Michelle Obama’s “Becoming” Is a Story of Determination and Grace
Book Review by Parvati Magazine Staff
A young girl named Michelle LaVaughn Robinson grew up in South Side, Chicago to the sounds of piano lessons from the apartment downstairs—lessons that she would take herself, and get yelled at for skipping ahead in her songbook. Though she didn’t go on to become a musician, two gifts of her time pursuing music are obvious in the life she went on to live: determination and grace. Perhaps that’s why the former First Lady, Michelle Obama, begins her heartwarming memoir “Becoming” with those piano notes, what she calls “the sounds of striving”.
Though Mrs. Obama is best known today as the wife of the 44th President of the United States, her own CV was already strong as a lawyer, university administrator, and writer. She’s also a master storyteller. The rise from girlhood in a South Side neighborhood (one in the process of being emptied out by white flight) to become one of the most prominent women in the world is not an experience most will have. But she makes it relatable. As you read, you can see the imperfect piano where she practiced, the “puke-green” desk where she languished in school with a negligent teacher before her mother intervened, the practiced flat expression of the security guards that attended almost every aspect of her life in the White House.
“Becoming” unfolds in three equal parts. “Becoming Me” is the childhood with a strong nuclear family, and community full of support. “Becoming Us” shares how, having graduated from Harvard Law School, she met and fell in love with a talented legal associate named Barack Obama at a Chicago law firm, married, started a family, and realized she needed to find joy and meaning in her work as well as external success. “Becoming More” chronicles their rise in political life. Passionate about issues like access to education and opportunities for underprivileged youth, Mrs. Obama took a massive pay cut to pivot and work for the Chicago City Hall. She then took on increasing leadership roles with Public Allies, the University of Chicago, and the University of Chicago Hospitals. By the time her husband ran for president, she was well positioned to make an impact as First Lady.
But the road to the White House and the eight years there didn’t come without challenges. There is an oft-cited maxim in the black community: You’ve got to be twice as good to get half as far. Mrs. Obama said the First Family felt the weight of that statement when they moved into the White House. “Any error or lapse in judgment, we knew, would be magnified, read as something more than what it was.” And in the book, she reveals some of the true emotional cost of the racially-tinged hatred on social media and the infamous conspiracy theory about her husband not being a real American citizen, that prompted one of her most ringing public phrases: “When they go low, we go high.”
Though she does not denigrate her husband’s successor in the White House, she doesn’t attempt to hide her disappointment at the lack of diversity now present in the halls of power. Given the current president’s role in perpetuating the “birther” conspiracy theory, it speaks volumes of grace and determination that Mrs. Obama limits herself to only comment on the diversity issue.
Part political memoir, part universal expression of the anxieties that come with marriage and motherhood, and part revelation of a woman finally able to express herself honestly without the careful presentation of a First Lady, “Becoming” is an engaging story that inspires readers to pursue their own goals and show up fully. In Mrs. Obama’s own words, “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.”