Michelle Obama’s memoir explores the meanings of ‘Becoming’

The first lady offers a smart, insightful recounting of her life from Chicago’s South Side to the White House and beyond. But is she running?
Published December 12 2018
Updated December 12 2018

Michelle Obama, it seems, is not yet done making history.

She did it when she moved into the White House in 2009 as the first African-American first lady of the United States. Now, at 54, she’s breaking records with her memoir, Becoming.

Published Nov. 13, it swiftly became the bestselling book of 2018, with more than 2 million copies sold in its first 15 days and now more than 3 million. And that’s just in North America; it was published internationally in more than 30 languages.

Other White House memoirs have been bestsellers; what has really set Obama’s apart is her rock star book tour. In 10 U.S. cities, her appearances have sold out sports arenas that seat tens of thousands, with tickets priced in the hundreds and even thousands of dollars — an unprecedented response even for celebrity book tours.

On Tuesday she announced 21 more tour dates in 2019, including one Florida stop on May 10 at the 20,000-seat BB&T Center in Sunrise.

Her onstage interviews are being conducted by such celebrities as Oprah Winfrey and Reese Witherspoon. At one of her Washington, D.C., stops, her husband dropped in with a bouquet of roses, telling the cheering audience, “This is like — you know when Jay-Z comes out during the Beyoncé concert?” In the audience during her London stop (and backstage for a chat afterward) was Meghan Markle, the American bride of England’s Prince Harry. If you didn’t score a ticket to the tour, Obama has sat for dozens of television interviews about the memoir.

So, first lady glamour aside, what about the book?

Becoming is a great read, a compelling narrative of an extraordinary life told with intelligence, humor, warmth and self-awareness. And it delivers some surprises. Some have been widely reported, such as her revelation that the Obamas dealt with fertility issues, losing a pregnancy to miscarriage and turning to IVF to conceive daughters Malia and Sasha. Other revelations are more subtle, threads woven through the story rather than bold facts, but just as brave.

In other ways, the book delivers much of what readers likely hoped for. The story of how Michelle met, mentored and fell head over heels for Barack is as adorable as any rom-com. Obama hits selected political highlights and crises of the family’s White House years as well as dishing on what it’s really like to live there. (First families get free rent but pay for their own groceries and clothes; the closet space is fabulous.) And Obama is clearly a devoted mother who, despite the extreme pressures of raising them in the public eye, takes enormous joy and pride in her daughters.

Becoming, though, is not all Rose Gardens and tea with the Queen of England (although she and the first lady became friends over several visits).

The book’s title refers to the idea that each of us is perpetually changing, that our selves are ever evolving, not stopping at some set point — with the implication that we can always become better. It recounts Michelle Obama’s changes over the years and her hopes for those in the future.

But “becoming” has another meaning, in general and in the author’s life. It’s an adjective that describes behavior that is not only correct but positive, that makes the best impression — on behalf of oneself and, often, of a larger group, like one’s family or race or nation.

The book is Obama’s personal story, but she also places herself in the larger arc of history, and not just in terms of the White House. The first part of the book is a proud and affectionate portrayal of the community she grew up in, Chicago’s South Side, most of its residents (including her family) descendants of black people who made the Great Migration from Southern states. She paints warm portraits of her hard-working, loving parents, who inculcated in her and her older brother, Craig Robinson, the importance of always doing what’s becoming. It’s a sensibility embodied in her great-uncle, who, she writes, would “mow our lawn in the high heat of summer in a pair of wing tips, suspenders, and a thin-brimmed fedora, the sleeves of his dress shirt carefully rolled up.”

From childhood, Michelle Robinson was a girl who “checked all the boxes.” In high school, she rode buses three hours round-trip to attend a demanding magnet school. When a counselor told her she “was not sure that you’re Princeton material,” she got into Princeton. From there she went to law school at Harvard; by age 25, she was doing corporate law and recruiting for a high-powered Chicago firm, living the dream.

And she hated it.

She had done what was expected of her, what would make her community proud, what was becoming. But corporate law left her cold, longing for something more meaningful. It was only after she met her husband, a man who thought outside of boxes instead of checking them, that she began to make changes, working for nonprofit programs that paid her less but rewarded her more.

The biggest change, of course, was marrying Barack. As it turned out, the very things she loved most about him — his idealism, his fearlessness, his constantly questing intelligence — were what put the greatest strain on their relationship by catapulting them into the political arena.

She had always been wary of politics and politicians; she tells readers she secretly hoped, at almost every stage, that her husband would lose an election and find another career path. We all know how that worked out.

Is she proud of him? Boundlessly. But in the memoir, along with the triumphs, she explores what she gave up. A feminist with an Ivy League education and large ambitions of her own, she relinquished them to destiny when she declared herself “mom in chief” after he was elected.

In the glare of the White House, everything would be judged, she writes: “I was ‘other’ almost by default. If there was a presumed grace assigned to my white predecessors (as first lady), I knew it wasn’t likely to be the same for me. I’d learned through the campaign stumbles that I had to be better, faster, smarter, and stronger than ever. My grace would need to be earned.”

Even if your husband is a staunch feminist, she discovered, American politics are stubbornly patriarchal. For her, women’s rights remain as fundamental, and personal, as civil rights.

On Dec. 1, during a book tour appearance at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, Obama took a shot heard round the internet at Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In.

“Marriage still ain’t equal, y’all,” Obama said. “It ain’t equal. I tell women that whole ‘you can have it all’ — mmm, nope. Not at the same time — that’s a lie. It’s not always enough to lean in, because that s--- doesn’t work.” She apologized immediately for the naughty word, but the response to the sentiment from women in the audience and online was a chorus of “Amens.”

In February, official portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama were unveiled at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington. This month, as I was reading Becoming, I saw the portraits during a trip there. Michelle Obama chose Baltimore artist Amy Sherald to paint her, and I found the portrait and the book to be interesting counterpoints.

Seated but turned only partially toward the viewer, Obama wears a white gown by American designer Michelle Smith. Sherald has said the colorful skirt of the dress reminded her of both the paintings of modernist Piet Mondrian and the beautiful, abstract quilts created by the African-American women of Gee’s Bend, Ala., which have been widely exhibited in major museums. It’s a visual metaphor that gracefully combines Obama’s understanding of history and thoroughly modern persona.

The portrait’s silvery skin tone suggests cool distance, and also whispers of monumental status, of a person who, despite her determination to reclaim her private life, is already transforming into a figure in history. Her expression is neutral; her gaze is direct but reserved.

I thought of that gaze when I read her declaration near the end of her memoir, which has been widely interpreted as a possible entry into politics by one of the most popular and accomplished first ladies in American history.

“Because people often ask,” she writes, “I’ll say it here directly: I have no intention of running for office, ever. I’ve never been a fan of politics, and my experience over the last ten years has done little to change that.”

Having read the book, I believe her. But it will be interesting to see what she’s becoming next.

Contact Colette Bancroft at cbancroft@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

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