Reviewed by Jennifer Jenkins
Michelle Obama was destined to become the icon the world knows now. The foundation set by her family taught her to embrace the path of truth, as unpleasant as it may be at times. The word “becoming” means not only attractive, but describes a transition into another state of being, and this is a most fitting attribute for her as depicted in her memoir, Becoming (Crown Publishing Group, November 2018).
Obama’s parents taught her the value of education and the strength of family. She grew up on the South Side of Chicago without any extras, her family not owning their home and the neighborhood school declining. This is not about hardship, though, this is about learning, as a child, that she was more than good enough. There were long bus rides to better schools and white classmates who looked at her strangely, but they were merely a new, if not always positive, obstacle in her life that she was groomed to rise above. As a senior in high school, her guidance counselor declares she will not make it to Princeton. “She was telling me to lower my sights, which was the absolute reverse of every last thing my parents had ever told me.” She forges ahead, graduating from Princeton and then Harvard Law School.
Part of the reason she gets so far is that she puts in the work and stays grounded. Landing a great job at a Chicago law firm after college, she’s pragmatic enough to still live in the top floor of the house where she grew up, with her parents downstairs. At work, she’s tasked with mentoring a new summer associate, also from Harvard, with a strange first name. It is page 95 in the book before she mentions the man who will become her husband. Her manner is so honest, her story so compelling, that it’s easy to forget she was also the First Lady of the United States.
When Barack Obama begins his first grass-roots campaign, she is struck by his vision of gathering people to work for a better place; instead of settling for what you’ve been given, work for what you want. Michelle Obama already knows how to work, and she sees the excitement, and feels the positive tension he brings out in people. She has found a man with whom she may not agree on all fronts, but one who knows that change can only come from hard work. She already knows too well how to do this.
She is strong enough here to confess moments of doubt. She would rather her husband take a more traditional path into politics that wasn’t so rushed. She misses him when he’s on the campaign trail, and worries that he is not content with the family they have built together. She has concerns about her own career taking a backseat to his. She is forced to examine her strong sense of equality when she suffers through a miscarriage and begins fertility treatments. “I was just feeling the acute burden of being female.” She’s on a regimen of blood draws, cervix checks, ultrasounds, self-administered shots, and “for any woman who lives by the mantra that equality is important, this can be a little confusing. It was me who’d alter everything, putting my passions and career dreams on hold, to fulfill this piece of our dream. I found myself in a small moment of reckoning. Did I want it? Yes, I wanted it so much. And with this, I hoisted the needle and sank it into my flesh.” She will have to make the sacrifice, and to her it would be worth it.
Michelle Obama’s initiatives while in the White House were primarily centered on the education and well-being of children. She started a large vegetable garden on the South Lawn and had school children come and plant with her. Her Let’s Move! program taught families healthier ways to eat and exercise. She invited scores of classes to visit the White House for tours. She brought hope to the nation when politics were still simmering with partisanship issues of little relevancy. She rose above the criticism, once again, and put in the work.
She speaks to the ways people judged her by the color of her skin, knowing she’d have to work that much harder to rise above the prejudice. She knew she was the first of her kind, and acknowledged those who had come before her to pave the way, such as Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, and Coretta Scott King. “None of these women could ever have imagined a life like the one I now had, but they’d trusted that their perseverance would yield something better, eventually.” Michelle Obama never demanded more than she was willing to do herself. “It was possible, I knew, to live on two planes at once — to have one’s feet planted in reality but pointed in the direction of progress.” This is how she became Michelle Obama, and she inspires us to ask ourselves; who are we becoming?