Michelle Obama’s Becoming: A Series

I have always had a weak spot for strong women who know how to articulate themselves. Within the first few sentences of reading Michelle Obama’s debut autobiography, I knew she fell into this category. Come to think of it, I am unsure as to why I could have doubted the quality and significance of her literature. As a double Ivy-league educated former lawyer (and former first lady), Michelle’s writing carries with it the same genuity, class, intelligence, humor, and humility that is commonly associated with her name. In order to fully analyze and appreciate her novel, I have decided to start a book review series as I read my way through her life, and hopefully, you will find her views, stories, and experiences as interesting as I have. The first installment of the novel falls under the title of “Becoming Me,” a peek into Michelle’s origin story and where she came from. I suggest taking out your copy, snuggling up with some cocoa, and reading along with me. If you are here for the highlights, I can always shed light on more than a few.

 

I guess I would say one of the most fascinating aspects of Michelle’s life, and her ultimate success is where she came from. Growing up on the Southside of Chicago, Michelle had a lot to prove. Her family was middle-class, and she shared a home with her immediate family as well as some other residents. She went to a public elementary school and worked hard to be respected. No matter where she went to school or church, she knew the color of her skin would be a determining factor in how she was treated, and from a young age, she decided this was not going to be her reality. At one point, in practicing the pronunciation and spelling of various colors, Michelle made a mistake. She could not spell “white.” As ironic as this is, Michelle refused to see it as a moment of humiliation, but rather as a moment to make her perseverance known. Coming back the next day, Michelle demanded a re-do. The teacher attempted to dissuade her to move onto the next lesson, but Michelle stood firm. She waited until she was given the opportunity and proceeded to spell and pronounce the word correctly. For her classmates, this was perhaps a distraction from a new day’s curriculum. For Michelle, it was a display of her innate drive to succeed in spite of the perceptions of those around her. She worked ten times harder than her classmates and practiced longer at the piano than most children. She spent her evenings listening to the sound of her aunt giving music lessons and spent her days when she was not in school with her mother, father, and brother. Michelle’s parents were very aware of their own experiences, growing up in similarly poor and violent areas of Chicago. They were also very aware of the fact that they wanted better for their children than what the world had given them. Therefore, they emphasized correct speaking and made sure both Michelle and her brother appreciated the education they received.

Michelle's Instagram

In addition, they made sure Michelle knew how to contribute to her own success. After spending her school years working hard to make a name for herself academically, Michelle went on to pursue a degree from Princeton, where her brother had been accepted a few years prior. As for this choice, it was less about her own wants and desires, and mostly about following in her brother’s footsteps. “Anything Craig liked, I figured I’d like too,” she declared. As she prepared to handle the tumultuous college admissions process, she would be reminded of the way the world saw her in comparison to what she offered. “I don’t think you’re Princeton material,” her counselor told her. Fury in her eyes and determination heavy in her chest, Michelle worked continuously, not allowing this authority figure to diminish her self-esteem. Weeks later, when a packet of acceptance from Princeton arrived, Michelle’s silent smile of victory was more than enough. She had proved the counselor, and many others wrong.

 

I find the most captivating aspect of Michelle’s life to be her ability to “make it happen.” When it came to academics, jobs, or relationships, Michelle never hesitated to recognize that in order to make mountains move, she would have to start pushing. As someone who comes from under my own umbrella of white privilege, this concept can be hard to see. Michelle describes it better than I can: privilege is tethered to us, leading some into a network in the sky, and others stuck on the ground. Where she did not have tethers to take her from one phase of life to the next, she had gusto and God-given ability. She was unapologetic, heavily focused on her goals, and still humble enough to take life as it came.

Michelle's Instagram

Even though she was an incredible student and peer, Michelle understood the bigger picture. She knew she was a descendant of those who was not afforded the same opportunities. She also knew that even with her hard work and high goals, life needed to be fun and not unendingly serious. As much as it may shock you, it shocked me to listen to her admit she skipped school occasionally, clubbed downtown, smoked pot, and fooled around with her high school boyfriend in his car. As I surveyed my own reaction to these stories, I asked myself, “would I be as shocked by this, if it weren’t written by a former black first lady?” It is true, I might be. It seems foreign to me that a person who worked so hard to be taken seriously might admit to times of their life that could be looked down upon. Yet I know there is a seed of something more. I know now that I am more shocked that she admits to these generally insignificant and normal aspects of being in high school, because of all she had to do to prove herself as a black woman. That in itself is evidence for why her story is so vitally important to making young women understand their privilege. Why should a black woman versus a white woman feel any sort of remorse or guilt over aspects of our youth that we all experience? Why should I have any fear on her behalf of how the world will judge her, for being just like any other 17-year-old girl? It is not as if she knew about the platform she would one day inherit, and she was simultaneously being accepted into ivy league schools as she had her fun. There is nothing wrong with experimenting as a teenager, and I am glad she chose to share those personal details. Not only does every young girl need to hear that it is okay to be curious, but especially young girls of color. These girls are often expected to sacrifice social life and the less-serious aspects of girlhood, in exchange for being taken seriously or being seen as “good students.”  In this section of the book, Michelle aptly describes her experiences as a woman of color in Chicago, but also reclaims her identity as a woman in general, making her life understandable and easy to fall into as a female reader.

Michelle's Instagram

The first third of Michelle’s story had me hooked within ten minutes. I went into reading this autobiography with the idea that I would grow discontented with viewing the world through one individual’s life. How can I possibly gain so much from one person’s story? Yet, as I continued reading, that was the exact reason I became entranced. What is more interesting and challenging than attempting to view life through the experience of not only a minority woman but a minority woman who has achieved more academic and non-academic success than most white, privileged first ladies? I easily placed myself in the same street she described riding her bike on and found myself relating to her coming of age and drive to prove others wrong about her ability. I easily felt her heartbreak and her victory. Michelle does not write as if she is a double Ivy-league educated former lawyer. She is not distant or condescending. She is just Michelle: a curious, intelligent, kind, and funny girl from Chicago, who can recognize the roles of both hard work and luck in the life she has created for herself. I hope you will continue to read with me in the second third of her autobiography “Becoming Us,” where we are able to view the beginnings of her love story with former president Barack Obama. Until then, I bid you adieu, and wish you more time for happy reading.

 

Credit: Cover, 1, 2, 3