Friday, January 11, 2019


I learned a lot, reading Michelle Obama's Becoming. I learned, first--being neither of these two myself--something about being a woman and being black. Ms. Obama--I can't bring myself to call her by her first name, which would feel presumptuous; nor by her last alone, which would feel cold--is unsparingly honest and deeply personal in exploring both these fundamental aspects of her life.
I learned, too, something about growing up in modest circumstances on the South Side of Chicago, at a time, to be sure, preceding the tragic, daily gun violence we hear about today, but a time when even middle class black status meant lesser educational opportunity and greater social insecurity. (Curiously--and I thought about this often as I read--I visited the South Side during her early teenage years as I worked on a research project into the life and work of the African American artist Charles White, who was brought up in that area in the 1920s). As Ms. Obama describes it in eloquent and compelling detail, it required the loving, often exacting support of a close family and community, as well as an abundance of grit and determination on her own part, to emerge from that circumstance as she did--an enormously self-confident, accomplished, and compassionate human being.

As for being a woman and being black, she is honest--though without self-pity--about the obstacles she had to face as she navigated her way through her undergraduate days at Princeton and later Harvard Law School, and landed a job at a prestigious Chicago law firm where she first met... well, you know who. The "becoming" in this part of her story is the transition from girl to woman, from the security of a protective African American community to a world where the privileges of white and male most often went unquestioned, where she confronted herself constantly with the question: Am I good enough? She invites us to accompany her through a daunting series of "firsts"--first woman to, first black woman to...--as she works through sometimes agonizing doubts and critical self-appraisal with unfailing and disarming honesty. We feel her inner struggle even as we admire her brilliant success.

As honest with herself as she is with her reader, Ms. Obama leads us through the early stages of a relationship and marriage which are extraordinary only because of the outsize character of its two protagonists. They experience the same illusions and disappointments as the rest of us, the same moments of shared bliss and the same nasty marital disputes. Together, like so many couples in America today, they struggle with their desire for children and the refusal of nature to collaborate without medical intervention. With the eventual joy of motherhood, she confronts the dilemma of so many women who are constrained to make the choice between family and professional prospects. With the growing realization of her husband's political aspirations, she has to find within herself the willingness to make huge sacrifices--career, privacy, family life--in order to accommodate the potential that she sees in him. We find her torn between personal happiness and supporting her husband in the fulfillment of his goals.

And finally, once this man has stepped, against all odds, into the highest office to which any politician could aspire, once he moves into the Oval Office and his family into the White House, she invites us to accompany her as she learns to become something else again, adjusting her first obligation as the mother of two growing girls to those of the--first black!--First Lady of the United States. Through her eyes, we catch riveting glimpses into what it means to live in the presidential bubble, surrounded constantly by men with guns and the eyes of the curious, and required to accept both adulation and vilification with equal grace.

Becoming is an eminently readable book by a wholly admirable woman. While its background is of necessity the grand canopy of world history, it remains an intensely personal account of a remarkable journey--a journey that starts in modest origins and ends, provisionally at least, at the peak of fame and power. She leaves the reader wishing her well, and confident that she still has much to contribute to the country that, no matter the personal sacrifice, she has served so well.

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