Becoming Michelle Obama is a classic example of the American dream coming true. It narrativises the journey of the first African-American First Lady as she strives to find her voice in an impartial world, writes Umang Aggarwal
She might not be the US First Lady anymore, but Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama unquestionably left the title much richer than it ever could have been. In fact, that’s true for her impact on almost everything she did. She managed to pull, what I would like to call, an ‘Obama’ — she took several stereotypes, turned them on their head, and created a whole new set of definitions and systems to live by. And that’s the journey which her recently released book recounts. Becoming Michelle Obama is a very American tale about trying, hoping, and succeeding, and a truly satisfying one at that. The former First Lady’s account reflects her admirably simple approach to life — nothing is ever going to be easy, but as long as you make a genuine effort towards your goals, you can ‘become’ what you want to be, and sometimes even more. This holds true for all aspects of her life that the book deals with.
Growing up as a black girl in 1960s America, choosing a rewarding career path, finding love, making marriage stick, raising kids, protecting the self and the family while living in the White House as the First Lady — the book discusses how self-doubt crept in at each step in Michelle Obama’s head and how she overcame it each time, too.
Rarely does one come across such an honest self-written account of the vulnerability and human frailty of someone who has been immensely relevant to world politics. There have been speculations about Michelle running for President. It has also been suggested that this book is probably one of the first steps towards painting her as a deserving candidate for the post. But if one goes through even just the preface of the book, he/she will find that the thought seems to be far from the mind of the former FLOTUS and does not quite fit into her world or ambitions. “There’s a lot I still don’t know about America,” she writes in the preface. Further in the book, she discusses her introversion that stuck with her even through her journey of “finding her own voice”. And while talking about the contrast in the personalities of her husband and herself, she says that unlike him, a career in politics would have never interested her.
The book opens with the first sigh of relief — even if loaded — that the first African-American First Lady experienced when her family life started inching towards somewhat “normal” after her husband’s tenure as the President ended. The first chapter of the book describes the joy that she finds in making a toast for herself when she is alone in the not-so-fancy address that followed their stay at the White House. And right from that point, the reader knows that he/she is in for a humbling narration of feelings that are anything but common.
The narrative can be read as a personal account that offers an alternate version of politics and history. In the first section of the book titled ‘Becoming Me’, Michelle talks about the people and experiences from her childhood that helped her understand her world better as an adult. It discusses the “massive and uncertain shift” at the heart of American politics in the 1960s when “the Kennedys were dead” and “Martin Luther King Jr had been killed standing on a balcony in Memphis, setting off riots across the country, including in Chicago”. At this time, Michelle is, of course, only a little girl sitting in her father’s lap watching television at a volume loud enough to block the noise from the neighbourhood. “None of this really registered with me (as a kid),” she writes. But these insights into her country become a part of her personal story as she looks back at it from the perspective of a grown up African-American who has had the opportunity to see it being governed, more closely than almost any of her readers ever would have.
She presents her country in all its colourfulness and diversity, but she still makes no claims about knowing it completely. The inexpressible frustration of a black man who lived through The Great Depression finds space in her personal story when she thinks back on what her grandparents were like and remembers having ignorantly asked her grandfather, ‘Southside’, why he was always angry. The transformation that different areas in her country faced on account of racial segregation is something that stares her in the face as she digs the pictures from her school yearbook and finds evidence of the “white flight” in the diminishing number of white faces among the students.
The strength of character that she showed during her husband’s tenure can also be traced back to her childhood. Michelle makes no bones about the fact that even though she mostly tried to laugh off hurtful comments and negative coverage of herself as a wife, a mother, an African-American, a woman, or even just an individual, they often hurt. It was at these difficult times that life lessons from her childhood about bullies and misdirected anger came handy. She goes back all the way to a story where she got punched in the face as a kid by a classmate who was “angry about things that had nothing to do with her”. And years later, this wisdom offered by her mother to a younger her would help her deal with the hurtful comments made about her and her family during Barack Obama’s presidency campaign. It’s this sense of a strongly internalised sense of the self that manifests as grace and courage when one reads about Mrs Obama’s reaction to comments about the shape of her butt, or the reason behind her promotion at work, or articles about her ‘questionable’ loyalty to her husband’s campaign, or even speculative, flimsy stories about her being a man!
It’s this investment of Michelle Obama’s book in a perceptive approach to life that puts it in a league of its own. It’s not the biography of someone related to someone important; it doesn’t need controversies about Obama as crutches to walk on. It’s also not a seedy book about how to live one’s life. It is a very upfront story of a little African-American girl with small dreams and a large spirit. It is the story of an intelligent woman in love. It is the story of a woman who strives to be a good mother and a good employee at the same time. And it is also the story of a girl finding her voice, taking pride in it, and sharing it with the world as a woman.
The sense of hope in this book is infectious because it is realistic and genuine. Michelle takes the guilt out of life choices, like seeking marriage counselling or hiring a person to cook everyday meals or even forgetting to buy the kids clothes until it’s almost too late. She speaks on these from a non-conservative and refreshing vantage point and manages to find a fine balance between healthy life habits and sustainability. Her take on these increasingly common, modern issues faced by working women is enviable to say the least. She writes about them logically, respectfully, and honestly. Communication gaps between couples because of the lack of time to look at different issues together is one of the issues that she offers her wisdom on. “We live by the paradigms we know,” she writes as she looks back at a rough patch in her marriage and traces it back to the contrasting ways in which two people, even two people in love with each other, look at the world because of the differences in the ways they have been brought up. Their individual experiences have shaped their understanding of the world. And since those experiences have been different, their understanding of the same world can’t possibly be the same at each point of time.
She also writes about how the thought of promoting the idea of childhood nutrition and healthy habits at the White House came from a deeply personal incident where her doctor alerted her about the need to keep her daughter’s Body Mass Index under check. She writes about what went through her mind as she decided to hire a person to cook everyday meals for the family. Similarly, she writes about how she needed to get her mother’s help with watching her kids so that she could make some time to work out in the gym. The book even lets in the readers on one of the big secret behind her confidence — her council of girlfriends whom she can rely upon whenever she is looking for insights into an issue. There’s no part of the book which tries to say that she managed to pull it off because she is Michelle Obama and has been blessed with superhuman gifts. All she does is stick to the rigour of trying and hoping and finding logical solutions to the obstacles that come her way.
Race is an issue that would inevitably have to be a part of this narrative one way or the other. Discussion about race never reads forced or unnatural in the book. It comes as a natural curve to the flow of the narrative and is educative each time. Through the journey of the baby girl Michelle, who takes her own time to understand why white faces are disappearing from her school, to the time when she is aware and proud of being the first black First Lady but expects people to be able to look beyond the difference in skin colour, too — the book charts the journey of how far America is expected to have come on the issue of race from the 1960s to the recent present.
“Because we didn’t have a piano of our own, I had to do my practising downstairs on hers (the landlady), waiting until nobody else was having a lesson. To me, there was magic in the learning. I got a buzzy sort of satisfaction from it. For one thing, I’d picked up on the simple, encouraging correlation between how long I practised and how much I achieved”
“It was a small but life-changing move. Now that I am an adult, I realise that kids know at a very young age when they are being devalued, when adults aren’t invested enough to help them learn. Their anger over it can manifest itself as unruliness. It’s hardly their fault. They aren’t ‘bad kids’. They’re just trying to survive bad circumstances”
“We live by the paradigms we know. In Barack’s childhood, his father disappeared and his mother came and went. Independence mattered in Barack’s world. I, meanwhile, had been raised in the tight weave of my own family, with my grandparents and aunts and uncles all around. After 13 years in love, we needed to think through what this meant”
“We owed something to each one of these people. We were asking for an investment of their faith, and now we had to deliver on what they’d brought us, carrying that enthusiasm through 20 months and 50 States and right into the White House. I hadn’t believed it was possible, but maybe now I did. I had fifteen thousand more reasons to want Barack to win”
“Malia’s body mass index was beginning to creep up. The news landed like a rock through a stained glass window. I’d worked so hard to make sure that my daughters were happy and whole. What had I done wrong? What kind of mother was I? Clearly, something had to change, but I was at a loss”
As a kid in the 1960s America, Michelle Obama came across bitter experiences like her brother, Craig, being held up by an African-American policeman who couldn’t believe that a black kid could own an expensive bike. She also remembers the mental and emotional scar caused by the bump on her father’s car when they visited their black neighbours who had moved to the suburbs, peopled mostly by white people. “Our neighbourhood was middle class and racially mixed…In 1950, 50 years before my parents moved to South Shore, the neighbourhood had been 96 per cent white. By the time I’d leave for college in 1981, it would be about 96 per cent black,” she writes explaining the transformation that society was set to experience when her aspirations were growing along with her, even if without a complete understanding of the politics of the world she inhabited.
But as a grown-up, her feelings as well as her worldview turn out to be more informed. She is pleasantly surprised by how far her country has come from those days of painful discrimination when she finds herself feeling at home in Iowa, one of the more conservative areas. She feels reassured of this transformation when the general public manages to almost effortlessly look beyond the skin colour of the ‘substitute’ presidential candidate — as she calls herself — and embraces her for sharing her story with them. But she is also bitter at being repeatedly asked how it feels to be a tall black woman talking to rooms full of white people. It makes her feel like “our differences are all one sees and all that matters”, she writes. She can’t seem to understand why such a regressive question must be asked when the outlook of the country and its people in general has become largely progressive.
As an American woman in one of the most “prestigious” posts one would ever hold, she finds herself working and reworking gender norms for herself. She also writes about the process of thinking back on everyday habits that she took a conscious call to not pass on to her daughters because she wouldn’t want them to buy into ideas of patriarchy and the hierarchy that comes along with it. She talks about the general expectation from a First Lady, which is to look good and to make her husband look good. And she quickly dismisses it too saying that while she could be supportive, she could not reduce herself to a robot. She writes about the difficult decision of not having the kids wait for a hug from the “man of the family” each night before they went to bed. Instead, she puts the onus on Dad to find time for that hug instead of arranging her and her kids’ lives around his schedule. Michelle had once been accused of emasculating her husband when she talked about his human frailty at home in an interview. She points to the prejudice embedded in that approach, too. Most importantly, she weeds out guilt from all of these decisions and manages to look at them from a more balanced and practical perspective.
When it comes to fighting sexism, she sees no wrong in admiring even her husband’s opponents. While writing about the campaign that would eventually lead to Obama’s historic win, she says, “Hillary (Clinton)’s gender was used against her relentlessly, drawing from all the worst stereotypes. She was called domineering, a nag, a bitch. Her voice was interpreted as screechy; her laugh was a cackle. Hillary was Barack’s opponent, which means I wasn’t inclined to feel especially warmly toward her just then, but I couldn’t help but admire her ability to stand up and keep fighting amid the misogyny,” she writes. And with that, she gives another example of her carefully thought out and painstakingly fair approach to almost everything — politics, racism, motherhood, marriage, or just life in general.
This book is relevant for anybody who is interested in American history, in Barack Obama’s personal life, in relationship advice, in tips on motherhood, in fighting discrimination with grace, or even in just living life well. Because that’s Michelle Obama’s journey in a nutshell. She does everything with perfection, and she remembers to tell herself as well as her followers that this perfection doesn’t come magically. Instead, one has to strive for it. Luckily for her, she learnt to do that as a kid and made a habit of it. “I spent much of my childhood listening to the sound of striving…the sound of people trying, however, became the soundtrack to our life,” she writes, making her story a classic example of the American dream coming true.