About three months ago, I heard a very interesting conversation/interview with Barack Obama on a writing project the Obama Foundation had been engaged in. At one point there was mention of Barack’s own memoirs and the fact that Michelle had already written and published hers. “Yes”, admitted Barack, “this increases the pressure a bit!” He had grinned, of course, a bit sheepishly.
Later when I started reading Michelle’s brilliant memoir, called Becoming, I discovered how true to form it was for both Obamas for Michelle to have finished first. Michelle described herself from early on, from when she was studying piano but was not yet in Grade One, as a go-getter who tried very hard to do things exactly as she should and to try to be better than anyone else. Always in the back of her mind, she said, was the question “Am I good enough?” although as she progressed through her racially mixed Chicago south side elementary school, and her selective-admission high school, and then Princeton, and then Harvard Law School, and admission to a big league law firm in Chicago, she answered this question each step of the way with “Yes, I am.”
And Michelle’s family was always behind her, insisting that she do her best, that she speak up at home and speak properly, that she take advantage of opportunities, work hard, and do what she could to better herself. They were loving and steady and practiced all the virtues they required of Michelle.
Barack’s early life was quite different and nowhere near as steady. His parents separated quickly and he was raised partly by his mother, who was an anthropologist with a special interest in Indonesia, and who eventually married an Indonesian, and his mother’s parents, white Middle Westerners, somewhat displaced in Hawaii. He had periods of alienation, but he was brilliant and eventually did very well, going to Occidental College, Columbia University, and then Harvard for Law.
And although he had little interest in making sure he did everything properly, or trying to be the best, Michelle says he read a great deal, moving from Philosophy to History to Politics, and would sometimes sit far into the night pondering abstract problems like what could be done to bring more equal class structure to the country, or what more could be done to alleviate poverty.
Early in her book, Michelle brings up an incident in which she felt alienated. She was sitting on her cousin’s porch at the age of ten or so, surrounded by a little group of girls of about the same age. They were children she knew well with one exception – a somewhat distant cousin. That child suddenly turned to Michelle and asked her why she spoke like a white girl. Michelle was stunned and said she certainly didn’t, but at the same time, she felt challenged and confused.
But her later speculation on the event is brilliant:
Yet it also could be problematic. Speaking a certain way – the “white” way, as some would have it, was perceived as a betrayal, as being uppity, as somehow denying our culture. Years later, after I’d met and married my husband – a man who is light skinned to some and dark-skinned to others, who speaks like an Ivy League-educated black Hawaiian, raised by white middle-class Kansans – I’d see this confusion play out on the national stage among whites and blacks alike, the need to situate someone inside his or her ethnicity, and the frustration that comes when it can’t easily be done.
America would bring to Barack Obama the same questions my cousin was unconsciously putting to me that day on the stoop: Are you what you appear to be? Do I trust you or not?
We know that some people could not trust Barack Obama. We know from Michelle herself that the couple faced racial prejudice and ill-feeling frequently during their days in the White House. But she has reframed that situation in such a charitable, compassionate, broad way that it appears to be a very human sort of doubt.
In fact, her framing of racist incidents through-out the book is completely generous and open-hearted. This woman is not paranoid.
Michelle’s memoirs are extremely honest and open about all kinds of things. She talks about their fertility problems, the issues of home life versus political obligations, and, interestingly, the way she made peace with her personal compulsion to prove herself in her career and moved instead into practicing law in a more social, even political sphere. She worked in bringing new lawyers into the public sphere, initially from Chicago’s South Side and eventually nationwide; she worked in securing the legal rights to health care for various disadvantaged groups, especially for women’s groups. Even Michelle’s push for healthier food in primary schools involved efforts on a broad legal front. Barack, of course, put his law interests into social work and political organization of groups on the South Side of Chicago, gaining invaluable experience in both the needs and the approaches of a large section of the economy. (I’ve always liked the idea that all professions – medicine, of course, law, education – can be channeled into public service!)
All in all, I found this book more human than political or partisan. It takes the reader through all the feelings of growing up in a very close family, the pressures to “get ahead” in a selective high school, what it feels like to be a minority in an ivy league college and law school, the love story of Barack and Michelle, his first calls into politics and the ramifications of that, and her own “becoming more” as a more socially conscious lawyer and as First Lady of the United States. It is a very good read from start to finish!
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