When I read Michelle Obama’s book Becoming, it took me back to the night of the Presidential election on November 4, 2008. America anxiously waited for the voting results as to whom would become the 44th President of the United States of America. Would it be Senator Barack Obama or Senator John McCain? It didn’t matter if you were into politics or not. If you were African American like me, you probably wondered could a black man really become president. And, if Barack Obama won, would he be able to break the racial barriers that had restricted and limited African Americans for centuries?
No doubt about it, Barack Obama gave some of the most compelling and compassionate speeches I’d ever heard from a Presidential candidate. Yet, despite Obama’s successful speeches and campaign, it was easy to feel some doubt. In Michelle’s book, Becoming, we gleam a closer look as to what this night was like. Michelle admits to feeling high levels of anxiety and a little uncertainty about the outcome of the votes. Although many African Americans hoped that this election would prove the naysayers wrong, Michelle was well aware of our history as African Americans and how unfair things could be.
For centuries, African Americans had been overlooked for political positions, educational and job acceptance, as well as being treated unfairly by our justice system. Working at a prestigious law firm like Sidley Austin in Chicago, Michelle saw firsthand how the scales were unbalanced. Despite being qualified and meeting all the requirements for various opportunities in America, black people could not change the color of their skin, and that often disqualified them (us). Michelle admits to feeling such anxieties in her book. However, remaining the optimist, she believed that Barack Obama and she would still be successful outside of the political arena if Barack didn’t win the vote for president. This small light of hope had been learned during Michelle’s childhood—a feeling and thinking ability that came handy during intense moments like the 2008 election.
During Michelle’s childhood, values and morals were instilled in her at an early age. She learned patience, confidence, and critical thinking from her mother, Marian Shields Robinson. From her father, Fraser Robinson III, she learned determination, hard work, and persistence. The Robinsons were a close net family who believed in each other and in their Southside Chicago community. While similar family values and principles are often orated in politics, few candidates actually lived by those examples. In fact, constituents often read between the lines of candidates’ overly polished speeches and demeanor that mask their discriminatory agendas.
The racial barriers Michelle faced early on while in grammar school, would prepare her for what was all at stake if Barack Obama became president. Michelle would later face the same discriminatory encounter during high school when a counselor tried to discourage her from applying to Princeton. The counselor insisted that Michelle attend Howard University since it was a predominately black school, insinuating that “Ivy League” meant out of a black person’s league. This racial ignorance was often a stigma toward black people. A stigma that Michelle would even face during Barack Obama’s campaign.
Because Barack Obama is black, Michelle explains that the bar was set even higher in terms of their speech, manner of dress, and behavior. There was no room for human error in the eyes of America. Not even a sleeveless dress would be tolerated, but Michelle flexed her own identity at times, including donning the sleeveless dress that fit her tall slender body perfectly.
I almost went to bed during the Presidential election to be quite honest. Yet, my curiosity needed to be fulfilled. Would Senator Barack Obama become the first black president? As minutes drew closer and time was running out…it happened. Barack Obama, a black man from Hawaii with an unusual name and background became the 44th President. Confetti came down and balloons went up. Crowds of people cheered, cried, shouted and waved the American flag. My mouth dropped and my feet felt cemented to the floor. I could not believe it!
After my initial shock, I wondered how my ancestors would have felt had they still been alive to see this mark in history. More importantly, I wondered if Obama would be able to handle everything that would be thrown at him. Working in such an arena myself, I knew that forces beyond Barack Obama dominated the political world. Only a miracle from God could clean up a government saturated in debt and problems. I’m not the only one who knows politics is not for the faint of heart. In Becoming, even Michelle confesses, “I’ve never been a fan of politics, and my experience over the last ten years has done little to change that. Beyond the celebration was no doubt a need for caution.
In Becoming, First Lady Michelle Obama, not only gives us a detailed look into the night of the November 4th 2008 presidential election, but she steps back in time after the introduction and gives us layers of her personal life from childhood to puberty and from puberty to adulthood.
We walk the blocks of Euclid Avenue on the Southside of Chicago. We meet her parents and her elder brother Craig, as well as extended family members, like her Uncle “Southside” who introduces Michelle to jazz and Motown artists such as Stevie Wonder. We would return to Michelle’s small house that was shared with her great Aunt who taught her piano. We would feel Michelle’s angsts from her first recital and to her big decision to fight to get into Princeton.
Early on, we could tell that the young Michelle, who was filled with curious questions would grow up to be an intelligent and independent woman. Without question, you could foresee her breaking White House traditions as First Lady, not disrespectfully, but in a way that awakened a new dawn and era.
Socially, it seems Michelle chose her friends and boyfriends as wisely as she chose her career. She never lowered her standards. Her every move seemed calculated and driven by a checklist until she met Barack Obama. Obama was a man who helped Michelle to relax her shoulders, have some ice cream, and breathe and appreciate the spontaneity of life.
The background of Michelle and Barack were quite contrary to the powerful men in Congress who spearheaded the laws of our country. These “powerful white men” as she mentions, wore their titles like badges of honor. Their backgrounds varied with a family history in politics, military, or high economic status. All of those stats were quite contrary to the Obamas. For centuries, Americans prided themselves with an aura that never really reflected humanity ubiquitously, but scarcely and selectively. Thus, one of my favorite quotes in Becoming is when Michelle says, “Barack and I told our stories and shared our stories because too often people focus on stats. Stats do not tell us who people are.”
The media, opinion columnists, and political spectators were all shocked to see the rise in black voters in 2008. The New York Times reported a surge of black voters with the majority of the black voters being women. This would later come as a surprise to Michelle who admits in her book that while she knew many blacks had registered to vote, the puzzling question on the night of the election was if they actually did vote. What was not surprising to her was the number of women supporters that Barack Obama had. After all, here was a smart, charming, and compassionate man who had swept her off her feet. Falling deeply in love with a man who cared about her, community, and finding a passion for what moved him in life, also helped Michelle to seek her own passion. Once she found it, she was willing to put it all on the backburner to support the man she loved.
Michelle lays it all out on a plate of honesty that spills the imperfections of two imperfect people. No doubt about it, Barack Obama was a busy political figure before becoming president. Supporting a busy husband was not easy for Michelle who had finally had children by way of invitro. Raising her two girls, Malia and Sasha was a daunting task that caused friction to fester to the point of needing a marriage counselor. “Anything achievable or necessary seemed to require more time,” Michelle admitted. Time was the issue that needed to be managed better. And, in the end, Michelle being the bright organizer that she was, soon figures it all out for the greater good of her family.
Not only could I relate to Michelle’s experiences as a wife, mother, and career-oriented woman, but I felt connected to her experiences simply as the human being that she is. When she loses her best friend, Suzanne, and then Suzanne’s mother dies shortly afterward, I cried. When Daddy Robinson died, I wept uncontrollably as I thought about my loved ones who have died.
Then there was laughter, when Barack’s yellow Datsun wouldn’t start and he told Michelle don’t look down because there was a hole in the floor.
This couple, Michelle and Barack came from very humble beginnings contrary to what we normally see with most political leaders. Had I known, what I know now about the Michelle and Barack Obama, there wouldn’t have been any lingering doubts on the night of November 4, 2008 election. Barack and Michelle would have been winners in my book despite votes. There is nothing more long-lasting than genuine humanity and having compassion for others.
It’s no wonder that in 2018, long after not being in office, Michelle and Barack Obama became America’s most admired people. I believe Michelle’s book truly inspired us all. Becoming was very informative, reflective, empowering, and inspiring. As Michelle Obama continues her journey outside of the White House, I hope she will become whatever is of good will and purpose.