Becoming by Michelle Obama • Crown Publishing • 2018 • 448 pages • $34.50
In 2016, the air crackled with a sense of possibility and electricity. Pollsters predicted that Hillary Clinton would become the next President of the United States. Barack Obama, the first non-white President to be elected in U.S. history, was exiting office without the personal and professional scandals that mired down George Bush and Bill Clinton. Beyond restarting the economy, which spiraled into a deep recession before Obama’s first term began, passing legislation expanding and providing health care for millions of Americans was a noted accomplishment of his Administration. He left office, according to Gallup’s last poll on the subject, with an approval rating of 59 percent—astounding, in this polarized age.
Yet, by many accounts, it was not Barack but Michelle Obama who people were paying attention to by the end of Obama’s term. Michelle Obama reshaped not only how the nation came to view the role she occupied, but she also challenged cultural and media perceptions of Black women. And she did so on her own terms.
Michelle Obama’s popularity unexpectedly soared through her husband’s presidency, reflecting her ability to connect with average Americans. In December 2016, The Washington Post ran a story: “The Most Popular Obama Wasn’t the President.” Michelle came across as a smart, funny, trusted girl friend and confidant. She is the friend who would be welcomed to Sunday family dinners and be adored by the parents.
This was undoubtedly not an easy task for her. For example, on the heels of Barack Obama winning the Iowa Caucus in 2008, she was berated in news media after stating, “And let me tell you something—for the first time in my adult lifetime, I am really proud of my country.” Her staff said her comments were taken out of context—and they were. Michelle’s full comment included “people in this country are ready for change and hungry for a different kind of politics…it feels like hope is finally making a comeback.” Even so, conservative commentators lashed out, calling her “strikingly ungracious,” and even some liberals claimed that she had a “me-me-me-mantra.” Meanwhile, others were quick to criticize her appearance, claiming she did not possess the right look for a First Lady or that she weighed too much or was too muscular. The mayor of a small city in Washington State called her “gorilla face.”
Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming, sheds light on those early, rocky years and her unexpected journey from a modest, Black neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago to the White House. Born Michelle LaVaughn Robinson, in January 1964, she was the second child of Fraser Robinson III and Marian Shields Robinson, who struggled to make ends meet but who never seemed to expose their children to those difficulties. Mrs. Robinson stretched the family’s modest resources, sewing Michelle’s clothes, making sure snacks were ready when the kids came home, the laundry washed and folded, and their needs met.
Yet her family’s economic constraints were real. The Robinsons rented a small apartment above the main residence occupied by her great aunt and uncle. Their story was not one of homeownership or luxurious surroundings. Michelle and her older brother, Craig, slept in retrofitted bedrooms divided by a makeshift partition in what had been the living room. This would serve as Michelle and Craig’s sleeping arrangements until high school, when the back porch was converted into a bedroom for her brother.
Fraser Robinson suffered from multiple sclerosis, which despite his stoicism developed into a debilitating condition. His suffering, including swollen legs, with skin “strangely mottled and dark,” reflected not only the effects of MS, but perhaps a lack of confidence in American health care, which too often fails to regard Black patients with compassion and dignity. Such remain the realities in Chicago and throughout the country. A recent report titled Healthy Chicago 2025, details systemic racism in that Chicago’s health care, resulting in a nine-year life expectancy gap between Black and white residents. Chronic diseases are the largest contributors.
Michelle felt powerless in the wake of her father’s condition, which increasingly weakened his body over “twenty-some years.” She writes, “[A]nytime I asked how he was feeling…he gave me the same answer, with the same degree of insistence that he’d given me for years”—that he was “fine” and change the subject. She explains, “[F]or my father, doctors had never brought good news and therefore were avoided.” As Michelle describes it, likely it was his “stubbornness” or “defiance” that kept him alive—until that was no longer enough. He developed Cushing disease and passed away at age 55 of a heart attack.
Mrs. Robinson, a stay-at-home mom, provided a consistent, calm repose. She expressed her love and parenting through what Michelle describes as an “unflappable Zen neutrality.” She avoided “meddling” in the affairs of her children, even as they became teenagers. Rather, Michelle and Craig were reminded by their mother that she was “raising adults,” not babies. Thus, guidelines instead of rules; conversations about when it was reasonable to be home replaced curfews.
Notably, Becoming reflects not only Michelle Obama’s navigation through the world, but to some degree, her mother’s as well. She describes Mrs. Robinson as manifesting “straight-down-the-line” realism, “controlling what she could.” Michelle Obama does not express it so bluntly, but it seems Mrs. Robinson’s mantra was It’s your life, don’t mess it up.
Michelle navigated puberty in the South Side of Chicago with a nimbleness and mindfulness necessary to survive it without succumbing to the pitfalls common in the lives of vulnerable girls. During the period in which Michelle came into her formative years, The Harvard Gazette reports, “Among both Black and white girls, the data showed that increased exposure to harsh environments predicted higher rates of teen pregnancy” in Chicago. Michelle describes the freedom of her teenage years coming with new susceptibilities: “I learned to keep my gaze fixed firmly ahead anytime I passed a group of men clustered on a street corner, careful not to register their eyes roving over my chest and legs.” She knew to “ignore the catcalls when they came.” She became wary about specific streets in her neighborhood and avoiding certain places at night.
Becoming also offers a candid account of white flight, predatory real estate agents who roamed Black communities like their family’s, “whispering to homeowners that they should sell before it was too late…[to avoid] the ruin.” Michelle writes, “They used the word everyone was most afraid of—‘ghetto’—dropping it like a lit match.”
For Michelle’s pragmatic mother, all these challenges meant active engagement in her children’s education, “throwing appreciative dinners for the teachers, and lobbying for the creation of a special multigrade classroom that catered to higher performing students.” As Michelle notes, this latter effort was controversial, but it worked for her. She was a beneficiary, joining “a group of about twenty students from different grades, set off in a self-contained classroom apart from the rest of the school” with their own “recess, lunch, music, and gym schedules.”
As Michelle describes this formative period in her life, she writes that it served to prepare her for what would come next—an elite magnet high school, college at Princeton, and later, Harvard law. She was competitive, keeping track of how she fared among her peers, and “like a game” she recounts being “happiest when [she] was ahead.”
Becoming is most intimate in Michelle’s revealing accounts about her courtship with Barack Obama, a cerebral Harvard law student she was assigned to mentor during his summer clerkship in 1989 at Sidley Austin, the firm where she worked in Chicago. She notes that he was late to their first meeting and concluded a lunch by lighting a cigarette. Both turnoffs. In the weeks that followed she realized that “Barack would need little in the way of advice.” He was three years older than Michelle and was self-assured about the direction of his life, while she was far less sure about both whether she wanted to stay at the firm or what would come next.
Their friendship blossomed over the summer; they dined together at least once per week (as was expected in her role as his adviser), laughed about his less than conventional path to the firm—growing up in Hawaii, living in Indonesia, working as a community organizer before heading to law school—and grew to be confidants. She found herself admiring Barack for “his self-assuredness and earnest demeanor.” According to Michelle, he was “refreshing, unconventional, and weirdly elegant.” Before the summer was over, Barack decided that he and Michelle “should go out” and persisted despite her refusal on the basis that she was his adviser. To that, he responded was that she was not actually his boss, punctuating it with “and you’re pretty cute.”
Michelle’s resistance gave way one weekend shortly before Barack’s summer job came to an end. While giving Barack a ride home after a cookout hosted by one of the firm’s senior partners, a palpable tension emerged. After a short stop for ice cream, he asked if he could kiss her—and she leaned in.
It is the intimacy with which she writes about her marriage that gives the book more than the easy chronicling of a series of events in the life of a celebrated First Lady. For example, she writes with a particular clarity and sensitivity about her struggle to become pregnant and the pain and disappointment in experiencing a miscarriage. She confides about turning to assisted reproductive technologies and using in vitro fertilization to become pregnant, which helped the couple to conceive. Their daughter Malia was born in 1998, followed by Sasha in 2001.
Michelle writes about the disappointment and fear of her dream of having a steady nuclear family with nightly family dinners—like her own childhood—being upended by Barack’s political ambitions. This was not the life she desired. In fact, she loathed politics, especially given the corruption that mired Chicago politics, compounded by the fact that the political machine seemed to care little for enhancing and protecting Black people’s lives.
Given this, Barack’s early position in the Illinois legislature presented a challenge to the equanimity and consistency she desired in her family life. Late dinners and meals that grew cold while waiting on Barack to come home became sources of discontent in their marriage. She loved him but hated politics.
I first met Michelle Obama at Reverend Jesse Jackson’s 65th birthday party in 2006, when Barack Obama was a junior senator. She was striking. Tall, warm, and refreshingly unassuming. Michelle was relaxed and totally nonplussed by the who’s who at the gala. Introduced by a close mutual friend, we were both mothers to young Black daughters. My daughter, Sage, was three years older than Malia. I kept this in mind as I followed their lives during the 2008 campaign and later when they moved to Washington after Barack was elected President.
We also left Chicago in 2008; my husband and I accepted prestigious, endowed professorships at the University of Minnesota Law School. I understood social status, wealth, and education were impotent immunization against racism and hateful behavior. Yet within months of his presidency, racist and hateful online vitriol targeted not only Barack, but soon Michelle and their daughters. What Michelle encountered felt proximate to me as a Black mother. Minneapolis, the city where George Floyd was suffocated to death, and not far from where Philando Castille was killed in his car by a police officer, was my new home. I worried for her daughters as I did my own. Neither family had the comfort of Chicago.
During that campaign, I took note of the other early attacks on Michelle and even their daughters. They were public and visceral.
Remember The New Yorker magazine cover published July 21, 2008? It depicts Michelle Obama in combat boots, military khakis, a curly afro, brandishing an assault rifle, while giving a fist-bump to a sandal-wearing Barack Obama. The image screeches militancy and plays with insurrection, the American flag burns in the flames of the fireplace. An image of presumably a former white President is replaced by a portrait of Osama bin Ladin above the fireplace. The image depicts a compromised Oval Office, and Michelle Obama is the central, dominant figure. The cover was meant to reflect the absurdity of how Michelle was being talked about in the news. It touched a nerve for many Black women.
For a woman who wanted no part of politics, she writes about being thrown into the lion’s den after Barack’s victory. More than a year ahead of the 2008 election—that is, well ahead of the normal timetable—Secret Service began providing security details given concerns regarding the Obamas’ safety given threats made to their lives.
And, quiet as it was kept, while Michelle’s popularity grew, the online assaults by white supremacist groups only intensified during the Obama Administration.
Take for example the Facebook page of one Kimberly Small, a white candidate for the Illinois state legislature In 2012, she posted two provocative commentaries. One derogatorily referred to Michelle as a “hoochie mama” for wearing what has mistakenly been described as a short skirt to the Kids’ Choice Awards. In reality it was a tunic with grey skinny jeans, and not a skirt. Small defended the post, claiming Obama’s jeans were inappropriate and offensive. Then Small repurposed and reposted a cartoon borrowed from elsewhere, depicting Barack grabbing Michelle by the collar and the seat of her pants, picking her up against her will (while she protests), and throwing her onto a baseball field. The crowd cheers and slaps high-fives. The “joke” is that Obama misunderstood that he was to throw out “the first pitch.”
Facebook posts called for the assassination of the President and “his monkey children.” A typical type of online hate was this: “Well boy and girls, the Obama nig*** has once again targeted everyday Americans with new legislation. … That’s right, you can be shot because Buckwheat down the road said you hate nig****, or Muslims…”
For all the post-racial rhetoric that greeted Obama’s election, a cursory Google search during his Administration illuminated far more than post-racial proponents admit. For example, there was this site that promises that you can bash “Nig*** Obama free from censorship.” And this one too: yournig***president.wordpress.com.
Michelle was the picture of grace in the eye of the storm. And the one place in Becoming that breaks from its cool, distanced reflections on her life is the book’s denunciation of Donald Trump, whom she describes as a “misogynist.” The morning after his election, with clouds looming over Washington, D.C. she writes, “I couldn’t help but interpret it as funeral.” As for Trump’s attacks on her family, she makes clear that she will “never forgive him” for “his loud and reckless innuendos.”
My most recent occasion to see Michelle Obama came in 2016 at the Democratic National Convention. Despite considerable rumbling among some observers who wished she would run, she was not a candidate for any office. In fact, she looked forward to the return to civilian life. Washington, D.C. was not her dream, but rather her husband’s. She had resisted being a politician’s wife and made her concerns clear long before his run for President, dating back to his run for the Illinois legislature.
On this occasion, her towering speech at the DNC would set a tone for the next four years that challenged Americans to reject the type of spiteful name-calling that she and her family endured for eight years as occupants of the White House. In the packed convention center of more than 20,000, and 26 million watching on television, she urged Americans to “go high” when “they go low.” She warned, “With every word we utter, with every action we take, we know our kids are watching us.”
With such prescience and presence, we’ve not seen the last of Michelle Obama. She had an enormous impact on the nation. As one of the most visible women in the world, she maintained a steady, accessible, and graceful presence that challenged tropes about Black women, their parenting, relationships, intelligence, and emotional IQ. She was not an apologist for caring about Black lives and expressed her pain as a mother when Travon Martin was killed. In the aftermath of his death, she told reporters that the United States is a “complex” and “complicated country,” and to do better on racism “takes openness. It takes compassion. It takes patience. And it takes a lot of work. So we should all be ready to roll up our sleeves and keep doing that work.”
Not since Jacqueline Kennedy had a First Lady redefined the White House and her role in it with such grace and public buy in. Michelle Obama traveled seamlessly between meeting heads of state and dignitaries and investing time at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and inner-city schools. As I reflect on the momentous occasion of Kamala Harris stepping into her role as the nation’s first woman Vice President, as well as being the first Black woman (and of Asian descent) to occupy that role, I can’t help but think that in some subtle way, Michelle Obama prepared the United States for a Black woman in the White House.