Michelle Obama: Proud (and loud)

America's potential First Lady hasn't been one for hiding behind her presidential candidate husband. Nor has she been afraid to speak out against her country's reluctance to talk about racism
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"I am married to a black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slave-owners – an inheritance we pass on to our two precious daughters."

In his darkest hours on the campaign trail, with Hillary Clinton breathing down his neck and the Reverend Jeremiah Wright acting like a one-man wrecking crew, Barack Obama delivered what some say was the finest political speech of recent times. In it he reminded Americans that as the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas he was not part of America's history of slavery and racism, but his wife Michelle surely was.

As the prime-time speaker at the Democratic convention in Denver on Monday, Michelle Obama's appearance will mark an extraordinary way-point in America's troubled history of race. Coming from a tightly knit, working-class family in America's most segregated city, Chicago, she is now almost within hailing distance of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. But a million voters know very little about her. How she comes across on Monday and what she conveys about her husband and their life together could conceivably determine the course of the election. Whether the public takes warmly to her over the coming days and weeks and ignores the false rumours washing around the internet may be pivotal to deciding who is the next occupant of the White House.

Every prospective First Lady carries heavy burden of symbolism and none more so than Michelle, if only because of her colour. She is witty, down to earth and not at all in awe of her sometimes cocky husband. She knows how to put him in his place – even in public. But she also inspires a visceral reaction among certain voters. The lunatic right has tried to pigeonhole her as a black liberationist and fellow traveller of urban terrorists. Anonymous and widely believed emails proclaim that she tosses around the angry word "whitey" when in discussions about race. New York magazine declares that some find her scary, too masculine, too domineering, too much, it says, "like a drag queen".

In his autobiography, Dreams from My Father, Barack Obama tells how he struggled to incorporate blackness into his life, even to the point of dumping a steady girlfriend because she was white. Michelle also had to learn how to integrate, only the other way around. He met the then Michelle Robinson when he was a summer intern at a highbrow Chicago law firm. She was assigned to be his mentor and was sceptical about him from the outset.

"He sounded too good to be true," recalled Michelle. "I had dated a lot of brothers who had this kind of reputation coming in, so I figured he was one of those smooth brothers who could talk straight and impress people. So we had lunch, and he had this bad sports jacket and a cigarette dangling from his mouth and I thought I've been down this road before." She resisted his advances and eventually had her brother Craig check him over with a pick-up basketball game. The couple married in 1992, and moved to the university district of Hyde Park. Michelle's family lived in a small flat on the top floor of a classic low-slung Chicago house. Though humble, it was the life of stability. Barack Obama's never had – abandoned as he was by his Kenyan father at the age of two and then shuttled between his mother in Indonesia, and grandparents in Hawaii.

Michelle's father Frasier worked odd hours overseeing and maintaining the guts of boilers and pumps at the city's water filtration plant. He was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at 30. Theirs was the black version of the American Dream. "Even though my father depended on the assistance of a cane and eventually a motorised cart, even though he was in pain, he was never late and never complained," Michelle recalled. "He did it every single day so he could send me and my brother to some of the best schools in the country. His priority was to provide for his family and give his children the tools to succeed in life, and he did."

As members of the country's burgeoning black middle class, the Obamas are the sort of people suburban Americans are not very familiar with. "The black middle class is the most invisible, unknown group in the country," says Professor Gayle Pemberton of Wesleyan University. "There are millions and millions of people in it, and yet we know nothing about them."

Michelle is an Ivy League-educated, high-powered healthcare executive who juggles her career with being a political spouse and a down-to-earth mother of two. She just so happens to be black, verges on six feet tall, has a well-toned body and sports a Jackie O coiffure. There has never been any doubt who wears the trousers in the Obama household. In the early stages of the campaign, Michelle spoke a little too freely to a black lifestyle magazine where her tone was sassy and sardonic. She publicly teased her husband for being messy around the house and told how she had forced him to quit smoking before giving him permission to run for the presidency.

At a Hollywood fundraiser in February, Michelle said, "I am always a little amazed at the response that people get when they hear from Barack," she said at the Beverly Hilton, her husband stood by looking like a scolded puppy. "A great man, a wonderful man. But still a man.

"I have some difficulty reconciling the two images I have of Barack Obama. There's Barack Obama the phenomenon. He's an amazing orator, Harvard Law Review, or whatever it was, law professor, bestselling author, Grammy winner. And then there's the Barack Obama that lives with me in my house, and that guy's a little less impressive. For some reason this guy still can't manage to put the butter up when he makes toast, secure the bread so that it doesn't get stale, and his five-year-old is still better at making the bed than he is."

Michelle has had to tone down her bold side, which has tended to cause explosions in the campaign. When she blurted out that for "the first time in my adult life, I'm really proud of my country", there was an extraordinary backlash because of the personal anger she revealed about the treatment of black people in America.

The public outrage that ensued spoke volumes about America's reluctance to hold a grown-up conversation about race. There was righteous indignation that Michelle, who had enjoyed the benefits of an elite education at the state's expense, ended up apparently ungrateful to those who had helped her up.

For months the campaign has endured a vicious barrage of emails painting her and, by extension, Barack Obama as black separatist radicals. Cleverly, the message purports to be authenticated by Snopes.com, an urban-legend-busting outfit – although it is not. It claims that in her senior thesis at Princeton University, Michelle stated that America was a nation founded on "crime and hatred" and that whites in America were "ineradicably racist". Nowhere in her 64-page thesis do such sentiments appear.

The Obama campaign initially tried to ignore the anonymous campaign. Michelle was deployed in the South Carolina primary to help to get out the vote. Taken out of context, her unflinching words in that primary are often dredged up to attack her. The most cited occasion is when she spoke at a black church. She described life in America in 2008, and things are not good: to bobbing heads and cries of "that's right" she said it is a divided country, a country that is "just downright mean", where people are "guided by fear", are a nation of cynics, sloths, and complacents. "We have become a nation of struggling folks who are barely making it every day," she said. "Folks are just jammed up, and it's gotten worse over my lifetime. And, doggone it, I'm young. Forty-four!"

Back home the Obamas work hard at making sure their lifestyle is as devoid of celebrity as possible. They use Michelle's 71-year-old mother, Marian Robinson, to look after Sasha and Malia, thereby avoiding the stigma associated with nannies and hired help.

"When we're all together in Chicago, we like to play games like charades," says Michelle in a thick-as-treacle People magazine interview. "We also love a busy house, which means pot-luck dinners with our close friends and family as often as we can."

If the Obamas ever make it to the White House, they will be bringing with them two of the youngest residents since Amy Carter moved in at the age of nine in 1977. The priority for Michelle will be ensuring a life of stability for the girls but she will also need to be a rock of common sense for her husband, if he gets the top job come 5 November.

A life in brief

Born: 17 January 1964, Chicago, to Marian and Fraser Robinson.

Education: Degree in sociology, Princeton University, followed by Harvard Law School.

Career: Associate at Chicago law firm Sidley & Austin, where she met Barack Obama, before joining the staff of the Mayor of Chicago. In 1993 appointed founding executive director of Public Allies, a leadership training programme. In 1996 became involved with the University of Chicago, eventually becoming executive director for Community Affairs for the university's Medical Center. In 2005 became Vice President for Community and External Affairs, before giving up her career to work on her husband's presidential campaign and devote her time to being a mother.

They say: "Michelle was a firebrand, expressing a determined passion for her husband's campaign, talking straight from the heart with eloquence and intelligence." Jennifer Hunter, Chicago Sun-Times