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.
She attended at Bryn Mawr Elementary and then the city’s first magnet high school, Whitney Young. “My first months at Whitney Young gave me a glimpse of something that had previously been invisible — the apparatus of privilege and connection, what seemed like a network of half-hidden ladders and guide ropes that lay suspended overhead, ready to connect some but not all of us to the sky.”
It was in high school that she met Santita Jackson, the eldest daughter of Jesse Jackson, who would later seek the Democratic nomination for president, and got swept up into rallies and parades. It was an introduction to the seductive possibility that politics could bring change.
The courtship and subsequent marriage of Michelle Robinson and the future President Barack Obama was distilled long ago for political consumption. If their story was woven into a fairy tale, in “Becoming” Michelle Obama turns the fabric over to reveal the rough side. Her account of their path to parenthood is particularly gripping. Hard work and persistence was no match for infertility. Barack Obama was then an Illinois state senator, and initial attempts to procreate were coordinated with the Illinois legislature’s schedule, not ovulation. Michelle was left mostly alone to navigate the process, including giving herself daily injections.
“It was maybe then that I felt a first flicker of resentment involving politics and Barack’s unshakeable commitment to the work,” she writes. “I sensed already that the sacrifices would be more mine than his.”
She was right. It was a pattern that continued throughout their marriage. After Malia and Sasha were born, Michelle forced Barack, who sometimes comes off as selfish, into couples’ counseling. “I feared that the path he’d chosen for himself … would end up steamrolling over our every need.”
Many black women can imagine Michelle Obama as a good girlfriend; her struggles are relatable. It’s comforting to read that she, too, battles insecurity, wondering if she’s good enough.
Obama gets frustrated by her husband’s messiness. She watches HGTV to relax. She ate fast food in her car. She leans on close relationships with her parents, older brother and a squad of strong women mentors and friends. She tries to ignore what others think of her — both a high school counselor’s assessment that she wasn’t Princeton material and political adversaries’ racist and sexist barbs — but she admits it all stings.
And she answers, indirectly, women’s perennial question: Can I have it all — a family, marriage, career? No. Obama’s ambition and career were subsumed by her husband’s. But she made the best of it. What she could control, she would.
Defying tradition, she stayed in Chicago with her daughters instead of following then-U.S. Sen. Barack Obama to Washington, D.C. She noticed when descriptions of her erased her career, mentioning only her Ivy League education, and bristled when her life dissolved into her marital status. “At least in some spheres, I was now Mrs. Obama in a way that could feel diminishing, a missus defined by her mister.”
Her reluctance regarding her husband’s political ambitions faded in the bright light of his passion. And while previous first ladies were generous with advice, they could not tell her what she’d need to know: How to be the first black woman in this “strange kind of sidecar to the presidency. … If there was a presumed grace assigned to my white predecessors, I knew it wasn’t likely to be the same for me.”
Michelle Obama manages to be inspirational, direct and naive about race and gender politics. She wonders after the 2016 election “about what led so many women, in particular, to reject an exceptionally qualified female candidate and instead choose a misogynist as their president.” The misclassification is glaring: More than 90 percent of black women voted for Hillary Clinton, but more than half of white women voted for Trump.
But now, her life in politics is over. No, Michelle Obama will not run for office. The attendant “nastiness” and “tribal segregation” of the political climate soured her to the prospect.
Obama names her husband’s successor fewer than a dozen times over 426 pages, but her loathing is clear. His lies about President Obama’s birthplace were “deliberately meant to stir up the wingnuts and kooks,” she writes. “What if someone with an unstable mind loaded a gun and drove to Washington? … Donald Trump, with his loud and reckless innuendos, was putting my family’s safety at risk. And for this, I’d never forgive him.”
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.