S. E. Williams
Bibi, Big Momma, Grandma, Granny, MawMaw, Mother Dear, Grandmommie—all terms of endearment ascribed to grandmothers all over America.
For years, researchers have validated what members of the African-American community have known for generations—that African-American grandparents, particularly grandmothers, play vital roles in their grandchildren’s lives; many reside in the same households as their grandchildren. In addition, the number of grandchildren raised by grandparents is higher among African-Americans than any other racial or ethnic group.
African-American grandchildren readily look to their grandparents for guidance. Grandmothers often see themselves as teachers, particularly in relation to issues like manners, values, morals and religion.
The pivotal role many African-American grandmothers play in the lives of their grandchildren is monumental. This is partly due to the earlier mortality among black men; as a result, “grandchildren are more likely to have substantive relationships with their grandmothers.”
For these, among other reasons many Black Americans were not surprised when rumors began to surface in late 2008 that President-elect Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama were encouraging her mother, Marian Robinson, to move with them to the White House.
“I think it’s fair to say that Marian Robinson is one of the unsung heroes of this campaign,” President Obama told a reporter with the American Grandparents Association after his election. “’Cause she retired, looked after the girls, gave Michelle confidence that somebody was gonna be there when Michelle was on the road.”
The President’s bond with his mother-in-law was most clearly displayed that night in 2008 when the nation held a collective breath along with the Obama family and waited for the election results to be tallied. “There’s no doubt that there was a sense of emotion that I could see in people’s faces and in my mother-in-law’s face,” Obama told the reporter as he reflected on the events of that historic evening. “You know, I mean, you think about Michelle’s mom, who grew up on the west and south sides of Chicago, who worked so hard to help Michelle get to where she is, [and] her brother to be successful. She was sitting next to me, actually, as we were watching returns. And she’s like my grandmother was, sort of a no-fuss type of person. And suddenly she just kind of reached out and she started holding my hand, you know, kind of squeezing it. And you had this sense of, ‘Well, what’s she thinking?’” The president continued. “For a Black woman who grew up in the ‘50s, you know, in a segregated Chicago, to watch her daughter become first lady of the United States … I think there was that sense across the country.”
Grandmother-in-Chief Marian Shields Robinson is not only the maternal grandmother; she is the only living grandparent of Malia and Sasha Obama. Normally, when a grandmother lives with or in close proximity to her children and grandchildren beyond the role of matriarch, she frequently assumes the role of mentor, caregiver, confidante, playmate, and role model.
According to reports, Robinson first resisted overtures from her daughter and the president to join them in Washington, D.C. Michelle reportedly begged her mother to come with the family to Washington. Apparently, unable to convince her, Mrs. Obama told New York Magazine, she then enlisted the help of two skillful and powerful manipulators—her young daughters, Sasha and Malia. “All they have to do is look at her with sad eyes and she’s done for.” Though she initially only agreed to try it out for three months—the rest, as they say, is history.
The Obama family made the same choice made by at least one million American families, when parents work. According to the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) Executive Vice President Elinor Ginzler, “Many of these arrangements aren’t because grandparents can’t live on their own anymore but because being there somehow makes life better.” What a privilege to have someone who lives in and provides childcare that loves your children as much as you do.
As evidenced by her low public profile, since moving into the White House, Robinson has successfully managed to remain a very private person. She is defined by many who know her as, “a loving, tough-minded matriarch who rarely shies from speaking her mind and has always prized her independence.”
In speaking about her mother at a White House Mother’s Day event in 2014 the first lady commented, “There is no way I would be standing up straight on my feet if it weren’t for my mom, who is always there to look after our girls, to love them and to be mad at me when I’m disciplining them.” And, according to reports, Robinson easily exerts her grandmother prerogatives– she lets the kids eat inorganic food and lets them stay up past bedtime—she truly is a typical grandma. It is widely reported Mrs. Robinson often teased her daughter and the president about some of their childrearing rules. For example, she considered an 8:30 pm bedtime way too early. She also reportedly suggested they change their one-hour television rule for her grandchildren, among other things. “If you’re going to have some fried chicken,” she declared. “Have fried chicken.”
Mrs. Obama further commented, “[She’s] been that shoulder for me to lean on. I can always go up to her room and cry, complain, argue and she just says, ‘Go on back down there and do what you’re supposed to do.’”
Robinson’s influence on her daughter is evident in a number of areas particularly as it relates to the first lady’s commitment to physical fitness and her Let’s Move Campaign. In the 1997 Illinois Senior Olympics, the Grandmother-in- Chief won gold medals in both the 50 and 100- yard dash. At the time, she was already well into her sixties.
The White House is a far distance front the Southside of Chicago where the first grandmother and her late husband Fraser Robinson raised Michelle Obama and her brother, Craig Robinson; and yet, she has managed to balance the care of her grandchildren and the support of her daughter and son-in-law; while maintaining her privacy and dignity in the process.
Historically, grandmothers and grandfathers alike are respected for the wisdom and experience they offer not only to their families, but also to communities at-large. Grandmothers have always played an important role in the lives of their grandchildren. The culture respects, even reveres, older people for this hallowed place they hold in society. Robinson is no exception to this rule. As the nation’s Grandmother-in-Chief, Marian Shields Robinson certainly lives up to this reverence—she has served her family well and in the process also served the nation.
Robinson is not the first in-law to live in the White House. Ulysses S. Grant was joined by his father-in-law; Harry S. Truman, his mother-in-law; Dwight D. Eisenhower, his mother-in-law; and Benjamin Harrison was joined in the White House by his father-in-law.