I’ve never really given much thought to Michelle Obama. She was the first lady of the United States during a time in my life that was governed by school and boys, not politics. To me she was just the president’s wife and the woman I always saw on commercials advocating for the children of the United States to eat healthier and exercise more. I knew her as the mother of Malia and Sasha Obama, the president’s daughters, who, like me, frequented parties and concerts. Nonetheless, I knew her to be an undeniable emblem of beauty and grace.
What I didn’t know was Obama’s real story, all of which was delicately unfolded in her new memoir, “Becoming.”
She divides the book into three parts: “Becoming Me,” “Becoming Us” and “Becoming More.” I was surprised at how fast I soared through the first two sections. I was expecting it to be a more cumbersome and rather boring read, but was instead greeted by elegant and conversational prose that captivated me. I cried on more than one occasion.
In “Becoming Me,” Obama paints a vivid landscape of her youth. Her recount is centered around growing up on the south side of Chicago alongside her mother, father and brother, Craig. She remembers the times her mother taught her to read; the times she sat with her Aunt Robbie and labored over piano lessons; the hardships of school, but also the early signs of an intense desire to succeed budding inside her; the true effects of her father’s multiple sclerosis, and her refusal to let it marr the beautiful image she had of him; but most importantly, she remembers internalizing the true meaning of her skin color, and what that would mean for her future.
It was evident to me, at the close of this introductory section, that Obama is nothing shy of absolutely incredible. She showed signs of an exceptional intellect at an early age, which allowed her a certain mobility in school. She completed high school at Whitney Young, where she learned, “I was something more. I wasn’t going to let one person’s opinion dislodge everything I knew about myself.” She then went on to receive an undergraduate degree in sociology from Princeton University.
It was here that she also realized the impact of her race. She found herself an anomaly in lecture halls, surrounded by a predominately white male demographic. Her voice was sometimes lost, and she soon discovered why. “They were simply emboldened, floating on an ancient tide of superiority, buoyed by the fact that history had never told them anything different,” she wrote. Nevertheless, she soon graduated and went to Harvard University Law School, which, in turn, led her to Sidley & Austin, and, ultimately, to Barack Obama.
I choked up a few times while reading “Becoming Me.” I was simply brought to tears by how inspiring and strong she was. She was becoming something more to me than just a political figurehead, she was becoming a person who had hopes and dreams and hardships. I learned a few short hours later that “Becoming Us” would elicit far more emotion.
Michelle and Barack met one uneventful afternoon at Michelle’s firm, Sidley & Austin. She was assigned to be his mentor within the summer associate program, and he, her mentee. She recalls tapping her fingers impatiently, waiting for the late newcomer, a newcomer she knew nothing about, “just the name, and [it was] an odd name.”
He sauntered in, radiating charisma. Michelle wasn’t smitten immediately, however. It was only after their budding friendship began did she begin to feel the aches and pains of love. They spent that summer together, frequenting their favorite lunch spot and walking around Hyde Park. The end of the program brought about heartache, and it was there that they discovered the love they had for each other.
Fast forward a couple years and two kids later. Barack Obama has just won a seat on the Illinois State Senate. There are rumors of a presidential run; after talking with his wife, he dances around the idea for a while before fully committing.
She confronts the challenge with delicacy and strength, delving into the numerous issues and gifts this next chapter of their life would bring. Obama grappled with the hardships of being “deeply, delightfully in love with a guy whose forceful intellect and ambition could possibly end up swallowing mine.”
Obama was faced with the possibility of being a quasi single mother. Her husband’s work schedule kept him away from their house and kids for a majority of the week, leaving the bulk of the work under her wing. Yet, their marriage continued to grow, fostered by the undying respect and love they had for each other and for their kids. Their bond was strengthened by hardship — from the death of her best friend and later her father, to the loss of his mother and the unending criticism he received from the political world, both personal and professional. Through it all, they stood strong.
She stood by him in moments of tragedy, such as the harrowing morning of the Sandy Hook shooting, which she recalls as one of the most horrific days not only for America, but for her family as well. She was by Barack’s side as he addressed the nation, teary-eyed and somber. She stood by him at Trump’s inauguration, staying stoic and poised in the face of a man who had questioned the legitimacy of her husband’s citizenship.
She painted her life in vibrant colors for a slew of curious and dedicated readers like myself.
Now, Obama is more than the former FLOTUS. She is a human. She is someone who faced discrimination, who lost loved ones, who failed her LSAT, who fell in love and then struggled to get pregnant. Memoirs are funny like that. I knew going into this book that it would be a personal recount, but I was awestruck at how deeply personal she actually got. She is someone who spent years under the limelight, who was never allotted a moment of solitude for reflection because there was always a looming presence.
I learned she was much, much more than an emblem of beauty and grace. She is an emblem of might and strength; she is motivated and passionate; she is self-fashioned out of her sheer ability to adapt to adversity and conflict. She is a woman, a black woman, who proved to be triumphant in a country that constantly sought to put her down.