"My experiences at Princeton have made me far more aware of my 'blackness' than ever before," the future Mrs. Obama wrote in her thesis introduction. "I have found that at Princeton, no matter how liberal and open-minded some of my white professors and classmates try to be toward me, I sometimes feel like a visitor on campus; as if I really don't belong. Regardless of the circumstances under which I interact with whites at Princeton, it often seems as if, to them, I will always be black first and a student second."
Some will ask: reason to join a church where you will always be black first and an American second?
Obama writes that the path she chose by attending Princeton would likely lead to her "further integration and/or assimilation into a white cultural and social structure that will only allow me to remain on the periphery of society; never becoming a full participant."
Well, that was overly pessimistic of her, wasn't it?
A commenter at Politico writes:
It was 1985 and a very very very very different United States. She was a young black woman in a predominately white college and society. This was the same year, I would remind everyone, where Cosby premiered. It was an important shift in racial identity in this country and her thesis illustrates a young woman of color who is attempting to find her voice and place in this changing society.
Yes, and in 1985 another young black woman, ten years older, was quietly following a path of her own to the same goal.
I look forward to reading it, getting to know her a bit. If I come across something interesting, I'll post it here, so watch for updates.
UPDATE: Here's what's evident in the very first pages, in addition to the sense of not fully belonging to Ivy League culture expressed in the quotes above: worry that the temptations of status and privilege will weaken her commitment and loyalty to the black community, particularly to "the lower class in that community."
Feelings of obligation to improve the life of the Black lower class, feelings of guilt for betraying the Black lower class, as well as feelings of shame or envy toward the Black lower class are investigated in this study.
There's a treacherous sense of getting lost between two worlds, to one of which she no longer fully belongs and to the other of which she feels she will never fully belong. (Not that Michelle's family was "lower class": they were working class. Her father was a Chicago city pump operator.) This from the Trinity Church website would surely have appealed to her:
We are called out to be "a chosen people" that pays no attention to socio-economic or educational backgrounds. We are made up of the highly educated and the uneducated. Our congregation is a combination of the haves and the have-nots; the economically disadvantaged, the under-class, the unemployed and the employable.
The fortunate who are among us combine forces with the less fortunate to become agents of change for God who is not pleased with America’s economic mal-distribution!
UPDATE II: The thesis (in the sociology department) explores the interrelation between the variables of how comfortable black Princeton alumni feel with black people and with white people (the young Michelle makes the almost oxymoronic observation that people are generally more comfortable with and attached to what is familiar) and whether they are more drawn to an integrationist or a separatist politics. She is careful to state that ideology is "logically independent" of one's personal comfort and experience, but one senses it may not be so emotionally independent.
What was being weighed here, over two decades ago, was whether it was better to participate in the common life or to build up a separate community with its own resources and institutions, as "a necessary stage for the development of the Black community before this group integrates into the 'open society'." Before, not instead of. Ideas are always psychobiography, and you may feel here the young Michelle's sense that she needed to gain confidence in a context of people who were familiar and supportive before venturing forth into a more ambiguous, less embracing world that was harder to read and harder to trust. (To compare her to this intrepid adventurer is unfair. You can't blame someone for not being more exceptional, or for not having received more exceptional encouragement.)
UPDATE III: Some of this is unwittingly prescient:
Conyers and Wallace (1976) [...] discuss problems which face [...] Black officials who must persuade the White community that they are above issues of race and that they are representing all people and not just Black people.