“To go high”, in the phrase that will now always be connected with Michelle Obama, is an ongoing battle a daily moment-by-moment decision to choose empathy, and openness.

One afternoon not long after the Obamas had moved into the White House, Michelle organised a playdate for her youngest daughter, Sasha. The children were at their new school and she was worried about how they were settling in. So, in a move recognisable to parents everywhere, she hovered unseen nearby, listening intently, “quietly overcome with emotion any time a new peal of laughter erupted from Sasha’s room”.

En detalle When it was over she did, again, what any parent of a small child might do, and went out to meet the friend’s mother. She wanted to chat about how the playdate had gone and maybe make a new friend for herself — at which point all relatability abruptly ended: a rustling surrounded her as her Secret Service detail, who hadn’t planned for this, talked urgently into their wrist microphones. The mother’s car was swiftly encircled by a Counter Assault Team. “Hey there”, Obama said. The woman, “eyeballing the guards clad in helmets and black battle dress … very, very slowly opened the car door and got out”.

It’s a funny anecdote. But like every story in The Light We Carry, and in Obama’s previous book, her memoir Becoming, it is told in the service of a serious point, which in this case is that making sustaining friendships requires effort and intention. This book grew out of the great personal response to Becoming — the small gatherings that followed stadium events, the women who wrote directly to her for advice, who recognised their own lives in that of their former first lady. They will find more to recognise here, where the mundane is given equal billing with the entirely exceptional in what amounts to a carefully worked out manifesto for surviving, and hopefully thriving, in the world.

It is a polished performance, tightly structured, direct, conversational, in the folksy but laser-sharp public style both Obamas made their own, a tone that would work across a kitchen table or from a pulpit or even in those vast stadiums; sometimes deceptively simple, and not always original, but well earned. That point about friendships, for instance. Behind it are the years she spent working full-time, in sole charge of two small children, when Barack was campaigning in Washington and serially failing to turn up for dinner when he was supposed to: the female friends she made were a lifeline then, and continue to be.

Where Becoming — which has so far sold more than 17 million copies — is the story of her life, The Light We Carry, subtitled “Overcoming in Uncertain Times”, comprises the lessons of that life. She explores the importance of faith — understood more as taking one deliberate step at a time and trusting in the future, rather than as religious faith; of friendship and of partnership. There is a chapter on parenting, which she largely turns over to her own mother’s lessons, and is worth the price of admission alone. 

She makes no secret of how hurt she felt by the dismissal that followed her even into the White House: the caricature of her as an angry Black woman, and the way anything she said to mitigate it was used to prove the prejudice all over again.

She describes a period of “low-grade” depression during the pandemic, when her previously near-impregnable armour of busyness disappeared. 

In the final part of the book, she turns outward to address a clear “you”. There is the sudden sense of a specific audience, all those who are “different” (and not just as defined by race), whom she’d like to buttress and warn. “When the climb finally ends and you arrive, exhausted and sweating, to that high place with a pretty view that you’ve long dreamed about, there’s one thing you’re almost always guaranteed to encounter, and that’s an air-conditioned luxury tour bus and a group of people who did none of the work, having been driven straight up an access road, their picnic blankets already laid out, their party well under way.” To add insult to injury, they may then intimate that you are the one who took the shortcut – “affirmative action, or scholarship kid, or gender quota, or diversity hire” — and thus don’t deserve to be there. To go high, in the phrase that will now always be connected with her, is an ongoing battle to evade these sinkholes; a daily, grinding, moment-by-moment decision to choose empathy, and openness, to ask “How do we build places where gladness lives?”, and then set out to do it.”

She makes no secret of how hurt she felt by the dismissal that followed her even into the White House: the caricature of her as an angry Black woman.

Published in The Guardian on November 15, 2022. Reprinted with permission.