What I Read: Becoming, by Michelle Obama

By Ruby

I have been meaning to begin writing down the thoughts I have about the books I read, but, as with so many of my well-intentioned ideas, I have either forgotten to do so or have not found the time (over and over again). This post is my first effort to hold myself publicly accountable to the goal.

A few days ago, I finished Becoming, Michelle Obama’s memoir. The book is a sweeping 400-page account of her entire life. I went into the book excited and a bit teary-eyed, reflecting upon my nostalgia for the Obama Administration – a time I view as honorable and hopeful, if not exactly perfect. The first half of the book buoyed these feelings. Obama (Michelle, that is) spoke in loving and thoughtful detail of her childhood on the South Side of Chicago, and of her confusion and sense of loneliness upon leaving the South Side (first for a magnet high school and then for Princeton) and encountering, really for the first time, the sense of her “otherness” as a black woman in America. South Side Chicago had provided Obama with a relative cocoon of obliviousness about her race during her childhood – most of the people around her were black, and there was enough diversity (both of skin color and economics) for her to worry less about racism and classism, and more about the things kids should worry about – sports, music, school performance, friends, and eventually, romance. I loved the character she portrayed in the early years of her life. In some ways she reminded me of me, and her emerging understanding of her blackness helped me to continue to better understand the contemporary black experience in America.


Beach reading in Thailand

It isn’t until the book’s uber-protagonist, Barack Obama, enters the story that the book seemed – shockingly to me – to fall apart. It felt as if the story left Michelle but, because the books is hers and not her husband’s, could not migrate to him, so instead, it just… died. Though chock-full of fun and interesting anecdotes about life on the campaign trail and in the White House (for instance: when little, Sasha Obama referred to the Secret Service as the “secret people”; when Malia went to the junior prom, the Obamas insisted that her security detail be modified so that her date could come pick her up at home – yes, that home – and have pictures taken by mom and dad before they left for the dance) the second half of the book feels like a straight narrative devoid of heart and soul. Michelle tries to claim her story, but through doing so, it became clear to me that the real story was Barack’s, and Michelle had sacrificed a lot of herself along the way. Though she meant it to be there (she named the book “Becoming,” after all), I didn’t feel a sense of the redemption of her life, of really finding her own voice.

The book did reaffirm for me that Barack Obama was an excellent president. I am satisfied, if still a bit disappointed, with what feels in the book like his selfishness in pursuit of politics, because although it put him in a position of unfathomable power and fame, it all seems to have been done with the genuine and urgent desire to help people through leadership. I suppose that it is difficult for any partner of a president (or future president) to retain their sense of self. I imagine there are inherently massive sacrifices that someone in her position must be willing to make for the welfare of our country and the world. This is the way I have reconciled Michelle Obama’s story with my pre-existing love for the idea of her and her family. She gave herself away – to him and to us. She just hasn’t yet accepted the full magnitude of sacrifice she made.

It is also worth noting that the woman is smart and strong, and she still has time. The Obamas’ political life is over and their kids are nearly grown, so now she can really come into her own power in ways that she was not free to do before.

I recently was talking to a friend about service. He said to me “one of the best ways to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” Although I am seeking the right way to experience this finding through loss, as yet in my life I have not yet found a cause that seems so valuable to me that I would be willing to sacrifice myself – even with the faith that through this sacrifice I will be found. Obama seems to be arguing that she didn’t sacrifice herself for her husband’s presidency – rather, she found herself through surrender to his cause and her unique role as First Lady. But to me, the book feels like the story of a woman who lost herself along the way, and is still wandering. I thank her for her sacrifice, and am grateful we had her, and him, for eight years. And I hope she finds the voice that went missing.

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