If you’ve ever wondered what it might be like to live in the White House, you can get a pretty good idea from the Michelle Obama memoir, Becoming. Assuming you ever had any fantasies about becoming President of the United States, this book may drive the thought from your mind. Life in the White House is simply not fun.
Becoming by Michelle Obama (2018) 429 pages
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The Michelle Obama memoir is an extraordinary story
Michelle Obama describes herself as “an ordinary person who found herself on an extraordinary journey.” But it’s clear she’s not ordinary at all. And it’s easy to see how Barack Obama could have fallen in love with her. Even as a child and adolescent in a lower-middle-class home on Chicago’s South Side, she proved herself to be unusually sensitive and mature. As a student at Princeton and Harvard Law, she received an elite education that only an outstanding individual could qualify for—and complete. Later, as a nonprofit executive, adviser to the Mayor of Chicago, and senior executive at the University of Chicago, she proved all over again just how unordinary she is. Little wonder that Michelle Obama is one of the most widely admired people in the world.
Insights into racism in America
Michelle Obama didn’t set out to write a book about racism. Necessarily, she describes the racist discrimination that helped frame her and her family’s experience in life. She cites occasional incidents over the years that brought racism to the surface in her life again. Nonetheless, racism is not a recurring theme in the book. However, it’s impossible to read this book and not see that even when Barack Obama was elected President in 2008, the country did not enter the “post-racial” era some commentators trumpeted. And we needn’t look any further than the election of an outspoken racist as Obama’s successor in 2016 to understand how much further our society must go to erase the stain of slavery and the perverse values that undergirded it.
The author notes that “I’ve never been someone who dwelled on the more demoralizing parts of being African American. I’d been raised to think positively. I’d absorbed my family’s love and my parents’ commitment to seeing us succeed. . . My purpose had always been to see past my neighborhood—to look ahead and overcome. And I had.” There’s nothing ordinary about that!
Her portrait of her husband is endearing
Barack Obama is habitually late. He’s messy. He’s cerebral to an extreme. But he is just as steady and even-handed at home as he appeared on the world stage. And throughout Becoming, Michelle Obama notes again and again just how brilliant her husband is. “[S]kepticism didn’t bother him,” she writes, “the same way long odds didn’t seem to bother him. Barack was a unicorn, after all—shaped by his unusual name, his odd heritage, his hard-to-pin-down ethnicity, his missing dad, his unique mind. He was used to proving himself, pretty much anywhere he went.”
Yet later Obama adds: “All [his] inborn confidence was admirable, of course, but honestly, try living with it. For me, coexisting with Barack’s strong sense of purpose—sleeping in the same bed with it, sitting at the breakfast table with it—was something to which I had to adjust, not because he flaunted it, exactly, but because it was so alive. In the presence of his certainty, his notion that he could make some sort of difference in the world, I couldn’t help but feel a little bit lost by comparison. His sense of purpose seemed like an unwitting challenge to my own.”
The Michelle Obama memoir isn’t really about politics
You can read the Michelle Obama memoir for insight into the career of her husband and his performance in the Oval Office. You’ll find a lot of that in the book. But it’s not really about politics or even her husband’s career. In fact, Michelle Obama appears to loathe politics. When Barack Obama first entered electoral politics to run (unsuccessfully) for Congress, she admits, “I didn’t think it was a great idea for Barack to run for office.” Later, she doubted he could win the Presidency. And, in the conclusion to Becoming, she states emphatically that she will not run for office herself, as many observers have suggested she do. More than anything else, Becoming is a love story. Obama’s account of her relationship with Barack Obama and the dynamics of their family is all about love, fiercely nourished and protected.
For additional reading
For books I’ve reviewed about two important women in politics who are contemporaries of Michelle Obama, see: