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21 November 2018

“How come you talk like a white girl?”: Michelle Obama’s deeply moving memoir Becoming

In her autobiography, Michelle Obama shows she is adept at weaving together the personal and political.

By Helen Lewis

Michelle Obama “grew up with a disabled dad in a too-small house with not much money in a starting-to-fail neighbourhood”. She also grew up, she writes at the end of Becoming, “surrounded by love and music in a diverse city in a country where an education can take you far. I had nothing or I had everything. It depends on which way you want to tell it.”

The way Obama wants to tell it is through the personal. This book gives only glimpses of the frustrating nature of the electoral college or the mulish reluctance of the Republican Party to pass any legislation. (And when Obama expresses no resentment that the role of first lady is more curtain choices and Easter egg hunts than policy formation and lobbying, you believe her. “I’ve never been a fan of politics,” she says, to explain her lack of desire to run for office.)

Where Hillary Clinton chafed at her supporting role in the White House, Michelle Obama is sanguine. She has her vegetable garden and her veterans’ rights campaign, and that’s enough for a woman with degrees from Princeton and Harvard. She is aware that feminists will see this as letting the side down, but makes a convincing case that her advocacy for healthy eating and exercise (bypassing the big newspapers and going straight to daytime TV and “mummy bloggers”) is an effective use of her bully pulpit. In a country where one in three children is overweight or obese, “staying at home to bake cookies” is redeemed as a noble goal, particularly when those cookies are low-sugar, high-fibre and packed with fruit. 

There is a known problem with celebrity memoirs, which is that most people’s childhoods are boring and the narrative only perks up when fame arrives. Except that is often the point when the writer clams up, fearful of breaking confidences. Unexpectedly, though, the best parts of this book are about Obama’s childhood, on the South Side of Chicago. Whether she can write, or her team can write, or Barack helped a bit, I don’t know. (There is a coy reference to “collaborators” in the acknowledgements, including one Sara Corbett, whose Twitter bio reads: “obscure writer, quiet collaborator”.) But Obama’s voice shines through the unfussy prose, with rather fewer of the flat campaign-speak platitudes that marred Hillary Clinton’s What Happened.

Her parents, Marian and Fraser Robinson, never bought a house, living instead on the second floor of a building owned by Marian’s aunt Robbie, who taught piano downstairs. As children, the young Michelle and her older brother, Craig, slept in a converted living space, with a thin partition between them. Her father worked at a water filtration plant; her mother was a homemaker. They attended the local church on Sundays and sent their kids to a school whose intake, Obama notes, got more black with every passing year, as white flight drove more well-to-do families out to the suburbs.

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That last detail is typical. Race haunts this book, in glances and moments, and Obama’s consciousness of it blooms as she rises through university, a law firm and the world of politics, each time becoming even more aware of what it means to be a minority. Her parents, like other families on the South Side, tried to protect their children from America’s racial divide, even though it had sharply marked their own lives.

Her grandfather Dandy is notoriously mean, shouting at his wife; we learn that his early promise came to nothing after he moved from South Carolina to Chicago, chasing work but finding himself locked out by white-dominated unions. Uncle Pete couldn’t get a cab licence for the same reason. Her father lets his multiple sclerosis proceed unchecked “to spare himself the feeling of being belittled by a wealthy white doctor”. Visiting their friends, the Stewarts, in their shiny new suburban house, the Robinson family return to find a scratch down Fraser’s beloved Buick. “I wonder,” her mother says, “if nobody knew that they’re a black family until we came to visit.”

Mentioning racism is often held to be divisive, but it is shown here as an undeniable pulse, an inescapable drumbeat. To expect Obama to ignore it is obscene. As a junior at Princeton, a white roommate unexpectedly moves out; she learns (much later) that the girl’s mother requested it. Years after, the woman herself is profusely apologetic, explaining that she grew up in a racist household and knew no better. It is a story to make you hope – attitudes change – and one to make you despair: how many others from the South Side had the same potential as Obama, but faltered under this endless dehumanisation? It’s nothing and everything.

Obama is just as acute on gender. She keenly wanted children, and she and Barack underwent IVF to have their daughters, Sasha and Malia. But the process reminded her again of the grain of the world. “It was maybe then that I felt the first flicker of resentment involving politics and Barack’s unshakeable commitment to the work,” she writes, as she musters the courage to plunge a syringe full of hormones into her thigh.

“I sensed already that the sacrifices would be more mine than his… He read all the IVF literature and would talk to me all night about it, but his only actual duty was to show up at the doctor’s office and provide some sperm. And then, if he chose, he could go have a Martini afterward. None of this was his fault, but it wasn’t equal, either, and for any woman who lives by the mantra that equality is important, this can be a little confusing.”

At this point, when Barack is a young state senator, his wife’s forbearance seems almost saintly. He stays away several nights a week, arriving late back on Thursdays with the children ready to fall asleep and Michelle resentfully stewing alone.

It’s jarring to read later of how she was attacked on the presidential campaign trail for mentioning his untidiness and smelly socks, as if talking about him as anything other than a godlike statesman was disloyal. The political wife is still expected to be the embodiment of Virginia Woolf’s description of women, who “have served all these centuries as looking glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size”.

That’s not to say that the portrait of Barack Obama that emerges here is unflattering. He sounds geeky, foxy and just a tiny bit arrogant. He genuinely believes in public service, first through community organisation, then through civil rights law, and finally, through politics.

Obama does not downplay her husband’s alienating intellect, which was regularly criticised during the presidential campaign. (“Could you have a beer with him?” went the refrain. The answer, it seems, is: yes, as long as you are also willing to discuss “a 30-page memo about corporate governance that was evidently so thorough and cogent it became instantly legendary” at the law office where Michelle mentored Barack.) At the same time, there are inevitably flashes of irritation at his cockiness: “All this inborn confidence was admirable, of course, but honestly, try living with it.”

Both she and Barack struggle with reconciling their ambition with their racial background in a country where “white” and “elite” feel interchangeable. For a black working-class American, social mobility is complicated: must it involve leaving your peers behind, and succeeding by the standards of a white-dominated world? Is that an escape, or a betrayal? As a child, Michelle remembers a cousin asking her: “How come you talk like a white girl?”

Her husband’s altogether more complicated story (black African father, white mother from Kansas, raised in Hawaii and Indonesia) causes another kind of trouble throughout the book. People just don’t know how to make sense of him within the categories they have. White America reads him as straightforwardly black, but the black community notices his light skin and professorial air and wonders if he’s really like them, too. In 2000, two political opponents described him to the Chicago Reader as “the white man in blackface” and “an educated fool” with an “eastern elite degree”. In other words, Obama notes, they were saying: “Barack wasn’t a real black man.” It is an illuminating insight into how identities are imposed on us as much as they are innate and internalised.

Credit: Doug Mills/NYT/Redux/Eyevine

The final third of the book deals with life in the White House. It is heavy on details of the security bubble in which the family live, although even this serves a double purpose. Obama’s great tribute to her parents is that they gave her and her brother their independence, with her mother telling her that she was trying to raise adults, not children. Therefore Obama’s descriptions of adjusting secret service protocol to let her daughters have an ice cream with their friends, or practise basketball near a busy road despite the risk of assassination, have another message. If Michelle Obama can let her kids out of her sight, with all the nutters and assault rifles in America, shouldn’t every mother? I mean, she could literally be a helicopter parent, with actual Chinooks.

At points, this book is deeply moving. There is the young army man, covered in burns, tearing off his sheets in agony to salute the wife of the commander-in-chief. Her father’s early death at 55, passing on after “giving them everything”. The night gay marriage passed as she sneaks outside to hear the cheers of Americans told that their love is equal and worth celebrating.

Becoming is fundamentally about how to be a person in the world, how to live a purposeful life, and how to use the chances you have been given. Michelle, the clever girl from the South Side who went to Princeton, could have been a well-paid corporate lawyer with a lifetime wine club subscription. She could have been an invisible consort to the president. But she chose to embrace her role as a campaign surrogate, and then her role as first lady, knowing that it turned her into a caricature through unkind eyes and an idol to adoring ones. She knows that her and Barack’s very existence is a “provocation”. She has to find grace under pressure. Some of these choices are just bigger versions of ones that anyone could face.

As a job, being a role model clearly sucks. But she approaches it with the same diligence that got her to college and law school, because she knows what it means to other black Americans to see a dark-skinned woman living in a White House built by slaves. Carrying the hope of others is a burden, particularly as the first of your kind.

Finally, what does she think of Donald Trump? The drive-bys here are savage. Polite, of course, but still savage. For instance, she doesn’t initially believe his presidential run is serious. (“Nothing in how he conducted himself suggested that he was serious about wanting to govern.”)

And on Inauguration Day she permits herself a small insult to the man who has insulted, among others, Mexicans, women, prisoners of war and parents of dead soldiers. “The vibrant diversity of the two previous inaugurations was gone,” she writes, surveying the heavily white and male tableau in front of her. Why did no one point out the optics to Trump, why did no one point out how it looked, the message it sent to women and minorities in America? But maybe they did. Realising that, Obama writes, “I made my own optic adjustment: I stopped even trying to smile.” 

Michelle Obama
Penguin, £25, 421pp

This article appears in the 21 Nov 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The real Brexit crisis