Becoming Michelle Obama; a book review
In 2004 I had just finished my bachelor's degree in elementary education and gotten married. I was living on the border of Wisconsin and Illinois in a little tiny apartment with three rooms and no closets. I was finishing my student teaching and enjoying the newly wed stage of marriage. There was a buzz on TV when I would go to the laundromat. Everyone was talking about the new Illinois Senator. He was young, handsome, black and people were hopeful he would be our next president. At that time even the conservative Republicans I was surrounded by were whispering that he was a “moderate” democrat. I didn’t really know what that meant. I still don’t. I’m not one to follow politics closely, but the excitement surrounding Barack Obama was intense. Considering having the first black United States President was exciting and hopeful. I remember hearing him speak about unity and crossing party lines to get things done. Politics are hard for me because there's so much deceit from everyone, so much mud slinging and I find it very difficult to trust anyone in politics.
Even though I don’t follow politics closely, I cannot think about President and Michelle Obama without feeling happy. Sometimes the “American Dream” gets ugly when one looks too closely at politics, poverty, gentrification, class systems, privilege and the like. Life gets really heavy, really fast. For a minute though, I can look at the Obama's and just feel pride and excitement about how far our country has come when it comes to race equality. No we’re not anywhere we should be, but we are further than we’ve even been. I believe each generation that passes becomes more accepting of those who are different from them.
When Michelle Obama’s book came out I looked at it in the stores. I picked it up. I read a few pages. I put it back. I would see it again. I would pick it up. I would read a few pages. I would put it back. Finally I made the plunge and bought myself a copy. I thought, “Well, if I don’t like it I can pass it on to someone else.” Her book has officially found a spot on my shelf with my other favorite books.
One of my biggest flaws is that I’m very untrusting. I’m skeptical to the 100th degree. I was nervous to read “Becoming Michelle Obama.” Why had she written this book? Did she even write it? Had someone else written it for her? Is SHE going to run for president??? But the voice she writes in is a familiar one. It’s one we’ve all heard on our TV’s and radios. Here, in “Becoming Michelle Obama,” she is sharing intimate details about her childhood, her relationship with President Obama, and being the First Lady. It’s strange to realize how familiar someone is that you don’t even know. But I could hear her voice while I read. I could see her gestures. She wrote words I had heard her speak and that made me trust that they were her words written by her and not a ghost writer and not written to polish her image in case she decides to run for President herself one day.
“Becoming Michelle Obama” is broken up into three parts: Becoming me, Becoming us, and Becoming more. My favorite part of the book is the beginning when she tells about her growing up years. She lived on the south side of Chicago in a rented apartment, in a house owned by the aunt and uncle who lived downstairs. Michelle writes in almost a Victorian way with lots of description that at first seems a bit tedious, but soon it become a relaxing Sunday afternoon drive down country roads with the windows down and no place pressing to be. While at first the stories of her childhood seemed almost self absorbed they very quickly drew me in and the joy I felt learning about her family of origins was completely genuine.
In every section of the book Michelle shows her humanity and finds commonality between herself and the average American woman (or human). She shares about learning to know herself. She writes about finding her own voice and becoming comfortable with who she is. She shares failures that she experienced in her life. Shocking failures. Shocking to me but they were also shocking to her. Failure, she says, is a feeling long before it becomes an actual result. It’s vulnerability that breeds with self-doubt and then is escalated by fear (p. 43). Michelle takes her failures and difficulties and lays them all out for us to look at and to consider. She can see that those things, that failure itself is common to humanity. She doesn’t cover up her failures or shy away from them. She makes failure a common affliction of humanity. When I consider that the First Lady faced major failures and struggles and life did not come easily to her, I feel better about my own failures and struggles.
Reading about her relationship and marriage to President Obama was such a funny experience. In my mind, and I think most people’s minds, presidents have their lives together. She shares how he was late for dinner, messy, and optimistic about how many things he could get done in any given amount of time; but also how he is a good dad, a brilliant man, and how he excitedly makes decisions that might be deemed as impulsive.
Reading her words about him, it is so obvious she's head over heels in love with him. Writing about him she almost sounds worshipful in how much she loves and admires him. Even though Michelle is head over heels for this man, Barack Obama married a strong woman. When his political schedule became disruptive to their family Michelle says “...[our] routine was ironclad, which put the weight of responsibility of Barack to either make it on time [for dinner and family time] or not. For me, this made so much sense than holding off dinner or having the girls wait up sleepily for a hug. It went back to my wishes for them to grow up strong and centered and also unaccommodating to any form of old school patriarchy; I didn't want them ever to believe that life began when the man of the house arrived home. We didn’t wait for dad. It was his job now to catch up with us.” (p. 207)
I was especially curious to read what she had to say about the current President and the transition she experienced between her husband and the new President at the inauguration. I’m not sure two men could be more different than Barack Obama and Donald Trump. I hadn't ever watched an inauguration until I watched Donald Trump's inauguration. I really only watched it so I could see the Obama's and their reaction. Anyone who watched it or who watches the news, or who reads magazines saw Michelle’s face during the inauguration. No words were necessary to describe her thoughts, but in her book (and in her feature in People magazine) she shares her thoughts. Her reaction when Donald Trump announced his presidency was the same as mine. She says “Nothing in how he conducted himself suggested that he was serious about wanting to govern.” As she shares about Donald Trump's campaign, I could feel her sorrow over a man who was so different than her husband, the man who would soon be a leader of the free world. She shares about the hope she has that he doesn’t reflect the true spirit of our country. Donald Trump has an ability to make people feel “other”; he makes it clear that he can hurt the weak and get away with it. Michelle called him out on these things in her speeches and in her book.
Even though the Obama's left the Presidency on a sad note, Michelle says she won’t allow herself to become cynical about politics and about our country. Michelle gives the same beautiful advice that Mr. Rogers gives in a time of crisis, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers, you will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother's words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers-so many caring people in this world.” Michelle points out people she is surrounded by who are being the good in the world. There are still people who are fighting for the weak, standing up to the bullies, and making a way where there isn’t a way. Michelle Obama is one of those people.
In the epilogue Michelle shares about “Becoming” herself; it summarizes this book in an excellent way:
“For me, becoming isn’t about arriving somewhere, or achieving a certain aim. I see it instead as a forward motion, a means of evolving, a way to reach continuously toward a better self. The journey doesn't end. I believe I became a mother, but I still have a lot to learn from and give to my children. I became a wife, but I continue to adapt to and be humbled by what it means to truly love and make a life with another person. I have become, by certain measures, a person of power, and yet there are moments still when I feel insecure or unheard.
It’s all a process, steps along a path. Becoming requires equal parts patience and rigor. Becoming is never giving up on the idea that there's more growing to be done.”
Finishing “Becoming Michelle Obama” I felt hope, peace, and as if I’d made a friend. For eight years I watched this woman from a huge distance. For 421 pages she allows a front seat view into her life and experiences. I hope one day I get to meet Michelle Obama because after reading her book I think that we could be friends.