Now I think it’s one of the most useless questions an adult can ask a child—What do you want to be when you grow up? As if growing up is finite. As if at some point you become something and that’s the end.
If you don’t get out there and define yourself, you’ll be quickly and inaccurately defined by others.
For me, becoming isn’t about arriving somewhere or achieving a certain aim. I see it instead as forward motion, a means of evolving, a way to reach continuously toward a better self. The journey doesn’t end.
Failure is a feeling long before it becomes an actual result. It’s vulnerability that breeds with self-doubt and then is escalated, often deliberately, by fear.
Friendships between women, as any woman will tell you, are built of a thousand small kindnesses... swapped back and forth and over again.
Everyone on Earth, they'd tell us, was carrying around an unseen history, and that alone deserved some tolerance.
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.
Women endure entire lifetimes of these indignities—in the form of catcalls, groping, assault, oppression. These things injure us. They sap our strength. Some of the cuts are so small they’re barely visible. Others are huge and gaping, leaving scars that never heal. Either way, they accumulate. We carry them everywhere, to and from school and work, at home while raising our children, at our places of worship, anytime we try to advance.
His money went largely toward books, which to him were like sacred objects, providing ballast for his mind.
Even if we didn't know the context, we were instructed to remember that context existed. Everyone on earth, they'd tell us, was carrying around an unseen history, and that alone deserved some tolerance.
Hearing them, I realized that they weren’t at all smarter than the rest of us. They were simply emboldened, floating on an ancient tide of superiority, buoyed by the fact that history had never told them anything different.
Let's invite one another in. Maybe then we can begin to fear less, to make fewer wrong assumptions, to let go of the biases and stereotypes that unnecessarily divide us. Maybe we can better embrace the ways we are the same. It's not about being perfect. It's not about where you get yourself in the end. There's power in allowing yourself to be known and heard, in owning your unique story, in using your authentic voice. And there's grace in being willing to know and hear others. This, for me, is how we become.
When it came to the home-for-dinner dilemma, I installed new boundaries, ones that worked better for me and the girls. We made our schedule and stuck to it. ...It went back to my wishes for them to grow up strong and centered and also unaccommodating to any form of old-school patriarchy: I didn’t want them ever to believe that life began when the man of the house arrived home. We didn’t wait for Dad. It was his job now to catch up with us.
Because people often ask, I’ll say it here directly: I have no intention of running for office, ever. I’ve never been a fan of politics, and my experience over the last ten years has done little to change that. I continue to be put off by the nastiness—the tribal segregation of red and blue, this idea that we’re supposed to choose one side and stick to it, unable to listen and compromise, or sometimes even to be civil. I do believe that at its best, politics can be a means for positive change, but this arena is just not for me.
a happy marriage can be a vexation, that it’s a contract best renewed and renewed again, even quietly and privately—even alone.
I didn't want them ever to believe that life began when the man of the house arrived home. We didn't wait for Dad. It was his job now to catch up with us.
I grew up with a disabled dad in a too-small house with not much money in a starting-to-fail neighborhood, and I also grew up surrounded by love and music in a diverse city in a country where an education can take you far. I had nothing or I had everything. It depends on which way you want to tell it.
I began to understand that his version of hope reached far beyond mine: It was one thing to get yourself out of a stick place, I realized. It was another thing entirely to try and get the place itself unstuck.
Life was teaching me that progress and change happen slowly. Not in two years, four years, or even a lifetime. We were planting seeds of change, the fruit of which we might never see. We had to be patient.
This may be the fundamental problem with caring a lot about what others think: It can put you on the established path—the my-isn’t-that-impressive path—and keep you there for a long time. Maybe it stops you from swerving, from ever even considering a swerve, because what you risk losing in terms of other people’s high regard can feel too costly.
It’s all a process, steps along a path. Becoming requires equal parts patience and rigor. Becoming is never giving up on the idea that there’s more growing to be done.
What I knew from working in professional environments—from recruiting new lawyers for Sidley & Austin to hiring staff at the White House—is that sameness breeds more sameness, until you make a thoughtful effort to counteract it.
Hearing them, I realised that they weren't all at smarter than the rest of us. They were simply emboldened, floating on an ancient tide of superiority, buoyed by the fact that history had never told them anything different.
minority and underprivileged students rise to the challenge all the time—but it takes energy. It takes energy to be the only black person in a lecture hall or one of a few nonwhite people trying out for a play or joining an intramural team. It requires effort, an extra level of confidence, to speak in those settings and own your presence in the room. Which is why when my friends and I found one another at dinner each night, it was with some degree of relief. It’s why we stayed a long time and laughed as much as we could.
I wasn’t going to let one person’s opinion dislodge everything I thought I knew about myself. Instead, I switched my method without changing my goal.
We all play a role in this democracy. We need to remember the power of every vote. I continue, too, to keep myself connected to a force that’s larger and more potent than any one election, or leader, or news story—and that’s optimism. For me, this is a form of faith, an antidote to fear.
So many of my friends judged potential mates from the outside in, focusing first on their looks and financial prospects. If it turned out the person they'd chosen wasn't a good communicator or was uncomfortable with being vulnerable, they seemed to think time or marriage vows would fix the problem. But Barack arrived in my life a wholly formed person. From our very first conversation, he'd shown me that he wasn't self-conscious about expressing fear or weakness and that he valued being truthful.
I was deeply, delightfully in love with a guy whose forceful intellect and ambition could possibly end up swallowing mine.
Kids wake up each day believing in the goodness of things, in the magic of what might be. They’re uncynical, believers at their core. We owe it to them to stay strong and keep working to create a more fair and humane world. For them, we need to remain both tough and hopeful, to acknowledge that there’s more growing to be done.
This may be the fundamental problem with caring a lot about what others think: It can put you on the established path--the my-isn't-that-impressive path--and keep you there for a long time. Maybe it stops you from swerving, from ever considering a swerve, because what you risk losing in terms of other people's high regard can feel too costly.
I tried not to feel intimidated when classroom conversation was dominated by male students, which it often was. Hearing them, I realized that they weren’t at all smarter than the rest of us. They were simply emboldened, floating on an ancient tide of superiority, buoyed by the fact that history had never told them anything different.
Here’s a memory, which like most memories is imperfect and subjective—collected long ago like a beach pebble and slipped into the pocket of my mind.
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.
We should always have three friends in our lives-one who walks ahead who we look up to and follow; one who walks beside us, who is with us every step of our journey; and then, one who we reach back for and bring along after we've cleared the way.
I knew from my own life experience that when someone shows genuine interest in your learning and development, even if only for ten minutes in a busy day, it matters. It matters especially for women, for minorities, for anyone society is quick to overlook.
Years later, after I’d met and married my husband—a man who is light-skinned to some and dark-skinned to others, who speaks like an Ivy League–educated black Hawaiian raised by white middle-class Kansans—I’d see this confusion play out on the national stage among whites and blacks alike, the need to situate someone inside his or her ethnicity and the frustration that comes when it can’t easily be done. America would bring to Barack Obama the same questions my cousin was unconsciously putting to me that day on the stoop: Are you what you appear to be?.
You don’t really know how attached you are until you move away, until you’ve experienced what it means to be dislodged, a cork floating on the ocean of another place.
Even if we didn’t know the context, we were instructed to remember that context existed. Everyone on earth, they’d tell us, was carrying around an unseen history, and that alone deserved some tolerance.
As a kid, you learn to measure long before you understand the size or value of anything. Eventually, if you’re lucky, you learn that you’ve been measuring all wrong.
I’d seen how just a handful of votes in every precinct could mean the difference not just between one candidate and another but between one value system and the next. If a few people stayed home in each neighborhood, it could determine what our kids learned in schools, which health-care options we had available, or whether or not we sent our troops to war. Voting was both simple and incredibly effective.
My father, Fraser, taught me to work hard, laugh often, and keep my word. My mother, Marian, showed me how to think for myself and to use my voice. Together, in our cramped apartment on the South Side of Chicago, they helped me see the value in our story, in my story, in the larger story of our country. Even when it’s not pretty or perfect. Even when it’s more real than you want it to be. Your story is what you have, what you will always have. It is something to own.
It hurts to live after someone has died. It just does. It can hurt to walk down a hallway or a 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.
Look how I’m managing, I wanted to say in those moments, to my audience of no one. Does everyone see that I’m pulling this off?.
Everything was not lost. This was the message we needed to carry forward. It’s what I truly believed. It wasn’t ideal, but it was our reality—the world as it is. We needed now to be resolute, to keep our feet pointed in the direction of progress.
I look back on the discomfort of that moment now and recognize the more universal challenge of squaring who you are with where you come from and where you want to go.
It felt perverse, how the world just carried on. How everyone was still here, except for my Suzanne.
I can hurt you and get away with it. Women endure entire lifetimes of these indignities—in the form of catcalls, groping, assault, oppression. These things injure us. They sap our strength. Some of the cuts are so small they’re barely visible. Others are huge and gaping, leaving scars that never heal.
But my first months at Whitney Young gave me a glimpse of something that had previously been invisible—the apparatus of privilege and connection, what seemed like a network of half-hidden ladders and guide ropes that lay suspended overhead, ready to connect some but not all of us to the sky.
It was like stepping onstage at your first piano recital and realizing that you’d never played anything but an instrument with broken keys. Your world shifts, but you’re asked to adjust and overcome, to play your music the same as everyone else.
Becoming requires equal parts patience and rigor. Becoming is never giving up on the idea that there’s more growing to be done.