From South Shore to the White House and beyond: Michelle Obama claims her story in ‘Becoming’

Black feminist writer Audre Lorde wrote: “If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.” Michelle Obama, the nation’s first black first lady, is too aware of the “angry black woman” trope to use such jarring, if appropriate, verbs of destruction in her new, highly anticipated memoir, “Becoming.” Her version: “If you don’t get out there and define yourself, you’ll be quickly and inaccurately described by others.” But the same unrelenting pursuit — exercising her agency to maintain her identity — surfaces again and again.

History will judge Michelle Obama’s success. But as in all things, she trusts in the power of hard work and optimism to rise above, to go high when others go low.

Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama’s origins are thoroughly South Side — South Shore, to be specific. In contrast to her future husband’s slightly nomadic, international upbringing, her world was defined by Chicago. Her father, Fraser Robinson, held a steady job at the city’s water treatment plant. Her mother, Marian, stayed at home until Michelle reached high school. The Robinsons were solidly working-class, but they gave her and her brother, Craig, unfailing support, teaching Michelle to read before she attended school and even finding money to send her on a high school trip to Paris.

The Robinsons lived on the second floor of her great-aunt Robbie’s home. Hers was an integrated neighborhood: A black jazz musician lived across the street, a Mexican family next door and white families nearby. Eventually the white families — and then anyone else who could — would move away and the neighborhood would sink into decline.

Again, she saw what was coming. In November 2011, a man who had said Obama “needed to be shot” fired a semi-automatic rifle at the White House. Bullets hit a window, a window frame and the roof.

“Becoming” was finished before a white nationalist killed 11 people in a Pittsburgh synagogue in October — and before a registered Republican and fan of Hitler allegedly sent pipe bombs to CNN, 12 high-profile Democrats and Trump critics this fall. Yet one can sense Obama’s disappointment, as the pendulum of progressiveness and inclusivity swung to a nation pocked with white nationalists, neo-Nazis, alt-righters who welcomed a bullier-in-chief into the White House.

Working twice as hard, only to receive a double portion of disrespect, Obama chooses to focus on the victories: passage of the Affordable Care Act; nearly five years of job growth; the right of same-sex couples to marry; and the soft power she seized as FLOTUS to launch initiatives to fight childhood obesity, encourage students to get to and stay in college, and support job training and employment for veterans and their spouses.

Obama recounts personal triumphs, particularly raising Malia and Sasha to be independent, to give them as normal a childhood as possible, even as cellphones and social media exposed them to never-before-seen scrutiny.

Perhaps Obama’s most remembered accomplishment may be the White House garden, which by the end was producing 2,000 pounds of food each year and had grown to twice its original size.The garden serves as a metaphor for the Obama administration, for that hopeful moment in time, for optimism as a “form of faith, an antidote to fear,” despite years of brutal political attacks. And it calls to mind the poem attributed to Greek poet Dinos Christianopoulos:

“What didn’t you do to bury me/ but you forgot that I was a seed.”

Wendi C. Thomas is the editor and publisher of MLK50: Justice Through Journalism. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, National Geographic magazine, CityLab and The Undefeated.


By Michelle Obama, Crown, 426 pages, $32.50

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