Becoming by Michelle Obama (Crown Publishers, 2018)

Becoming by former First Lady, Michelle Obama, is an autobiography that exudes the grace of a woman who exemplifies everything that a female can aspire to become in today’s world. Throughout the book, Obama follows the theme that she sets out in the early chapters; the theme of “becoming.”

The chapters are organized into three sections. “Becoming Me,” the first section, covers Obama’s life as a young girl in Chicago’s South Side, growing up in a neighborhood that was experiencing a steady decline, However,  due to Obama’s loving and supportive parents, Fraser and Marian Robinson, the exceedingly bright and curious girl never considered herself underprivileged. She valued her education, studied hard, and despite economic struggles, had a happy childhood. Obama adored her older brother, Craig, as well as her grandparents, aunts and uncles. Her father struggled with Multiple Sclerosis, but never missed a day of work, modeling for his family a strict work ethic that conveyed to his children “No excuses.”

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When it came time for high school, Obama tested high enough to be accepted into Chicago’s first magnet school, Whitney M. Young High School, along with 1900 other students who represented the elite scholars of the city. It was then that Obama asks the question of herself that defines ‘becoming.” She tells us, “My worries about high school, if they were to be cataloged, can mostly be filed under one general heading: Am I good enough?”  (p. 55)

The question that Obama poses here resonated with the former teacher in me. Once, when I was an English teacher at J.P. Stevens High School, at the beginning of a new academic year, my students engaged in a “getting to know you session,” I had one lovely African American student in the class, and in the course of the classroom dialogue she made the statement, “On the first day of school every year, I am aware that in order to achieve, I must work harder, study more, and behave well. Most of my teachers make assumptions about my ability to learn just because of the color of my skin.” The young lady meant no disrespect to the staff and had no bitterness in her statement. It was a statement of  fact, and when I realized that she was probably right, it was a huge revelation for me about empathizing with students who have all kinds of issues that get put in the way of their achievement.

Reading Michelle Obama’s story reminded me in a powerful way of what my student had imparted our class. Obama followed her brother to Princeton, an Ivy League college, and then went onto Harvard Law School, excelling in her studies and moving constantly forward through selfless dedication.

The second part of the book, “Becoming Us,” is about Obama’s tenure in the corporate law firm of Sidley & Austin, where in her first summer on the staff, she was asked to mentor a summer intern named Barack Obama. The 28 year old Barack Obama had spent three years working as a community organizer, helping to rebuild neighborhoods and bring back jobs to the neighborhood. He was so smart and poised, he didn’t need much assistance from Michelle but they began to cultivate a friendship based on mutual respect. The pair quickly realized that they shared a strong attraction for each other that could not be denied. While separated for a time by Barack having to remain in Cambridge to finish his law degree, Michelle realized that she despised corporate law, and despite the lucrative salary that she made there, she needed something more fulfilling in her life. She was offered a job as an assistant to Mayor Daley, which meant her days as a lawyer were over.

Barack and Michelle Obama were wed, and despite the fact that Michelle was not fond of politics, she ultimately came to support her husband in his desire to change the world for the better by running for the Senate and ultimately, the Presidency. By this time the Obamas were raising their two lovely daughters. Of his decision Michelle Obama imparts, “For better or worse, I’d fallen in love with a man with a vision who was optimistic without being naive, undaunted by conflict, and intrigued by how complicated the world was.” (p,224)

The third part of the book, “Becoming More,” is about the eight years that the Obamas spent as the First Family in Washington. Michelle explains the trepidation that she felt in moving into her position of First Lady. The same fears that she felt before starting Whitney Young High School came flooding back, “Am I good enough? Yes I am,” she affirms.

As Obama tells us her life story, the tone is conversational and personal. She could be sitting at one’s kitchen table, sharing a cup of coffee, and regaling the listener with stories of her successes and failures, her gaffes and conquests. The final section of the autobiography is the most interesting in the book as Michelle Obama recounts many of the challenges to which she either rose or fell in the public eye. For example, she recounts the story of an early encounter with Queen Elizabeth, a woman Obama admires greatly,. They were at a party, and the queen sidled up to Michelle.

“You’re so tall,” she remarked, cocking her head.

“Well,” I said, chuckling, “the shoes give me a couple of inches. But yes, I’m tall.”

The Queen then glanced down at the pair of black Jimmy Choos I was wearing. She shook her head.

“These shoes are unpleasant, are they not?” she said. She gestured with some frustration at her own black pumps. (p.318)

At this moment in time, the two women commiserate about their aching feet, and the First Lady compassionately put an arm around the Queen’s shoulder. “I  couldn’t have known it in the moment, but I was committing what would be deemed an epic faux pas. I’d touched the Queen of England which I’d soom learn was apparently not done. (p,3i8). The media had a great time reporting Obama’s mistake in reports world wide, but what the press did not know is that, “I daresay the Queen was okay with it, too, because when I touched her, she only pulled closer, resting a gloved hand lightly on the small of my back.” (p. 318)

During her eight years as the First Lady, Michelle Obama concentrated her efforts on teaching children to eat in healthier ways by working to guarantee that meals in schools would contain less fat and sugar than ever before, and more whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables. She worked to encourage physical fitness, and modeled the same behavior herself by creating the Let’s Move program. A small garden established at the White House doubled in size during her stay there, and not only fed members of the family and staff there, but also provided food to the needy.

The story Michelle Obama shares with us reflects of woman of knowledge, empathy, kindness, and compassion. Despite her distaste for the current administration, due largely to personal attacks on her husband that put the Obama family in jeopardy, as well as the fact that “I will always wonder about what led so many women, in particular, to reject an exceptionally qualified female candidate and instead choose a misogynist as their president.” (p.411) However, Michelle Obama confesses that she is an optimistic person.

She leaves us with words of inspiration, which embody the essence of the autobiography:

What I won’t allow myself to do, though, is to become cynical. In my most worried

moments, I take a breath and remind myself of the dignity and decency I’ve seen in

people throughout my life, the many obstacles that have already been overcome.

I hope that others will do the same. We all play a role in this democracy. We need

to remember the power of every vote. I continue, too, to keep myself connected

to a force that’s larger and more potent than any one election, or leaser or news

story---and that’s optimism.   (p.420)