Northwestern professor hosts reading, Q&A on book about Michelle Obama


Lauren Duquette/The Daily Northwestern

Medill Prof. Peter Slevin discusses his biography of First Lady Michelle Obama in a Q&A with Medill Prof. Ava Thompson Greenwell. The biography, released April 7, is the first comprehensive account of Obama’s life.

Peter Kotecki, Reporter

Medill Prof. Peter Slevin held a reading and Q&A on his book about Michelle Obama, where he spoke about the First Lady’s journey to the White House and the lesser-known parts of her story.

The event was held in the McCormick Foundation Center Forum on Tuesday for an audience of more than 50 people.

Slevin’s book chronicles Obama’s life, from her experiences growing up on the South Side of Chicago to becoming the first African-American First Lady of the United States. Excerpts from Slevin’s book, “Michelle Obama: A Life,” were featured in Politico’s magazine last month, and the book was released April 7.

Obama, who attended Princeton University and Harvard Law School has advocated for equality, nutrition and military families during her time at the White House.

Slevin said he was interested in creating the biography because he wanted to write about a remarkable woman whose trajectory is both familiar and mysterious.

“I wanted to try to understand kind of not only what she is saying in the White House, where she … is talking about inequality, she is talking about fairness … but also why,” Slevin said.

Slevin, who spent four years working on the biography, said he wanted to tell the story of Obama against the backdrop of the history she herself has lived.

“Michelle Obama says, ‘I’m a statistical anomaly,’” Slevin said. “She says, ‘I am not supposed to be here,’ and she felt that in many different times in her life.”

Upon graduating Harvard, Obama returned to Chicago in 1988 and worked in corporate law for three years, Slevin said. She then worked for the Chicago City Hall before creating Public Allies Chicago, a leadership training program for young people.

“She called it the happiest time of her professional life, because she said it was something that was all hers, something that she made, something that she felt was making a difference,” Slevin said.

Medill Prof. Ava Thompson Greenwell, who attended the same high school as Obama, facilitated the Q&A portion of the event.

Greenwell asked Slevin about the challenges he encountered during the process of writing the Obama biography. Slevin said one challenging aspect was figuring out what story to tell about her life.

“Another challenge, of course, was trying to weave the history into it, because I think this is a story about Michelle Obama, but it is also a story about our times,” he said.

Greenwell and Slevin discussed the process of acquiring sources for the biography. Slevin said he hadn’t been granted access to speak to the First Lady since the first presidential campaign, when he interviewed her twice. He said he relied on dozens of friends, relatives, mentors and professors to learn more about her.

“I have something fortunate, something lucky, and that is: Michelle Obama, even though she doesn’t give interviews very often to what we can consider the mainstream media, the Post, the Times, she does do lots of question-and-answer sessions, she does give interviews in places like Google Hangouts, she does give speeches,” Slevin said.

Slevin said he read hundreds of thousands of Obama’s words and used them to include her voice in the book. After finishing the book, Slevin said he contacted several sources and read parts of the book to them. He asked Obama’s friends and relatives whether anything was wrong and needed to be changed. In the end, no source asked him to change anything, Slevin said.

He said he looks forward to teaching again at Northwestern next year, and hopes to relate Obama’s story to courses he will teach in the future.

Medill senior Yvonne Ashley Kouadjo said she met Slevin during the fall of her freshman year and began helping him with the research needed to write the biography.

“It’s really cool, as a student, to work on something meaningful,” Kouadjo told The Daily. “Sometimes the work we have, you write papers and you do all this work, but then to work on a tangible book and project along with other student researchers … They were all so amazing and super intelligent, and I just learned a lot from them and from Peter. Just having the experience and working on the book was pretty phenomenal.”

Twitter: @peterkotecki