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Becoming [Book Review]

I’m not a big fan of self-help books or life coaches. This isn’t because I don’t believe in self-development but rather that a lot of it is drivel and amped up stories of theory without any real substance or actionable insights. But I think Becoming to some degree provides a blueprint for learning to not limit your aspirations or question your suitability for success as this mental shift can set you on a path for moving beyond the parameters and low expectations with which society might try to constrain you.

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I like reading biographies and autobiographies about people who have led interesting lives and/or done great things. But sometimes I find people can shy away from discussing topics that don’t portray the subject in the best light or expose vulnerabilities and insecurities. I think to some degree it’s human nature to avoid showing your innermost self to others. That kind of openness usually requires time and intimacy.

I will say that Obama is undoubtedly a very classy woman. As a political spouse, I expected her to pull punches and present a fairly perfect facade with a lot of empty platitudes about simply working harder to get ahead. Your basic self-help drivel built on a foundation of politics. Those biased expectations were part of why I avoided reading Becoming when it was first released. There was a lot of fanfare and I expected some of the attention was a result of people, women, in particular, still dreamily idolizing the Obamas due to the current political climate. But I was pleasantly surprised to find that the book’s success was quite well deserved as Becoming is a great read.

I’ve liked Michelle Obama since the 2008 election and found a lot of her qualities that the media complained about endearing. When I picked up Becoming, I felt that I knew at least the basics of Michelle Obama’s life. Having at least this top-level view of her life, I wasn’t in any great rush to learn more about her life story and feared that I would find Becoming dry and boring. So I was pleasantly surprised when I finally decided to read the book and realized there was more to her story and that it wouldn’t be the neat and tidy narrative I assumed. Granted it’s not as explicit as some of the books that I have read and reviewed but it is fairly honest, open, and quite human.

We certainly all have our weaknesses and there are things we are insecure about whether physical, mental or otherwise. But I think people, and Black women, in particular, can find bits and pieces of themselves within Michelle Obama’s story. And with that, an inspiration for moving forward in life and your personal development even with outside forces questioning your suitability and your right to exist within a particular space or environment.

Becoming is divided into three acts. The first focuses on Michelle Robinson’s childhood in Chicago and her journey from adolescence into adulthood. Being a relatively poor Black child growing up in Chicago and eventually entering the privileged world at Princeton and a prestigious Chicago law firm. The experience of growing up in an environment that began a downward slide around the time of her birth due to the community and its people being perceived as worthy of neglect. But being saved by the solid foundation of parents who sacrificed and encouraged her to want and believe that she was capable of more than what society people who share her skin color and are from her neighborhood deserve.

“Becoming Me” was one of my favorite parts of Becoming it offered real insight into Michelle Obama’s development without politics or an agenda. Often, we see the result of people who achieved success in life without having an accompanying detailed explanation of the hard work and setbacks it took to get there. So many decisions and experiences along the way. The story of Michelle Obama shows the importance of parents being actively involved in the education of their children even before they enter school. Obama was fortunate to have a present father and mother who took an interest in her total development. How might things have differed if her father was not present and her mother didn’t have the time?

The greatest motivator is hope. Believing there is more and you’re capable of achieving it is a requirement for reaching your goals. Children need adults to inspire and encourage them rather than shoot down their dreams and burden them with hopelessness.

Imagine being a child put into a dark uninspired classroom in the basement of the school with a teacher who doesn’t care whether you’re learning or not. Kids can pick up on things like that and it affects the way they feel about themselves and their futures. Most kids are naturally inquisitive and willing to learn as long as they’re engaged. Thereby teachers must know how to teach and engage children. I don’t believe that a six or seven-year-old should be written off or cast aside as bad or hopeless. If a teacher is just a warm body and fails to engage students they will find ways to amuse themselves. Being unruly is not necessarily a sign of being unintelligent but can be a manifestation of boredom or frustration. Children, like adults, can feed off of the energy around them. Being treated like a burden and undervalued can result in low self-esteem and not valuing yourself.

Education and healthcare are two industries with professions where workers need to be passionate about their jobs as they hold lives in their hands. Unfortunately, some teachers are uninspired and it shows in the way they interact with students. Granted teachers are not always given the resources they need to be successful.

It was life-changing for Michelle Obama to be pulled out of an underperforming class with an unengaged teacher. But I couldn’t help but wonder what happened to the other kids whose parents didn’t intervene or weren’t engaged enough to even know what was taking place in the classroom.

Since reading The Warmth of Other Suns, I’ve enjoyed hearing stories of how various Black families came to settle in particular parts of America. One of the great tragedies of the Black experience is that given what Black people have accomplished despite having their opportunities limited, who knows what could have been achieved without racist roadblocks. The limitations placed on Black people can still be seen in the community today and continues to compound.

I agree with Michelle Obama’s assessment that some Black men are resentful and mistrustful as a result of the discriminatory limitations they face which curtail their desires for economic advancement and the ability to abundantly provide for themselves and their families. This is often discussed but I appreciated her perspective on pushing back against her grandfather’s angry outbursts. Being oppressed by society does not make it okay to lash out at your wife and kids. It’s unproductive anger that as Obama points out is better directed at pushing back against the system for change and trying to provide a solid foundation and better opportunities for your kids.

Learning about her parents’ appreciation for and nourishment of her feistiness was endearing. I think this shows the importance of not stifling inquisitiveness and confidence in children. Kids should be respectful and well-mannered but turning them into conformists who can’t defend or think for themselves will carry over into their adulthood. Instead, encourage kids to respectfully question things and advocate for themselves.

There’s a lot of insight into Obama’s immediate family so you get a pretty good feel for her mom, dad, and brother. Having grown up without my father it was quite heartwarming to read about being a daddy’s girl. That made it especially heartbreaking to read the years-long progression of her father’s illness and the impact that it had on the family. Having spent pages reading about what a good man and father Mr. Robinson was, my eyes welled up with tears when I read about his passing.

While reading about the early life of Michelle Obama, she also tells the story of Black Chicago’s evolution during this time. South Shore, the neighborhood in the South Side of Chicago where Obama grew up, like many other neighborhoods, began as predominantly White and became predominantly Black as a result of white flight. Michelle was born in the projects but her family moved into the small upstairs apartment of her great-aunt’s home. Over time the neighborhood became increasingly poor as higher-earning families moved to other areas. Obama attended local schools until she got to high school and began a long commute to get to the school for the gifted and talented across town.

I’m from Brooklyn, New York and grew up during a time when communities like mine around the country were experiencing the scourge of the crack epidemic. I have a first-hand understanding of the impact that crack had on my community and through that the impact that it might have had on other Black communities around the country. But it was interesting to get a different perspective from someone that was born a generation before mine and could explain what it was like to live during changes of the 60s and 70s and the impact she saw in her community.

Often, and especially while the Obamas were in the White House, there were news stories about the violence and turmoil in Chicago. With situations like that and having an interest in history, I’m always curious as to what the circumstances were that led to the current conditions. I had some understanding of how many black families came to live in Chicago after migrating from the South and learned about the formation of its gangs. But it was different to learn about the experiences of a Black woman who was the second generation of her family to be born in Chicago. Learning about the community’s development from her perspective as someone who was not involved in street life but grew up during a major transition period in the city’s history was eye-opening. It gives some insight into how this was systematically turned into a ghetto and some of the people and their children were made to feel like there was no way out.

The second act, “Becoming Us” focused on the further development of Michelle and Barack Obama’s relationship and marriage. There is a lot of insight into her relationship with Barack and including how it developed over time and experienced rough patches much like any other relationship. I find that my views and opinions on relationships tend to differ from most so I usually don’t care to discuss relationships with people.

But I think a lot of people, both men and women can learn a lot from this section. I don’t think this is a chapter you should read and take specific things from in the belief that this is the one true way to do things. But rather the message around paying attention to your communication styles and for lack of a better term “love language”. I think the key point here is that it takes the commitment of both parties for a relationship to work and they must both put effort into maintaining that relationship. You should have standards when selecting a partner and recognize that regardless of your needs you can’t change the other person. But you do you have control over how you choose to deal with your relationship and quite often making adjustments to your actions or reactions is most effective.

I’d always wondered how Michelle Obama’s felt about essentially having to put her career on hold to support Barack Obama’s run for president and then to serve as First Lady. This section of Becoming offered some insight into the real reality of two high powered individuals in a relationship and the sacrifices required to make things work. As well as the fear one person’s (quite often the woman’s) identity being swallowed up by the needs of the other person’s ambition.

It might be a sign of the times but I’ve been noticing a recent trend with more individual women as well as media discussing how commonplace fertility issues are. I don’t think this was necessarily a taboo topic but maybe not as openly discussed. This part of Becoming might also appeal to couples that might be dealing with infertility issues. I guess it was pertinent to the discussion but I could have gone the rest of my life without didn’t need to hear anything about Barack Obama’s sperm.

What I found most interesting about this part of Becoming is that it explored Obama’s dissatisfaction with her career despite having spent many years studying to become an attorney. I related to her uncertainty about her chosen career path and the desire for more or some meaningfulness to her work. It was interesting to read about how she came to realize and admitted it to herself that she was unhappy with the path she’d chosen. Navigating major life changes such as career shifts can be difficult. It was inspiring to see the plan she put together for changing the things she didn’t like in her life rather than just complaining and remaining stuck.

The third and my least favorite part of the book focused on Barack Obama’s presidency. This section is just as well written as the rest of the book but over the last few years, I’ve just had no interest whatsoever in politics or politicians so it was a bit of a drag for me. I appreciated getting a behind-the-scenes look into what it was like to live in the White House, always having someone around, and not being able to go and come as you please. The day-to-day of living in the White House and being First Lady was pretty interesting.

In some ways viewing people on TV or through the scope of the media can dehumanize them a bit. I saw the various news reports during the election and the Obama presidency where various individuals made negative comments about Michelle Obama as a person as well as her physical appearance. There were numerous instances of blatant and subtle racist remarks being made about the Obamas. But because they never really commented on them I just assumed that they didn’t care and were unbothered. I was sad to learn that these comments did indeed hurt and in some instances touched on actual insecurities that Obama held about herself.

There were also reports of threats against Barack Obama but given that they never directly address them, again, I just assumed that they weren’t worried or scared. During the time of the Obama presidency, the media seemed to be pushing this idea that we were living in a post-racial society. I knew that was nonsense but thought that maybe the Obamas had bought into that idea. As is to be expected, I don’t agree with Obama’s perspective on all subjects, particularly with regards to Black people and their reactions to the racism of mainstream Society. But nonetheless, I appreciated the peek behind the curtain and her explanation of her perspective though it might differ from mine.

Not that I ever intend on running for public office but if anything they showed me just how ill-suited I would be for such pursuits. I do not believe that I have the self-control required, nor would I want to have the self-control required, to deal with such insults.

I think Becoming is a good book, well written, and engaging throughout. But it ran out of steam a bit for me in the last section. Granted this was in part due to my lack of interest in politics and living in Washington. But if you enjoy those particular topics you will likely enjoy the book in its entirety.

I recommend reading Becoming if you are a young woman trying to figure out your own identity, career, and/or romantic relationships. The latter half of the book would be of particular interest to people who are interested in public service and politics. I think the book would be especially appealing to Black people, both men, and women, who would like a behind-the-scenes look into what it’s like and how best to navigate some of these unfamiliar environments as a Black person. If none of that stuff interests you and you just want a book to read with some classy shade there’s some of that there for you too.

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