Monday, 3 June 2019

becoming by Michelle Obama: Book Note

Becoming by Michelle Obama: Book Note

The other day I read Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming. It’s in three parts, recounting her childhood and student years; her marriage to Barack Obama and early years of motherhood; and her years in the White House as First Lady.

Michelle Obama grew up on the South Side of Chicago. Her mother stayed home when she and her brother were small, supported by her father, a city employee who kept on working for years even after he contracted multiple sclerosis. She notes how segregated her neighborhood became during her childhood. In first grade she was in a racially mixed class; by sixth grade, as a result of white flight, her class was almost entirely African American.

Michelle grew up with a large extended family, many of whose members were seriously affected by racism. Several of her uncles were skilled tradesmen who could not find permanent well-paying jobs because the white-controlled unions excluded African Americans. Both her grandfathers were in turn the grandchildren of enslaved people. One grandfather mistrusted white people so much that he would not even go to the dentist.

Ms. Obama attended Harvard Law, and started out life as a corporate lawyer. I had thought that she left the practice of law to subordinate herself to her husband’s political ambitions, but I was wrong.  She dropped out of corporate law to work for NGOs, taking a 50% cut in salary. At one point she got a job at the exclusive University of Chicago. There she startled her boss when she told him that although she grew up on Chicago’s South Side, right where the University is situated, she had never considered applying there, as it was so cut off from its own neighborhood.

Instead Michelle followed her older brother to Princeton, where she spent much of her time hanging out at what was then known as the “Third World Center,” a meeting place for African-American students where she felt more at home than among the white elite students. Once she shared a dorm room with two white girls, but one suddenly disappeared. Years later she learned that her roommate’s mother had vigorously lobbied Princeton to move her daughter away from an African-American roommate.

Throughout the book, Michelle stressed her role as a mother and a woman. In part, this was to play down her identity as a lawyer and a thinker: she had to be careful not to incur the kind of wrath Hillary Clinton endured 20 years earlier when she tried to help her husband design a national health care policy. But she is also strongly committed to the welfare of children. While First Lady she developed some ostensibly non-political programs. One, called “Let’s Move” encouraged children to exercise more. Another, called “Join Forces” aimed to help military veterans and their families. She also campaigned to improve American children’s diets, working especially to improve the quality of school lunches. This last campaign bordered on the political, as improvements in school lunches could cut corporate fast-food profits.

Ms. Obama also had to be very careful about what she said about US politics.  She mentioned Donald Trump in the book only twice. Once was to say that she would never forgive him for endangering her children’s lives when he claimed that Barack Obama was not a US citizen, thus encouraging right-wing extremists. The other was at the end of the book, when Donald Trump was inaugurated. She stopped smiling at the inauguration ceremony, when she noticed the sea of white faces in front of her, as compared to the two inauguration ceremonies for her husband.

I was struck reading the memoir by how sexualized Michelle was. The front picture on her book shows her with one shoulder uncovered. It’s a lovely picture, with her beautiful smile, but why the bare shoulder?  Perhaps for the same reason that while First Lady she had to devote an enormous amount of time, energy and money to her looks, with a personal hairdresser, makeup artist and stylist. It’s possible no other First Lady had to spend so much on these relatively trivial aspects. There was even a debate among her advisers when she decided to get bangs in her hair. But of course if you are a woman, looks are never quite as trivial as when you are a man. And as an African American, Ms. Obama had to be far more careful than any First Lady of European descent about her looks, so that she did not trip any stereotypes about African American women.

This is a frank, warm memoir, about being a woman and being an African American. Worth reading.

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