Just one week after the release of Michelle Obama’s latest book, The Light We Carry, many have already secured tickets to the former first lady’s accompanying coast-to-coast tour. The book—which is very different from her last, the best-selling Becoming—tells a story of honesty, motherhood, and shared experience, and among its threads is the story of Chynna Clayton, the assistant who faithfully worked alongside Obama from 2015 to 2022.
As a new version of life unfolded for the Obamas after leaving office, Clayton became more like family; in the book, Obama jokingly refers to Clayton as her mom because of the way she helped her run a tight ship. Here, for the first time, Clayton talks to Vogue about her relationship with the former FLOTUS, the power of mentorship, and what it means to feel seen.
I was raised in a single-parent household. My father went to prison when I was three years old, and it was something that I had never shared widely. It was something that I was ashamed of. Growing up in Miami, I found myself at a predominantly white elementary school. I wound up there because the summer before the start of first grade, one of my teachers from the neighborhood school where I’d attended kindergarten pulled my mom aside and said, “You’ve got to get her out of here.”
Thankfully, that teacher saw something in me, a flame that she knew would be snuffed out had I stayed. The same flame that, years later, Mrs. Obama would further ignite.
My mom moved us into the village of Miami Shores, to a neighborhood with pristine lawns, two-car garages, and better-funded schools. What I gained there was exposure, a glimpse into a different way of life, and a window into what was attainable once we moved to the other side of Interstate 95. That highway, known locally as just “95,” was like a giant fence that cut through the part of Miami that I called home, dividing seemingly prosperous areas from neighborhoods where high crime and struggling schools pinched the path to success.
There, I was one of the only Black girls in my friend group and the only Black girl in my Girl Scouts troop. I always say that those experiences helped to shape and mold me. There’s a confidence that comes from early experiences with challenging situations. There’s also motivation that comes from having seen what’s possible. You begin to feel less like an outsider and move through spaces as if you belong…