In a life filled with meaning and accomplishment, Michelle Obama has emerged as one of the most iconic and compelling women of our era.
As First Lady of the United States of America—the first African American to serve in that role—she helped create the most welcoming and inclusive White House in history, while also establishing herself as a powerful advocate for women and girls in the U.S. and around the world, dramatically changing the ways that families pursue healthier and more active lives, and standing with her husband as he led America through some of its most harrowing moments.
In her memoir, a work of deep reflection and mesmerizing storytelling, Michelle Obama invites readers into her world, chronicling the experiences that have shaped her—from her childhood on the South Side of Chicago to her years as an executive balancing the demands of motherhood and work, to her time spent at the world’s most famous address.
I’ve been looking forward to reading this book since it was first released and never seemed to find the time, however since the lockdown began time hasn’t been so much of an issue. I admire Michelle and Barack Obama immensely and I love how they use their influence to get the most out of young people. I knew Michelle had studied law prior to her becoming First Lady but I had no idea about the work she had done to promote education and wellbeing amongst young people. She made such a difference during her time in the White House and it’s nice to read about why she chose the projects she promoted and why they mean so much to her.
Becoming obviously begins with Michelle’s childhood in the South Side of Chicago where she grew up in a middle class home with her older brother. America must have different class definitions to Britain because the type of life Michelle describes is more akin to working class rather than middle class as I understand it. The Robinsons shared a home with an aunt and uncle who lived on the ground floor while Michelle’s family lived on the second floor. Michelle’s parents both worked and sacrificed a lot to ensure their children had more choices, and Michelle describes the subsequent pressure she felt in not letting them down. Michelle speaks about how her grandfather and father’s generations were held back due to the colour of their skin and the potential that was lost for improving their way of life.
The narrative moves at quite a fast pace as we move through Michelle’s time at high school and the famous story about the guidance counsellor who informed her people like her didn’t get to go to Princeton. Of course, it only made Michelle more determined. At Princeton and Harvard Law School, Michelle meets many of the women who will become her closest friends and allies on the road to the White House. It is the death of one of those close friends that makes her realise she isn’t satisfied being a corporate lawyer and she moves to the public sector where she became Executive Director for the Chicago Office of Public Allies, a non-profit organisation encouraging young people to work on social issues. The Public Allies organisation was a huge success and was an indication of some of the work Michelle would prioritise as First Lady.
Of course, Michelle was still working as a lawyer when she was given the task of mentoring a young man named Barack Obama and he immediately irked her by being late but it was obvious from the start he was a charmer. There’s a lot of warm humour as Michelle describes the things about Barack that used to drive her crazy but her admiration for him never falters. After marriage and the birth of their children, it becomes increasingly clear Barack’s ambitions are becoming political and Michelle is very honest about how worried she was about the effect it would have on her family. Like a lot of working mothers, Michelle found it hard to balance work with family, particularly with an increasingly absent husband, and she talks about how that affected the stability of her marriage.
We are half way through the book before we get to the White House where Michelle talks about the nastier side of things and makes it absolutely clear why she would never run for president herself. Michelle is a very giving person so it is especially hard to fathom why political enemies would want to portray her in a negative manner but I suppose that’s part of the nastiness she talks about. Barack’s eight years as president go by really quickly and Michelle only highlights a few of the bigger stories, such as the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, and Barack’s hopeless quest to combat gun crime. It’s actually quite disheartening to read about the stuff Barack wanted to do but was thwarted by the attitude of the Republican Party. I don’t profess to understand much about American politics but Michelle’s frustration comes across loud and clear.
As their time in the White House comes to an end, Michelle talks about saying their goodbyes to the staff who had become like family and why she will never forgive Donald Trump for putting her family in danger. When Michelle lists all the things they achieved during her husband’s two terms, it’s quite disheartening to realise most of it has been dismantled so I can only imagine how they feel watching it all. While Becoming may not delve very deeply into personal territory in the way some biographies do, it is still a very satisfying read and the Netflix documentary is also a good companion piece.