I grew up with a disabled dad in a too-small house with not much money in a starting-to-fail neighborhood, and I also grew up surrounded by love and music in a diverse city in a country where an education can take you far. I had nothing or I had everything. It depends on which way you want to tell it.
From the South Side of Chicago to Princeton, to First Lady, Michelle Obama writes eloquently and candidly about her life in a way that is by turns humorous, insightful, and inspirational. No longer held to the optics of a politician’s wife, Obama’s story shows us that when it comes down to it, we all have more in common that we could have thought possible. So often while reading this book, I found myself nodding along to one anecdote or another. Seeing my grandmother in Mrs. Obama’s mother; or saying, “yes, exactly” to her resulting mom-guilt we all experience in some form or another; or even being the only female in a class full of males, and how I was glaringly conspicuous, like when she was a freshman at Princeton and noticed the distinct lack of diversity in the classrooms for the first time.
I liked my story. I was comfortable telling it. And I was telling it to people who despite the difference in skin color reminded me of my family—postal workers who had bigger dreams just as Dandy once had; civic-minded piano teachers like Robbie; stay-at-home moms who were active in the PTA like my mother; blue-collar workers who’d do anything for their families, just like my dad.
I loved how many life lessons Mrs. Obama shared, gleaned from her own personal experience, or by advice given to her by others. It has a certain wisdom that can only be attained by sitting at the kitchen table. Like how her father’s credo was that people are basically good if you just treat them well. Or her mother, Marian, telling her to be patient and kind with her aunt and uncle’s “grouchiness,” because they lived things that go unspoken and yet demand our respect and patience, and ultimately, kindness.
Even if we didn’t know the context, we were instructed to remember that context existed. Everyone on earth, they’d tell us, was carrying around an unseen history, and that alone deserved some tolerance.
I found the behind-the-scenes glimpse of the Obama family during their time in the White House, as well as their time spent campaigning to be remarkably resilient. The weight of the office is undeniably very heavy, from the fear and hate and risk associated with being the first black First Family, to the burden of knowledge that was a yolk around President Obama’s neck. This was particularly evident after the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting, where Mrs. Obama described her husband’s resolve not to look away.
As he saw it, it was part of his responsibility, what he’d been elected to do—to look rather than look away, to stay upright when the rest of us felt ready to fall down.
Reading about President Obama from his wife’s perspective really helped me see him in a new light as well as Mrs. Obama herself. President Obama was exactly the kind of person you hope to see occupying the seat of the highest office in the nation, a person of strong moral convictions and passionate about their country, a highly intelligent person who only wants what is best for the country. The Obamas have shown themselves to be people who genuinely care, and do more than just pay lip service, they back their words up with action. No matter how often people tried to knock them down, they got back up and kept fighting for what is right and good, not just the President and First Lady, but their girls too. In one part of the book that I felt truly described their tenure in the White House, Mrs. Obama relates the story of a fellow student’s mother asking Malia if she was afraid to be out in the open playing tennis.
‘If you’re asking me whether I ponder my death every day,’ she said to the woman, as politely as she could, ‘the answer is no.’ …She’d heard, in Malia’s answer, both the resilience and the vulnerability, an echo of all that we lived with and all we tried to keep at bay. She’d also understood that the only thing our girl could do, that day and every day after it, was get back on the court and hit another ball.
Of course, race is a recurrent theme in this book, and as a white woman reading it, my eyes were opened to examples of systematic racism that I may not otherwise have known existed. Sure, I could relate extremely well to some of the examples of systematic sexism in the book. If it is so easy to believe that systematic sexism exists, since as a woman I have experienced it myself, and that only recently are more men realizing it too, so too is the case with systematic racism.
No matter that America was ready to elect its first black president, suggesting that we were finally moving forward, it was made painfully obvious in the 2016 campaign season that bigotry is alive and well in our country. Overt prejudice is still evident, and deemed increasingly more acceptable in the current political environment. I think before the 2016 election, we wanted to believe that racism wasn’t an issue anymore, but the truth is, it runs so deep and is so enmeshed in the system that we don’t even realize it. White privilege blinds us to it because it doesn’t directly affect us. When we let others in, listen to their stories, we will find a common ground, we will care because we can see ourselves in their stories, and then our eyes are opened. As Mrs. Obama states in her book, “it’s harder to hate up close.” That’s one of the reasons I believe it is so important to read her book, and learn more about other people. Learn their plights, open your eyes, and be affected. Let’s make this world a better place with less hate and intolerance, and more compassion and kindness.
I read this book back in February (yes, it took me this long to write this review…I wanted to do it justice, but I’m not sure that’s possible), along with the Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, because I believe that Black History Month shouldn’t just be celebrated by black people. We need to open ourselves up to hearing something that might make us uncomfortable so that we may better understand each other. We need to teach our children to look beyond perceived differences and see the similarities. Only then can we put our differences aside and move forward, with kindness and respect for everyone, regardless of race, creed, color, etc. We are all members of the human race, and such we all deserve respect. There are so many wonderful lines I could quote from this book, but I’m going to leave you with this last one and hope that you read the book yourself, particularly if you are pre-disposed not to.
Let’s invite one another in. Maybe then we can begin to fear less, to make fewer wrong assumptions, to let go of the biases and stereotypes that unnecessarily divide us. Maybe we can better embrace the ways we are the same. 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.
I hope you enjoyed this review. If you have read Becoming, let me know what you thought of it!
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The featured image and book cover image are credited to https://becomingmichelleobama.com/