How my grandfather was like Michelle Obama’s

They were ordinary Black men, working to make a better life for their families, despite racism. 

“The Light We Carry,” by Michelle Obama, Crown, 335 pp.

I keep coming back to Michelle Obama’s “The Light We Carry: Overcoming in Uncertain Times” because it speaks to something deep inside me. While Mrs. Obama shows the same willingness to tell her truth as she did in her 2019 bestselling memoir “Becoming,” she is most powerful, most relatable, when she shines her light on the contributions of ordinary Black men. 

The accomplishments of these men can so often be obscured (and understandably so) by the trauma represented by a Trayvon Martin or a George Floyd. But Mrs. Obama’s book highlights another, sometimes overlooked aspect of being Black in America – our ability to gain strength and move on.  

She does this by first talking about her father, Fraser Robinson, who struggled with multiple sclerosis and still went to work each day to support his family. She speaks movingly about the cane he used and the symbol it became of lurking instability in her otherwise remarkably loving and stable family. 

“MS was undermining his body ... as he went about his everyday business: working at the city’s water filtration plant, running a household with my mom, trying to raise good kids,” she writes.

One cannot help but admire this man because, in a sense, he is Everyman. At least every good man.

But what I loved most about the book was the strong beam she shines on her two grandfathers, nicknamed Southside and Dandy, and the men of their generation. 

Deborah Johnson is the author of two novels, “The Secret of Magic” and “The Air Between Us.”

It makes me think of my own grandfather who escaped a Jim Crow state looking for a better life in Kansas City, Missouri. He’d settled there after returning from a world war in which he had fought against fascists and Nazis when, effectively, he did not have the right to vote in his home state of Oklahoma. He’d been filled with optimism – at least this is what I’ve been told – but he discovered that crossing the Mason-Dixon Line was no panacea. He, along with Mrs. Obama’s grandfathers, discovered that moving to the North was no guarantee of equality. 

Mrs. Obama is quite cleareyed about this. She writes, “I felt a little bound and a little provoked by the legacy of my two grandfathers, proud Black men who had worked hard and taken good care of their families but whose lives had been circumscribed by fear – often tangible and legitimate fear – and whose worlds were narrowed as a result.”

My grandfather, like hers, only felt safe when he was cocooned within his community, his church, his beloved family. Being in the wrong neighborhood could get a Black man in serious trouble. (Unfortunately, that is just as true now as it was then.) Mrs. Obama tells of the day when Dandy gave her a ride to a doctor’s appointment when she was a teenager, because her mother was at work. He picked her up “dressed up for an outing and full of the same bluster and pride he always had when we visited him at his apartment. It wasn’t until we started driving toward downtown that I noticed his clenched jaw and tight grip on the steering wheel,” she writes. 

As young as she was, she realized that her grandfather was frightened – petrified really – of being on an unfamiliar mission in an unknown part of town. 

Like hers, my grandfather was shut out of stable, trade union jobs because he was Black. After the war, he worked in construction. When Black laborers, who were often given the most dangerous jobs, organized their own union and went on strike to be paid on parity with white construction workers, the white union workers crossed the picket line and the strike was quickly broken. 

My grandfather, like Mrs. Obama’s grandfathers, didn’t complain. He did what he had to do. He went to work as a mail sorter at the post office. The strike had been a rough time and he was grateful for the job – where he worked alongside white people. But I can never recall one white person in his house. Never one who came to his door. Never even saw him talk to one. What he thought of them remains a mystery.

And yet I am so grateful to him. His determination to hold on to his dignity, to not knuckle under, marked a pathway for our family to move forward, to expand on what he’d not been allowed to do. I’m grateful to my grandfather – and to Mrs. Obama’s grandfathers – for doing this. And I’m thankful to her for reminding us that they did. 

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to How my grandfather was like Michelle Obama’s
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today