An ‘angry’, ‘bossy’ woman tells her story the way it isWhat happened to Michelle Obama as she stood shoulder-to-shoulder with her super-powerful husband? This is essentially what her autobiography ‘Becoming’ seeks to capture.
Excelling in her studies, a young, smart African-American woman goes on to ace her way through Princeton and Harvard, eventually landing a plum job at a law firm. Her zeal to give back to her community leads her to be a much-admired advocate and leader. Married to another bright lawyer, blessed with two children she’d always wanted, her life is complete. All she looks forward to is to nurture her tiny universe, and move up meaningfully in her career.
And then, her husband decides to run for President of the United States of America. He wins, creating history as the first African-American president. As he basks in the glory and battles with the challenges that one of the most coveted posts in the world automatically brings with it, what then, of the woman? His wife, always expected to be supportive, cheerful and devoted to him and his ideals?
What happens to Michelle Obama, as she stands shoulder-to-shoulder with her super-powerful husband? A brilliant professional and devoted mother, her identity is far more and infinitely broader than the former First Lady.
This, essentially, is what her autobiography ‘Becoming’ seeks to capture. In a history that’s almost always male and sterile, victorious and megalomaniac, Michelle creates a welcome respite with her down-to-earth, humane, and relatable account. Even when it is examined as a public relations tool, the autobiography is surprisingly touching and uplifting. It is a story that deserves to be told, and listened to, and appreciated for the different voice and entirely dissimilar perspective from the norm.
The book’s tone is set from the very first page – firm, intimate, and making quite an effort to be frank. Michelle acknowledges that being “the first lady of the United States of America” is a “job that’s not officially a job.” But she does experience thoroughly the power and influence and hazards of the “non-job”, and explains them as best as possible to a curious public.
But this is not a tale of grandeur and show. Michelle’s story is filled with personal and familial triumphs and tribulations—relatable and sometimes inspiring. It is a great read for all women, that goes without saying, but especially for men, who find it easy to label women like Michelle (and many assertive go-getters) as “angry” and “bossy.” Michelle has grappled head-on with this title that women are so conveniently bestowed with, and she does it with aplomb and grace. The book is clever, smart and strategic, just like its title and the chapter names. “Optics governed more or less everything in the political world,” says Michelle, and this observation could also be true of this book—for there is a constant striving for balance, diplomacy, and what looks “good and acceptable.”
The roots of this story are more important and revealing: the streets Michelle grew up in, the family who cherished her, the sacrifices they made for her top-notch education. The inculcation of books and art, of the outdoors and music, of humour and sports, and most central to it all, family and lasting relationships, establish the theme that Michelle’s life revolves around.
Anchoring her writing on the state of equality and inclusion in the United States, Michelle is clear of her stance on issues of racism, identity and body politics. This book is an excellent study on how deep and multi-pronged the roots of racism run. Not only did Michelle’s grandmother have to sue a university for refusing her accommodation and suggesting she rent with the ‘coloureds,’ she experienced the ugly realities of racism in her own life—when her brother’s bicycle was confiscated by a policeman who reused to believe he hadn’t stolen it; and a long, purposefully drawn gash appearing at the side of her father’s car when they visit a white-dominated suburb. “Politics had traditionally been used against black folks, as a means to keep us isolated and excluded, leaving us undereducated, unemployed, and underpaid,” she summarises succinctly the devastating consequences of institutionalised and internalised racism.
Along with her racial identity, Michelle constantly analyses her gender and its projection in relation to her husband. She expresses, so eloquently, the fear that grows in every other independent, married woman—as the wife of a seemingly more successful man, she says, “I was now Mrs Obama in a way that could feel diminishing, a missus defined by her mister.” As she tries to navigate this murky territory, she also reveals the acute burden she feels as a female, the frustrations of raising children single-handedly, the rifts in her marriage, a poignant miscarriage, the rigors of couples counselling. It captures the beauty within the mundaneness of millions of other lives.
This attempt to be forthcoming while maintaining a distance is the autobiography’s strength. Its weakness? It grows too long, sometimes cumbersome, and unnecessarily detailed. The material simply does not justify a volume of 400+ pages. Its second drawback is the constant, incessant, tone-deaf hero worship of Barack Obama. While Michelle shares a sentence or two about his difficult habits, the majority of the pages are devoted to upholding the image of the ‘great, kind, one-in-a-billion president who needs to be worshipped’—which is a great thing, it’s almost a marital contract to hype your spouse, but not to a point where it gets overdone and grates on the nerves.
This, for example—almost reverentially, Michelle reveals, “Barack is the sort of a person who needs a hole, a closed-off little warren where he can read and write undisturbed.” But don’t we all? Yet which mother like Michelle, except the inordinately privileged, can reach a vacation villa and disappear into her ‘warren’, her ‘hole’, no matter how desperately she needs to write or think or merely relax? It is in these moments of trying to create the ‘perfect’ president that Michelle’s work is at its most unconvincing. An indulgence in too much diplomacy and delicacy coats the work with an artificial veneer.
What does remain extremely convincing though is the adage, repeated on and off throughout the book, that it is possible, through sheer hard work and grit, for a person to change their lives and fortunes. It is also possible, even while being wife to the President, to come up with highly creative and innovative ideas that contribute to the self and society. It strongly advocates the necessity and positivity of diversity and inclusion in every possible sector and space, with practical examples that are both touching and disturbing. Most of all, what remains true and unchanged, something that can’t ever be feigned, is the power of love and relationships, of family and community—the universal thread that binds everyone from the president and his wife to the common public.
Author: Michelle Obama
Publisher: Crown Publishing Group