A review of Michelle Obama’s “Becoming”
Four years into her husband’s first term as the 44th president of the United States of America, Michelle Obama was only then coming to grips with her position as a First Lady whose power she described thus: “A curious thing, as soft and undefined as the role itself”.
She had no executive authority, did not command troops or engaged in diplomacy. The role required her to carry a “gentle light”. But after nearly four years of practice, she says, “I was beginning to see though, that wielded carefully, the light was more powerful than that. I had influence over being something of a curiosity: a Black First Lady, a professional woman, a mother of young kids”.
This later realisation may seem exaggerated, after what must have been gruesome months of campaigning along with Barack. But set against the existence of black people in the America from slavery to segregation to whatever its current form is, her becoming the First Lady was once the most likely.
“I’d lived invisibility. I came from a history of invisibility” reflects Obama of her decision to speak to students of a London school whose high- achieving students from lower income African and Caribbean backgrounds was regarded as a peculiar feat “I liked to mention that I was the great-great-granddaughter of a slave named Jim Robinson who was probably buried in an unmarked grave in a South Carolina plantation”.
This and more is revealed in “Becoming” the first biography by Michelle Obama charting her childhood in Chicago, her years at Princeton university and as a high achieving lawyer, courtship with Barack, raising their daughters Malia and Sasha and of course the eight years she spent as the First Lady Of America from 2009 – 2017.
Surprised that her choice of clothes, shoes and hair size routinely made headline news – as if they wouldn’t – she decided to repurpose the attention lavished on her towards the goals she’d set for her time at the White House which included securing employment for military personnel and their families, reducing childhood obesity rates concluding that, “I was learning how to connect my message to my image and in this way I can erect the American gaze”.
“Becoming” is a remarkably frank and satisfying account of the years she spent erecting not just the American gaze but that of the rest of the world by virtue of the office her husband held.
Obama has deepened the experience of “Becoming” by reading all 450 pages of it herself for the audio book, a total of 20 hours on Audible. She does not dramatise, as would a voice actor, employing flair and theatricality. The narration is strait laced but not joyless. Every passage is read with a steadiness of tone and timing in a manner that squares easily with her persona, and dare I say psyche, as portrayed in the book; that of the steady hand to Barrack’s ease with improvisation.
For Barack, she says, marriage was a “loving alignment” of two parties with shared and separate life goals while for Michelle it was “a full on merger, a reconfiguring of two lives into one with the well-being of a family taking precedence over any one agenda”.
Watching on at Barack’s first address to a joint congress of democrats and republicans leaders in 2009, a long-established fact acquired immediate power: “It was an unusual bird’s eye view of our country’s leaders. An ocean of whiteness and maleness dressed in dark suits. The absence of diversity was glaring. Honestly, it was embarrassing for a modern, multicultural country”.
She may have taken four years to learn how to wield her power, but she needed little time to recognise the level of opposition Barack’s presidency faced from right-wing Americans and republicans and who she says “stayed seated through most of it, appearing obstinate and angry, their arms folded and their frowns deliberate, looking like children who hadn’t gotten their way. They would fight everything Barack did, I realised, whether it’s good for the country or not”.
Occupying the highest office in the country also made her husband a focal point of just and unjust grievances which she would later describe in unequivocal terms: “The hatred was old and deep, and as dangerous as ever. We lived with it as a family and we lived with it as a nation”.
Obama is most acerbic towards Donald Trump who succeeded her husband and is succeeding in overturning some of his predecessor’s achievements in international trade, gay rights, immigration, health care reforms and so forth. Certain disgust is shown to Trump’s misogyny and brutishness; “Dominance, even a thread of it, is a form of dehumanisation. It’s the ugliest form of power”.
As burdens of responsibility go, that of the First Lady, as she tells it, is the most tiresome and most fulfilling. It offers an intimate proximity to the full scope of power without any formal influence over it. It is a role she fulfilled with infinite amounts of grace and control, the stakes seeming higher for her and her husband by any previous holders of the office.