception. We’d eat and drink and dance until we’d exhausted ourselves with our joy.
Our honeymoon was meant to be restful, a low-key road trip in Northern California, involving wine, sleep, mud baths, and good food. The day after the wedding, we flew to San Francisco, spent several days in Napa, and then drove down Highway 1 to Big Sur to read books, stare at the blue bowl of ocean, and clear our minds. It was glorious, despite the fact that Barack’s head cold managed to return in full force, and also despite the mud baths, which we deemed to be unsoothing and kind of icky.
After a busy year, we were more than ready to kick back. Barack had originally planned to spend the months leading up to our wedding finishing his book and working at his new law firm, but he’d ended up putting most of it on an abrupt hold. Sometime early in 1992, he’d been approached by the leaders of a national nonpartisan organization called Project VOTE!, which spearheaded efforts to register new voters in states where minority turnout was traditionally low. They asked if Barack would run the process in Illinois, opening a field office in Chicago to enroll black voters ahead of the November elections. It was estimated that about 400,000 African Americans in the state were eligible to vote but still unregistered, the majority in and around Chicago.
The pay was abysmal, but the job appealed to Barack’s core beliefs. In 1983, a similar voter-registration drive in Chicago had helped propel Harold Washington into office. In 1992, the stakes again felt high: Another African American candidate, Carol Moseley Braun, had surprised everyone by narrowly winning the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate race and was locked in what would become a tight race in the general election. Bill Clinton, meanwhile, would be running against George H. W. Bush for president. It was no time for minority voters to be sitting out.
To say that Barack threw himself into the job would be an understatement. The goal of Project VOTE! was to sign up new Illinois voters at a staggering pace of ten thousand per week. The work was similar to what he’d done as a grassroots organizer: Over the course of the spring and summer, he and his staff had tromped through plenty of church basements, gone house to house to talk with unregistered voters. He networked regularly with community leaders and made his pitch countless times to wealthy donors, helping to fund the production of radio ads and informational brochures that could be handed out in black neighborhoods and public-housing projects. The organization’s message was unwavering and clear, and a straight reflection of what I knew Barack felt in his heart: There was power in voting. If you wanted change, you couldn’t stay home on Election Day.
In the evenings, Barack came home to our place on Euclid Avenue and often flopped on the couch, reeking of the cigarettes he still smoked when he was out of my sight. He appeared tired but never depleted. He kept careful track of the registration tallies: They were averaging an impressive seven thousand a week in midsummer but were still falling short of the goal. He strategized about how to get the message across, how to wrangle more volunteers and find pockets of people who remained unfound. He seemed to view the challenges as a Rubik’s Cube–like puzzle that could be solved if only he could swivel the right blocks in the right order. The hardest people to reach, he told me, were the younger folks, the eighteen- to thirty-year-olds who seemed to have no faith in government at all.
I, meanwhile, was fully steeped in government. I’d spent a year now working with Valerie in the mayor’s office, acting as a liaison to several of the city’s departments, including Health and Human Services. The job was broad and people oriented enough to be energizing and almost always interesting. Whereas I’d once spent my days writing briefs in a quiet, plush-carpeted office with a view of the lake, I now worked in a windowless room on one of the top floors of city hall, with citizens streaming noisily through the building every hour of the day.
Government issues, I was learning, were elaborate and unending. I shuttled between meetings with various department heads, worked with the staffs of city commissioners, and was dispatched sometimes to different neighborhoods around Chicago to follow up on personal complaints received by the mayor. I went on missions to inspect fallen trees that needed removing, talked to neighborhood pastors who were upset about traffic or garbage collection, and often represented the mayor’s office at community functions. I once had to break up a shoving match at a senior citizens’ picnic on the North Side. None of this was what a corporate lawyer did, and for this reason I found it compelling. I was experiencing Chicago in a way I never had before.
I was learning something else of value, too, spending much of my time in the presence of Susan Sher and Valerie Jarrett, two women who—I was seeing—managed to be both tremendously confident and tremendously human at the same time. Susan ran meetings with a steely and unflappable grace. Valerie thought nothing of speaking her mind in a roomful of opinionated men, often managing to deftly bring people around to whatever side she was arguing. She was like a fast-moving comet, someone who was clearly going places. Not long before my wedding, she’d been promoted to the role of commissioner in charge of planning and economic development for the city and had offered me a job as an assistant commissioner. I was going to begin work as soon as we got back from our honeymoon.
I saw more of Valerie than I did of Susan, but I took careful note of everything each of them did, similarly to how I’d observed Czerny, my college mentor. These were women who knew their own voices and were unafraid to use them. They could be humorous and humble when the moment called for it, but they were unfazed by blowhards and didn’t second-guess the power in their own points of view. Also, importantly, they were working moms. I watched them closely in this regard as well, knowing that I wanted someday to be one myself. Valerie never hesitated to step out of a big meeting when a call came in from her daughter’s school. Susan, likewise, dashed out in the middle of the day if one of her sons spiked a fever or was performing in a preschool music show. They were unapologetic about prioritizing the needs of their children, even if it meant occasionally disrupting the flow at work, and didn’t try to compartmentalize work and home the way I’d noticed male partners at Sidley seemed to do. I’m not sure compartmentalization was even a choice for Valerie and Susan, given that they were juggling the expectations unique to mothers and were also both divorced, which came with its own emotional and financial challenges. They weren’t striving for perfect, but managed somehow to be always excellent, the two of them bound in a deep and mutually helpful friendship, which also made a real impression on me. They’d dropped any masquerade and were just wonderfully, powerfully, and instructively themselves.
Barack and I came back from our honeymoon in Northern California to both good and bad news. The good news came in the form of the November election, which brought what felt like a tide of encouraging change. Bill Clinton won overwhelmingly in Illinois and across the country, moving President Bush out of office after only one term. Carol Moseley Braun also won decisively, becoming the first African American woman ever to hold a Senate seat. What was even more exciting to Barack was that the Election Day turnout had been nothing short of epic: Project VOTE! had directly registered 110,000 new voters, and its broader get-out-the-vote campaign had likely boosted overall turnout as well.
For the first time in a decade, over half a million black voters in Chicago went to the polls, proving that they had the collective power to shape political outcomes. This sent a clear message to lawmakers and future politicians and reestablished a feeling that seemed to have been lost when Harold Washington died: The African American vote mattered. It would be costly politically for anyone to ignore or discount black people’s needs and concerns. Inside of this, too, was a secondary message to the black community itself, a reminder that progress was possible, that our worth was measurable. All this was heartening for Barack. As tiring as it was, he’d loved his job for what it taught him about Chicago’s complex political system and for proving that his organizing instincts could work on a larger scale. He’d collaborated with grassroots leaders, everyday citizens, and elected officials, and almost miraculously it had yielded results. Several media outlets noted the impressive impact of Project VOTE! A writer for Chicago magazine described Barack as “a tall, affable workaholic,” suggesting that he should someday run for office, an idea that he simply shrugged off.
And here was the bad news: That tall, affable workaholic I’d just married had also blown his book deadline, having been so caught up in registering voters that he’d managed to turn in only a partial manuscript. We got home from California to learn that the publisher had canceled his contract, sending word through his literary agent that Barack was now on the hook to pay back his $40,000 advance.
If he panicked, he didn’t do it in front of me. I was busy enough shifting into my new role at city hall, which entailed going to more zoning board meetings and fewer senior citizen picnics than my previous job had. Though I was no longer working corporate-lawyer hours, the city’s everyday fracas left me spent in the evenings, less interested in processing any stresses at home and more ready to pour a glass of wine, switch my brain off, and watch TV on the couch. If I’d learned anything from Barack’s obsessive involvement with Project VOTE!, anyway, it was that it wasn’t helpful for me to worry about his worries—in part because I seemed to find them more overwhelming than he ever did. Chaos agitated me, but it seemed to invigorate Barack. He was like a circus performer who liked to set plates spinning: If things got too calm, he took it as a sign that there was more to do. He was a serial over-committer, I was coming to understand, taking on new projects without much regard for limits of time and energy. He’d said yes, for example, to serving on the boards of a couple of nonprofits while also saying yes to a part-time teaching job at the University of Chicago for the coming spring semester while also planning to work full-time at the law firm.
And then there was the book. Barack’s agent felt sure she could resell the idea to a different publisher, though he’d have to get a draft finished soon. With his teaching gig yet to begin and having obtained the blessing of the law firm that had waited a year already for him to start full-time, he came up with a solution that seemed to suit him perfectly: He’d write the book in isolation, removing his everyday distractions by renting a little cabin somewhere and drilling down hard on the work. It was the equivalent of pulling a frantic all-nighter to get a paper done in college, only Barack was estimating it would take him roughly a couple of months to get the book finished. He relayed all of this to me one night at home about six weeks after our wedding, before delicately dropping a final bit of information: His mother had found him the perfect cabin. In fact, she’d already rented it for him. It was cheap, quiet, and on the beach. In Sanur. Which was on the Indonesian island of Bali, some nine thousand miles away from me.
It sounds a little like a bad joke, doesn’t it? What happens when a solitude-loving individualist marries an outgoing family woman who does not love solitude one bit?
The answer, I’m guessing, is probably the best and most sustaining answer to nearly every question arising inside a marriage, no matter who you are or what the issue is: You find ways to adapt. If you’re in it forever, there’s really no choice.
Which is to say that at the start of 1993, Barack flew to Bali and spent about five weeks living alone with his thoughts while working on a draft of his book Dreams from My Father, filling yellow legal pads with his fastidious handwriting, distilling his ideas during languid daily walks amid the coconut palms and lapping tide. I, meanwhile, stayed home on Euclid Avenue, living upstairs from my mother as another leaden Chicago winter descended, shellacking the trees and sidewalks with ice. I kept myself busy, seeing friends and hitting workout classes in the evenings. In my regular interactions at work or around town, I’d find myself casually uttering this strange new term—“my husband.” My husband and I are hoping to buy a home. My husband is a writer finishing a book. It was foreign and delightful and conjured memories of a man who simply wasn’t there. I missed Barack terribly, but I rationalized our situation as I could, understanding that even if we were newlyweds, this interlude was probably for the best.
He had taken the chaos of his unfinished book and shipped himself out to do battle with it. Possibly this was out of kindness to me, a bid to keep the chaos out of my view. I’d married an outside-the-box thinker, I had to remind myself. He was handling his business in what struck him as the most sensible and efficient manner, even if outwardly it appeared to be a beach vacation—a honeymoon with himself (I couldn’t help but think in my lonelier moments) to follow his honeymoon with me.
You and I, you and I, you and I. We were learning to adapt, to knit ourselves into a solid and forever form of us. Even if we were the same two people we’d always been, the same couple we’d been for years, we now had new labels, a second set of identities to wrangle. He was my husband. I was his wife. We’d stood up at church and said it out loud, to each other and to the world. It did feel as if we owed each other new things.
For many women, including myself, “wife” can feel like a loaded word. It carries a history. If you grew up in the 1960s and 1970s as I did, wives seemed to be a genus of white women who lived inside television sitcoms—cheery, coiffed, corseted. They stayed at home, fussed over the children, and had dinner ready on the stove. They sometimes got into the sherry or flirted with the vacuum-cleaner salesman, but the excitement seemed to end there. The irony, of course, was that I used to watch those shows in our living room on Euclid Avenue while my own stay-at-home mom fixed dinner without complaint and my own clean-cut dad recovered from a day at work. My parents’ arrangement was as traditional as anything we saw on TV. Barack sometimes jokes, in fact, that my upbringing was like a black version of Leave It to Beaver, with the South Shore Robinsons as steady and fresh-faced as the Cleaver family of Mayfield, U.S.A., though of course we were a poorer version of the Cleavers, with my dad’s blue city worker’s uniform subbing for Mr. Cleaver’s suit. Barack makes this comparison with a touch of envy, because his own childhood was so different, but also as a way to push back on the entrenched stereotype that African Americans primarily live in broken homes, that our families are somehow incapable of living out the same stable, middle-class dream as our white neighbors.
Personally, as a kid, I preferred The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which I absorbed with fascination. Mary had a job, a snappy wardrobe, and really great hair. She was independent and funny, and unlike those of the other ladies on TV, her problems were interesting. She had conversations that weren’t about children or homemaking. She didn’t let Lou Grant boss her around, and she wasn’t fixated on finding a husband. She was youthful and at the same time grown-up. In the pre-pre-pre-internet landscape, when the world came packaged almost exclusively through three channels of network TV, this stuff mattered. If you were a girl with a brain and a dawning sense that you wanted to grow into something more than a wife, Mary Tyler Moore was your goddess.
And here I was now, twenty-nine years old, sitting in the very same apartment where I’d watched all that TV and consumed all those meals dished up by the patient and selfless Marian Robinson. I had so much—an education, a healthy sense of self, a deep arsenal of ambition—and I was wise enough to credit my mother, in particular, with instilling it in me. She’d taught me how to read before I started kindergarten, helping me sound out words as I sat curled like a kitten in her lap, studying a library copy of Dick and Jane. She’d cooked for us with care, putting broccoli and Brussels sprouts on our plates and requiring that we eat them. She’d hand sewn my prom dress, for God’s sake. The point was, she’d given diligently and she’d given everything. She’d let our family define her. I was old enough now to realize that all the hours she gave to me and Craig were hours she didn’t spend on herself.
My considerable blessings in life were now causing a kind of psychic whiplash. I’d been raised to be confident and see no limits, to believe I could go after and get absolutely anything I wanted. And I wanted everything. Because, as Suzanne would say, why not? I wanted to live with the hat-tossing, independent-career-woman zest of Mary Tyler Moore, and at the same time I gravitated toward the stabilizing, self-sacrificing, seemingly bland normalcy of being a wife and mother. I wanted to have a work life and a home life, but with some promise that one would never fully squelch the other. I hoped to be exactly like my own mother and at the same time nothing like her at all. It was an odd and confounding thing to ponder. Could I have everything? Would I have everything? I had no idea.
Barack, meanwhile, came home from Bali looking tanned and carrying a satchel stuffed with legal pads, having converted his isolation into a literary victory. The book was basically finished. Within a matter of months, his agent had resold it to a new publisher, paying off his debt and securing a plan for publication. More important to me was the fact that within a matter of hours we’d returned to the easy rhythm of our newlywed life. Barack was here, done with his solitude, landed back in my world. My husband. He was smiling at the jokes I made, wanting to hear about my day, kissing me to sleep at night.
As the months went by, we cooked, worked, laughed, and planned. Later that spring, we had our finances in order enough to buy a condo, moving out of 7436 South Euclid Avenue and into a pretty, railroad-style apartment in Hyde Park with hardwood floors and a tiled fireplace, a new launchpad for our life. With Barack’s encouragement, I took another risk and switched jobs again, this time saying good-bye to Valerie and Susan at city hall in order to finally explore the kind of nonprofit work that had always intrigued me, finding a leadership role that would give me a chance to grow. There was still plenty I hadn’t figured out about my life—the riddle of how to be both a Mary and a Marian remained unsolved—but for now all those deeper questions drifted out to the margins of my mind, where they’d sit dormant and unattended for the time being. Any worries could wait, I figured, because we were an us now, and we were happy. And happy seemed like a starting place for everything.
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