Michelle Obama’s "Becoming": A Riveting Narrative of Grit, Determination, and Perseverance That Will Leave You Inspired

When 323 million people associate your last name with either hope or distrust, it can be difficult not have your words automatically misconstrued to suit the beliefs of whoever hears them. However, by selling nearly 1.4 million copies after only one week on the shelves, Michelle Obama’s newest book, "Becoming," demonstrates her powerful presence as an individual, appealing to all walks of life. The word “becoming” acts as symbolism, representative of a goal; a nation that listens, accepts and empathizes with one another. By suggesting that partisanship is not unsurpassable, diversity is something to be embraced, and glass ceilings are better off as sunroofs, readers are left with a desire to be more, to want more. By the end, you too will be believing that barrier-breaking doesn’t have to be the exception, it can be the rule.

Let’s start with logistics. The book itself is divided into three subsections— “Becoming Me,” “Becoming Us,” and “Becoming More.” This set-up divides this 426-page story into bite size chunks that are easy to comprehend, but still demand active participation from its reader. Instead of diving into long, academic portrayals of home-life or governmental dealings, Obama starts chapters briefly, letting the reader’s eye wonder curiously down the remainder of the page. The simplicity of intros like “People ask what it’s like to live in the White House,” or “It hurts to live after someone has died. It just does,” (304) (144) draw in her audience by tapping into feelings or curiosities they’ve likely felt themselves. Even when describing complicated bills or reform, her narration never works to outpace the reader. 

In the description of her childhood, Obama doesn’t even try to sugar coat her humble beginnings. She speaks of having to live in a small apartment above her aunt and uncle and sharing a room with her brother, Craig. Despite this, there is one thing that has driven her since she was just Michelle Robinson—learning.  Her competitive spirit would later lead her to two ivy-league degrees and a position at a poshy downtown law firm. As she describes it, “For me, it was like a game. And as with any game, like most any kid, I was happy when I was ahead” (45). 

However, it was also during her formative years that she first experienced the effects of racism. She recounts driving into the suburbs to visit relatives just to have her family’s car keyed, going back to school each year just to see fewer and fewer white classmates during the “white flight” epidemic and the simple notion that she just wasn’t good enough. But this was no match for her strong intuition, leading her to say this about her doubting high school counselor: “I never did stop in on the college counselor to tell her she’d been wrong—that I was Princeton material after all. It would have done nothing for either of us. And in the end, I hadn’t needed to show her anything. I was only showing myself” (67). *mic drop*

Moving into her adult years, Michelle speaks of her transition to life at Princeton, letting go of ties to home and exactly what that meant for her.  Feeling alone in a sea of whiteness, Michelle isn’t afraid to let people see her vulnerability: “You don’t really know how attached you are until you move away, until you’ve experienced what it means to be dislodged, a cork floating on the ocean of another place” (77). But it certainly wasn’t all doom and gloom.  She met her best friend, Suzanne, who taught her to live spontaneously, something that was not at all natural to Michelle’s focused personality.

 Fast forward a few years and Michelle sits at a shiny desk in a high rise called Sidley & Austin, a prestigious corporate law firm. It was here that she was asked to mentor a bright, Harvard stand-out—Barack Obama. At first, Michelle was skeptical of the hype this man brought, having heard he was simply the best student that some of his Harvard professors had ever witnessed. However, throughout their time together as colleagues, she grew to appreciate his wit and genuine goofiness amidst his brainy quirks. The rest is history with that one.

The next few years of Michelle’s life are told rapidly as she moved from job to job, seemingly unfulfilled, while her new husband served on the Illinois Senate. Throughout this time, she traded in about half of her salary to get closer to real people and issues at city hall. From there she did everything from founding non-profits like Public Allies, to having children, to working in the University of Chicago Medical Center. Moving through election years and onto the White House, she understandably struggled to find what her new “thing” would be as First Lady of the United States, later settling on meaningful initiatives like childhood obesity and veterans’ affairs. 

She reveled in her new opportunities but did not hold back the evident truth that the White House had never been of service to an African-American family in the past: “The truth was that Washington confused me, with its decorous traditions and sober self-regard, its whiteness and maleness…” (219). But this uncertainty was not to last, and with time, she successfully loosened up White House formality, returning it to its purpose as a space to be used and enjoyed by the public it served.

Enduring everything from the hateful slurs to the rewarding triumphs, Michelle Obama has proven that she is much more than a president’s wife. Blazing her own trail, in "Becoming" she shows that it is possible to be a student, a mother, a worker, a wife, and still be you. Catering especially to women and people of color, Michelle works to inspire hope into a world seemingly overtaken at some points by hate, misogyny and greed. She ends her narrative offering one final bit of advice: “It’s not about being perfect. It’s not about where you get yourself in the end. There’s power in allowing yourself to be known and heard, in owning your unique story, in using your authentic voice. And there’s grace in being willing to know and hear others. This, for me, is how we become” (421).

More notable quotes from Becoming:

“It was one thing to get yourself out of a stuck place, I realized.  It was another thing entirely to try and get the place itself unstuck” (118).

“I tried not to feel intimidated when classroom conversation was dominated by male students, which it often was. Hearing them, I realized that they weren’t at all smaller than the rest of us. They were simply emboldened, floating on an ancient tide of superiority, buoyed by the fact that history had never told them anything different” (79). 

 “I’ve learned that it’s harder to hate close up” (270).

“Am I good enough?  Yes, in fact I am” (92).

“She too was living, stuffing herself full of what the world had to give” (127).

“Do we settle for the world as it is, or do we work for the world as it should be?” (118).

Image Credit: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, Gif 1, Gif 2