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Watch: Michelle Obama tells young people to be 'rageful' — but have a plan

NPR <em>All Things Considered</em> host Juana Summers (left) speaks with former First Lady Michelle Obama about her new book, <em>The Light We Carry.</em>
Langston Sessoms
NPR All Things Considered host Juana Summers (left) speaks with former First Lady Michelle Obama about her new book, The Light We Carry.

Former first Lady Michelle Obama knows not everyone is motivated by her famous quote from her 2016 DNC speech. In fact, she knows some voters have been downright frustrated with her call to "go high."

In her new book, The Light We Carry: Overcoming in Uncertain Times, Obama acknowledges a generational rift in views over the pace of societal change and political action, in addition to opening up about other deeply personal details on how she's coped with changes – both in public, and in private.

"The other thing I try to remind young people is that it's easy to look at what your predecessors have done and to say, 'Not enough. Why not - why not faster? Why not better, why not bigger?' And what I say is, young people aren't wrong to feel that," Obama told NPR. "But in the meantime, what I'd urge young people to do is be rageful, and own it. But have a plan."

Generational shifts are a theme throughout the former first lady's latest book, which strikes a different tone from her 2018 book, Becoming.

In her first memoir, Obama peeled back the layers of her and her family's personal story, giving the world an intimate view. While The Light We Carry includes plenty of personal details, it serves as more of a guidebook in which Obama uses her own lived experiences to answer questions many people ask about life, including how to have a strong partnership and how to let your children become confident in their own abilities.

Whether it's the pandemic, racial injustice, or economic uncertainty, Obama said the past few years have been a collective struggle for many, and she's received lots of questions from people searching for ways to keep their hope alive.

"Given my motto, 'When they go low, we go high,' a lot of people these days have been struggling to figure out how to stay high when it feels like the world is in a low place – and so this book is my best attempt at offering people at least a look into my toolbox, the practices and habits, the people who keep me balanced," Obama said.

She hopes her book will start a conversation, helping readers to feel less disconnected and adapt to an uncertain world.

Obama spoke with NPR about her marriage and what advice she might give those trying to figure out a partnership today, how her relationship with her daughters has evolved as they've become adults and what "when they go low, we go high" looks like in action.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Interview highlights

On her perspective on the strains of marriage and putting in the work for a long-lasting partnership

To me, it's a philosophy, it's an outlook, you know, in this age of "we want everything now, we want everything quick," when life is everything but that. We have to understand that marriage is never 50/50 – and, you know, you sort of wonder how that idea kind of got out there. I have found that if you stick with it, over the course of your entire relationship, you may have 50/50 over time. But if I look over my marriage, if I were to judge it in year five or year ten, there was never 50/50. Somebody was always giving way more. Someone always needed a different kind of thing. You have to evolve with it.

So yeah, there were times when I felt like I was 70% in and [Barack] was doing 30%. And I've had to compromise as he has. Because of the choices that I made in terms of how I wanted our family to look, I had to take my foot off of my career gas pedal, never putting on the brake, but slowing up a little bit. Those are the natural compromises that are required, and I feel bad when I see young people giving up on their relationships because there are periods of hard, there are periods of discomfort. As I have told young people who ask me about marriage, I was like, you have to be prepared to have long stretches of discomfort and by "long" I mean, it could last for years. And don't put kids into the equation because that's just another layer of complication. You love them to death, but they will shake your marriage up and turn you both upside down. So I think it's important for us to be honest in those conversations, not to glamorize what a partnership feels like because then young people quit too soon. They quit before they've really, you know, played out the full scenario.

On the ways her relationships with her mother and her daughters have evolved as they've all become adults

I think it's a beautiful journey. Something I admired about my mother is that she had a clear philosophy about parenting, which is unusual for somebody of her generation. ... [Our parents] encouraged us to talk at an early age to find our voices. She made sure we felt heard. She made sure that she took our concerns and issues seriously. We were never treated as "kids should be seen and not heard." So when you have that foundation, you know, your relationship is always, I feel, at least with my mother and I've tried to do that with my daughters, it's been on a steady course of growth, but you still have to be ready for your kids to evolve. You know who they are at four and seven is ... very different from what they need from you as teenagers and then again as young women. But if you've laid a foundation of trust and honesty, every stage I've found is wonderful.

What that does for a kid, when your parent trusts you, you know it. It encourages you. It tells you that if my mom thinks, I can do this, that I must be capable. And I've tried to instill that same kind of stand by the gate and watch your kids fly. Be there for them when they come back. Let them know that you will be their advocate. But don't step in and try to live their lives for them. And so when I see my kids flourishing in that way, when I see them owning all their choices and succeeding and failing on their own terms and growing from that process, it is one of the most satisfying experiences. It is frightening to watch your children walk into a brick wall. But that's what growth is. And, you know, and too many parents try to stop that process.

On the disservice to women and caregivers when people aren't transparent about their support networks and purport to have it all and do it all

Well, that's the trope that we wear as women that we're supposed to be able to do it all, and I don't know where that came from. If I look back over my personal history, I can see where that's what was modeled to us, that the mothers in our lives did everything. They mothered, they worked, they took care of the home. So we're emulating that, particularly as women of color. That's a sign of strength, so we don't ask for help. We are not conditioned to think that that's not a weakness. So, yes, I think it's a disservice when those of us who are out here modeling it aren't being real clear about the fact that we are not meant to do this life alone. I believe we were not meant to parent alone.

You know, the whole concept of a nuclear family, just me, my husband, if you're lucky, and the kids and this is our unit and we live independently, that's a fairly new phenomenon to our generation. You know, for decades, people have lived in extended family units.

If you're working outside of the home, because we all are working inside of the home, there is no shame in getting support. Your kids will value it. They will value you being less stressed. Now, the guilty part of that piece, if you're a woman who has the resources, is that we all know women who don't have that choice...Part of it is that there's kind of survivor's remorse about what you're able to do. But I think we still have to talk about the fact that family units have to be based on a big community of support.

On the isolation of being "the only" – the only woman of color in a room or the only person who didn't come from money at college – and whether she still feels that way sometimes

As Michelle Obama, you know, I feel it less acutely, but that's fairly recent. When we were in the White House, we were the first and the only at many tables of power, watching people adjust to that. That was very reminiscent of the experiences that I had going to college and practicing in a corporate law firm and sitting around board seats. But what I found is over time ... we can't change that reality. We are still sadly breaking barriers. ... We still are struggling to make progress...When you're an only... you feel isolated and disconnected sometimes outside of your own body. And what happens when that occurs is that you start feeling self-conscious. You spend more time thinking about your "ownliness." You're carrying that burden rather than focusing on the task at hand. And that makes overcoming all of that just even more difficult. What I had to learn to do was to first get out of my own head.

It is not an easy thing to do, and it takes practice. But part of what this book is reminding us is that there are no miracle answers to these things. Overcoming Imposter Syndrome. Feeling like you belong right. ...I have practiced trying to get out of my head for 58 years now. It is a daily reminder that I have to take the mask that I am trying to hold up on my face, take it down so that I can see what I'm doing. And by mask, I mean stop trying to stop pretending to be something that I'm not, trying to fit in and leave behind the parts of me that make me real and authentic. Stop worrying about how I wear my hair and what somebody is going to think about it. You know, stop thinking about how I conjugate my verbs or what stories I tell about myself to make me fit into somebody else's world. We get in our way with that. But it takes practice.

On how "going high" squares with the urgency and the rage that many young people feel in this moment, given attacks on LGBTQ rights, rising antisemitism and other issues

Well, that's the interesting thing, because ... some young people interpret going high as being complacent, you know, and that's one of the reasons why I end with addressing that question of what did I mean by going high? Because everybody uses it, but sometimes they use it out of context. Going high doesn't mean sitting on the side of the road and watching injustice go by. Going high is about having a strategy, a real concrete strategy for change. It's taking the rage and turning it into reason so that you can actually be heard and move toward change. So when I think about going high, I'm usually thinking at a time when I'm feeling the rage and I feel the need to react, I've learned to ask myself, "Am I indulging my rage? Is what I'm about to do or say going to make me feel good in the short term but have no impact over the long term?"

Because the goal is the impact, ultimately. That's what Barack and I had to do every day in the White House. You know, I used to play this game with my communications staff before an interview or something where we would sort of walk through the questions and there'd be some question that would be what I call a knucklehead question. And I'd practice ... my gut response because sometimes just playing it out loud helps to get it out. But then when you put your first gut reaction out there for the world to see and hear, and then you look at it for a minute and you go, "Oh, well, that's not even how I really feel." ... If I start with my rage and anger, all I will do is play out my rage and anger, but I won't be able to affect any change. Going high is about the ultimate goal of where are we trying to go and what's the best way to get there.

On how she thinks about the possibility of former President Donald Trump's expected 2024 campaign announcement and the power of actions that may seem 'small'

I think about the context of the history of our country, of our world. And I realize that, you know, this is a moment. This is a moment. And we cannot let a moment turn us so upside down that we can't function. The arc of change doesn't just go straight up. It goes up and down and up and down. And sometimes I know it's easy for folks to get demoralized when we aren't winning all the time. It's easy to say, "Why should I vote when, nothing got fixed the last time I voted?" That's a self-defeating approach to continuing to move us forward because we won't always win. So in these moments, I ask myself, "All right, what can I do in this moment that I can uniquely control when I think something is about to happen that I cannot control?" Voting is one of those things. It doesn't feel like a lot, but that's one of those things, you know, if you don't like the guy that's running, the power that we have in our democracy, however small it is, is that we each have the responsibility and the right to vote, at least right now. So let us exercise it.

This interview was adapted for the web by Wynne Davis.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.
Linah Mohammad
Prior to joining NPR in 2022, Mohammad was a producer on The Washington Post's daily flagship podcast Post Reports, where her work was recognized by multiple awards. She was honored with a Peabody award for her work on an episode on the life of George Floyd.