The first black American first lady on her journey through life and politics.
SINGAPORE (Apr 8): Michelle Obama’s heart-warming yet provocative autobiography, Becoming, is the story of how one black American child with true grit travelled across the south side of Chicago to the White House. It reveals the journey the Robinsons took to overcome the obstacles posed by race and poverty. Her family of four lived in a rented one-bedroom apartment provided by her great-aunt, a music teacher who occupied the unit downstairs.
Born in January 1964, Michelle LaVaughn Robinson grew up during an intense period of uncertainty in the US. But all that mattered was family — especially her loving parents Fraser and Marian, who made their home a calm sanctuary. Her parents knew that education was an instrument of change and that a good education would elevate them in the world.
Michelle went on to become a Princeton and Harvard graduate, a high-powered corporate lawyer, the wife of the then lawyer Barack Obama, a loving and protective mother to Malia and Sasha and, finally, the first African American first lady of the US. She speaks with love and gratitude of her parents, who sacrificed everything for their children, and the man who forever changed her life’s intended path and purpose.
Her grandparents on both sides, descendants of families that fled the Jim Crow South for the North and West during the Great Migration of African Americans, suffered extreme racial discrimination and oppression. The Robinsons, fortunately, lived in a modest multiracial neighbourhood where things had become seemingly easier by the time their daughter arrived.
Hardships notwithstanding, the family lived a full life. Her father Fraser was a city labourer who diligently went out to work every day despite a debilitating disease while mother Marian was a homemaker who always ensured that Michelle and her older brother Craig had all the support they needed, especially in their education.
Mum believed the siblings had to own their voice and that included how they spoke. She would tell them, “I’m not raising babies. I’m raising adults”. Consequently, the pair were encouraged to read, learn and express themselves independently.
With their support and parental encouragement, Michelle became a star chaser who slogged for the best marks and entry into the best schools. She was not always a straight-A student and constantly doubted if she was good enough. But she worked hard and gained entry into Whitney Young, a leading public school in Chicago, while Craig enrolled in Princeton.
Whitney Young was a formative period of her life as it exposed her to Chicago’s affluent North side. Seeing youth who came from a more advantageous background, for the first time, she began to understand the power of privilege and connection. It offered “a network of half-hidden ladders and guide ropes ready to connect some but not all of us to the sky”, she writes.
Disappointed when a school counsellor told her that she was not Princeton material, Michelle remained set on her dream of joining an Ivy League university. So she sat down and wrote a compelling story about her family for the college entrance essay. Six months later, Princeton offered her a place to study sociology.
Discovering faith in her own voice, she completed her bachelor’s degree and went on to pursue law at Harvard. With her exceptional qualifications, she was employed by the prestigious Chicago law firm, Sidley and Austin. It was here that she was assigned to mentor a summer associate from Harvard, who would become her life partner and the 44th US president.
Their love story is sweet, tender and sexy, and Michelle opens up on how it started and evolved. She confesses to falling in love with her good-looking mentee who was “serious without being serious, breezy in manner but powerful in mind”. The no-nonsense legal associate found Barack Obama’s killer smile and laugh irresistible, but it was his noble heart that finally won her over.
The attraction was deep, even though Obama and the box checker had different personalities. He had an innate confidence that she lacked. Passionate and with a clear vision of his future, he wanted to make a difference. He was more concerned about community and country than money, and was driven by a sense of purpose — to serve.
Michelle learnt how to believe in the impossible, for Obama was like “a barrelling wave with a mighty undertow”. They were opposing forces with a harmonising effect on each other — he was the yin to her yang. His passion for life and sense of duty would later become both a personal challenge and huge influence on her professional choices.
Her father’s death at the age of 55 had a profound effect on Michelle. It awakened her need to find her own calling and live life to the fullest, for it could be short. She left her high-paying job for one in the public sector and married Obama in 1992.
The memoir chronicles their life as a couple, their personal struggles, her traumatic miscarriage, the fertility treatments she underwent to conceive their daughters and the pressures of juggling children and work. As an up-and-coming senator, Obama was often away, leaving his wife to manage their family on her own. Michelle began to resent his political ambition and realised the need for support. The pair turned to couples therapy to find their way back together.
When Michelle finally agreed that Obama should run for president, it was because she knew he would do a great job, despite her fears of losing him to the country. But she candidly reveals that she did not think he would win — a black man in the US had no chance. Her narrative on the run-up to his winning the 2008 election is possibly the most exciting part of the book.
She painstakingly describes the trials and tribulations of their campaign, the euphoria of winning Iowa and, finally, the jubilation on the historic day when Obama was sworn in 10 years ago.
Michelle’s account of this period is meticulous, honest, raw and moving. She also exposes how dirty and personal politics can be and openly discusses the ridicule and false accusations they encountered individually. Similarly, she explains what they did as a team to win the hearts of the electorate.
Life as the first black American first family was tricky as well as hard work, especially for Michelle, who was called the black Godzilla and had to challenge claims that her predecessors were spared. She admits the hateful sexist attacks hurt and unnerved her. And because of her colour and humble origins, she had to work twice as hard to prove her mettle.
The final chapters on the Barack and Michelle Obama administration give a behind-the-scenes account of the initiatives they believe in, the tough and bumpy landscape of American politics and life in the White House. As mom-in-chief, she strove to give Malia and Sasha as much normalcy as possible — from school to play dates and camping trips, and making their eight years there an equally inspiring experience by including them in the female leadership programmes she organised at home and abroad.
As the president’s wife, she tried her best to speak about communities that were underserved. She chose initiatives close to her heart — fighting childhood obesity, mentoring disadvantaged youth and women, supporting military families, championing gun control and, of course, healthcare. Her “Let’s Move” campaign to get children fit as well as efforts to create an abundant vegetable garden at the White House demonstrate how real and natural Michelle was in her role.
If Obama’s West Wing was serious and concerned about optics, Michelle made her side happy, casual and inviting. The White House became more inclusive, authentic and accessible. By inviting a range of people — young and old, famous and ordinary and those who served the nation (and their families) — to events during Halloween, Thanksgiving and Easter, and artistic performances, she made the White House home to all, humanising the great institution and making her role relevant to all segments of society.
My best memories of Michelle include her boogying with 106-year-old Virginia Mclauren, car-pooling with James Corden and making her passionate final speech at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. Her disgust for Donald Trump was evident and one will never forget her grimace when he became the subsequent US president.
Wife, mother, and best friend to Barrack, Michelle Obama defined her different roles on her own terms. Beautifully written, this historical-political page-turner is a must-read for all.
Suridah Jalaluddin is a contributor to The Edge Malaysia
This story first appears in Issue 875 (April 8) of The Edge Singapore.