I spent much of my childhood listening to the sound of striving. It came in the form of bad music, or at least amateur music, coming up through the floorboards of my bedroom—the plink plink plink
of students sitting downstairs at my great-aunt Robbie’s piano, slowly and imperfectly learning their scales. My family lived in the South Shore neighborhood of Chicago, in a tidy brick bungalow that belonged to Robbie and her husband, Terry. My parents rented an apartment on the second floor, while Robbie and Terry lived on the first. Robbie was my mom’s aunt and had been generous to her over many years, but to me she was kind of a terror. Prim and serious, she directed the choir at a local church and was also our community’s resident piano teacher. She wore sensible shoes and kept a pair of reading glasses on a chain around her neck. She had a sly smile but didn’t appreciate sarcasm the way my mom did. I’d sometimes hear her chewing out her students for not having practiced enough or chewing out their parents for delivering them late to lessons.
“Good night!” she’d exclaim in the middle of the day, with the same blast of exasperation someone else might say, “Oh, for God’s sake!” Few, it seemed, could live up to Robbie’s standards.
The sound of people trying, however, became the soundtrack to
our life. There was plinking in the afternoons, plinking in the evenings. Ladies from church sometimes came over to practice hymns. Under Robbie’s rules, kids who took piano lessons were allowed to work on only one song at a time. From my room, I’d listen to them attempting, note by uncertain note, to win her approval, graduating from “Hot Cross Buns” to “Brahms’s Lullaby,” but only after many tries. The music was never annoying; it was just persistent. It crept up the stairwell that separated our space from Robbie’s. It drifted through open windows in summertime, accompanying my thoughts as I played with my Barbies or built little kingdoms made out of blocks. The only break came when my dad got home from an early shift at the city’s water treatment plant and put the Cubs game on TV, boosting the volume just enough to blot it all out.
This was the tail end of the 1960s on the South Side of Chicago. The Cubs weren’t bad, but they weren’t great, either. I’d sit on my dad’s lap in his recliner and listen to him narrate how the Cubs were playing or why Billy Williams, who lived just around the corner from us on Constance Avenue, had such a sweet swing from the left side of the plate. Outside the ballparks, America was in the midst of a massive and uncertain change. The Kennedys were dead. Martin Luther King Jr. had been killed standing on a balcony in Memphis, setting off riots across the country, including in Chicago. The 1968 Democratic National Convention turned bloody as police went after Vietnam War protesters with batons and tear gas in Grant Park, about nine miles north of where we lived. White families, meanwhile, were moving out of the city to the suburbs, drawn by the promise of better schools, more space, and probably more whiteness, too.
None of this really registered with me. I was just a kid, a girl with Barbies and blocks, with two parents and an older brother who slept each night with his head about three feet from mine. My family was my world, the center of everything. My mom taught me how to read early, walking me to the public library, sitting with me as I sounded out words on a page. My dad went to work every day dressed in the blue uniform of a city laborer, but at night he showed us what it meant to love jazz and art. As a boy, he’d taken classes at the Art Institute of Chicago, and in high school he’d painted and sculpted. He’d been a competitive swimmer and boxer in school, too, and as an adult was a fan of every televised sport, from professional golf to the NHL. He appreciated seeing strong people excel. When my brother, Craig, got interested in basketball, my dad propped coins above the doorframe in our kitchen, encouraging him to leap for them.
Everything that mattered was within a five-block radius—my grandparents and cousins, the church on the corner where we were not quite regulars at Sunday school, the gas station where my mom sometimes sent me to pick up a pack of cigarettes, and the liquor store, which also sold Wonder bread, penny candy, and gallons of milk. On hot summer nights, Craig and I dozed off to the sound of cheers from the adult-league softball games going on at the nearby public park, where by day we climbed on the playground jungle gym and played tag with other kids.
Copyright © 2021 by Michelle Obama. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.