When I began writing this post about the books I read over the last few months, I focused on a few I wanted to highlight for Black History[*] and Women’s History Months. What I wrote, however, seemed to strike the wrong note as the COVID-19 pandemic emerged. I still will assert that it’s always a great time to read more books written by black and/or women writers, but I’m going to put the cheekier tone on hold. For now. Instead, I’m focusing on reviewing a book that I feel provides inspiration for these troubling times: Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming.
At the end of Becoming, Michelle challenges us to reconsider how we look at our circumstances. Within a week, the area where I live in Pennsylvania went from practicing social distancing to receiving stay-at-home orders.[†] Right now, it’s easy to view these restrictions as confining, but it’s also easy to reframe this effort as doing our part in limiting this disease’s spread. We might not be able to control our circumstances, but we can choose how we consider such situations. Michelle Obama’s story has many lessons, but the power of shaping your own narrative is an important one.
(TLDR: For those of you needing a quarantine read that keeps your hope afloat, check out my review of Becoming and see if it appeals to you. Stay safe, everyone.)
Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming, gives its readers an insider’s view of the First Lady’s life up to and through Barack Obama’s historic presidency. Both touching and humorous, she shares her unique perspective on career, politics, and family. Michelle’s achievements, as is often the case for first African Americans to hold a position,[‡] differ from her First Lady predecessors in many respects. But her blue-collar upbringing on Chicago’s southside (an area known for “white flight”) shaped her life profoundly, sparking both her ambition and willingness to help others. She recognizes that for her to achieve success as a student, corporate lawyer, nonprofit organizer, First Lady, mother, and wife, others first had to invest in her success. Poignantly, Michelle reflects on how various relatives abandoned their dreams to survive and how her parents sacrificed their own aspirations (eg, home ownership) to help their secure their children’s future. Both Michelle and her brother, Craig Robinson, would go onto attend Ivy League schools and embark on professional careers.
Career, Love, and Politics
During Michelle’s early career as a corporate lawyer, she met Barack Obama. This section of the book, often laced with fond spousal exasperation, shines as these opposites fall in love, find a balance that works for them, and support each other through familial losses, infertility, family life, and what now seems to be Barack’s inevitable political ascent. Aware that Barack’s ambitions could eclipse her own, Michelle credits him for helping her “swerve” from the more sensible if unfulfilling law practice into nonprofit work despite the pay cut and their student loans.
As their lives became fuller with the arrival of their daughters and Barack’s burgeoning political career, the book shifts into the more familiar history of that ascent. Michelle, wary of politics and the scrutiny it would bring their young family, was reluctant to become a politician’s wife. Despite her concerns she supported Barack’s decision to run for various political offices and, ultimately, his presidential candidacy because she believed “he was exactly the kind of smart, decent president I would chose for this country”.
White House Days
When it comes to her years in the White House, Michelle focuses on the development of her outreach programs (eg, the Let’s Move) as First Lady. She discusses the pain and discomfort associated negative and often racist publicity targeted at herself and her family as well as how she learned to put it aside. In addition to revealing her behind-the-scenes planning and her reactions to notable events as they unfolded, she also shares what it’s like living in the White House. As the presidency approaches its end, fun tidbits abound (including her early preview of a musical that would one day become Hamilton). But there’s also a strong sense, however, that those final days were a blur between campaigning for Hillary Clinton and preparing for the Trump presidency. Arguably, Becoming might be part of the process of unpacking these moments.
Like many memoirs, Michelle Obama’s closes with her reflecting on what she has learned thus far. Looking back on her childhood, she realized it could be characterized however she wished, either by focusing on the negatives and positives. Perhaps for this reason she wants to both share her story and listen to those of others. As she best stated it, “For every door that’s been opened to me, I’ve tried to open my door to others. And here is what I have to say, finally: Let’s invite one another in. Maybe then we can begin to fear less, to make fewer wrong assumptions, to let go of the biases and stereotypes that unnecessarily divide us.” She concludes this account at the point of her new beginning, a new chapter where she will continue becoming herself.
[*] In the United States.
[†] Meaning I must stay home unless I qualify as an essential worker (eg, healthcare, grocery, government, etc.) or I need to be out (eg, grocery shopping, need medical attention).
[‡] Several reviews refer to her “improbable” ascent to First Lady, given that she grew up in blue-collar, African American community. However, her family as, Barack Obama observed, was more like a black version of Leave It to Beaver.