‘Becoming’ by Michelle Obama — Review
Obama isn’t exactly an unknown name. When we hear it in the UK we probably think a few specific thoughts along the lines of ‘first black president of the US’, or, ‘those were better times.’ But we always initially think of the man who made history, standing in a suit and tie in front of the stars and stripes. We rarely think first of the woman stood next to him. In her autobiography Becoming, Michelle Obama proves the proverb that behind every great man is a great woman, and gives us a unique insight to American history as herstory.
The book is split into three parts: Becoming Me, Becoming Us and Becoming More. Some parts of the book are not a mystery. When Michelle met a man named Barack in her law office for the first time, for example, I had a feeling I knew how it would end. But other parts are deeply revealing and personal. Reading through the first chapter is like meeting an old friend for the first time. I knew some things about her already — she was a mother, a business woman, a democrat who advocated for healthy eating and whose favourite vegetable is a sweet potato. But I didn’t know about her South Side Chicago upbringing, or her father’s multiple sclerosis. Narrated with warmth and humour, Michelle retells stories of everything from her first piano recitals to her first boyfriend. She introduces us to family members long passed, without whom she might not have become who she is today. It’s not just a story about herself, but about the streets of Chicago, about racial prejudice in 70s America and about how she and her brother came to value their education above all else. There are also some really cute baby pictures I kept flicking forward to see in between reading pages. Even the smallest details of her childhood are given the greatest respect and importance in this book, vital to the rest of the tale, because I suppose, in hindsight, they were.
Becoming Us is my favourite part of the book. Even knowing how the story goes, reading about her first date with Barack, their first flat, or their engagement (especially their engagement) made me squirm with excitement for her. What’s offered to the reader in this part, however, isn’t just the fluffy romance of falling in love and starting a family, but a raw, genuine insight into who the Obamas are, seeing how their beliefs shaped their own lives in the same way they would go on to shape a country. She describes how a messy, disorganised but driven and focussed do-good man collided with her hyper-organised and motivated lifestyle and her career in law. When she decided to pack in her job as a lawyer and seek a line of work more fulfilling and influential, she in part credited Barack’s encouragement.
As the both the narrative and Michelle grow, her sense of self is abundant. She vulnerably describes attempting to juggle motherhood and work, feeling as though both sides of her life missed out but neither one gained. She confides in us about how the negative image of her spread in the press effected her self-esteem and how her imposter syndrome was as present as it is for any young professional. She doesn’t downplay the discrimination she faced for her race or gender, aptly revealing how dehumanising it can be, uniting herself with other women and people of colour who also know that feeling all too well.
The 2008 presidential election doesn’t come into the story until more than halfway through, which I loved. This is when we are welcomed back to a familiar picture — the speeches, the voting, the campaigns — but this time from the other side. The book talks us through the highs and lows of being a presidential candidate’s wife, a news outlet’s punching bag, a mother to vulnerable children. But it also tells us what it’s like when our familiar friend from part one, Michelle, who choked on her first piano recital and dumped her first boyfriend, is thrown into this political world, playing all the parts at once. It’s incredible to read about what goes on behind the scenes and about how airbrushed and belittled a woman’s hard work can be. It’s depressing to see how often the media will manipulate the truth, twisting it into dangerous lies and barely concealed prejudice. But it’s also funny to notice how much of politics depends on dramatics, and comforting to see flashes of genuine human love and compassion in amongst the chaos.
Becoming More focusses on the eight years the Obama family spent in the White House. We’re offered glimpses into the personal strain of being President Of The United States, but mostly part three is dedicated to the work and causes Michelle championed over the two presidential terms. Everything is given a spotlight, from the poverty brushed out of view, to the news headlines on terrorism and childhood obesity. Throughout the final section of the book, the message is repeated over and over again — that the presidential reign was temporary, but the work for these causes must continue, and the spotlight must remain. And, thanks to this book, it will.
In a single word, this book is empowering. It proves everything we already know Michelle Obama and more — as a business person, as a mother, as a black woman and as a leader. It fits a cliche: I laughed when she laughed, I cried when she cried. But I also came to appreciate her as a powerful woman in her own right, supported and encouraged by thousands of other powerful women before her, and paving the way for those who will come after. And, whilst American politics has now been refitted with a portrait overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly male, she made a mark on history that no one can erase.