Reviewed in India on 3 January 2019
For me, as for many others, the Obamas embodied kindness, decency, and -above all – intelligence, in sharp contrast to the (cough, cough) circus that followed them in the White House.
I am neither American, nor of color, nor (God forbid) will I ever be involved in any political activities. Yet, like all my friends who have read “Becoming”, I am completely charmed by it, and by Michelle Obama. A lot has been said about the book and its appeal. You just cannot finish this book and just forget it; her story will probably stay with you for life. I would like to add my own little inputs below (in no particular order) as to why this book was one of the most wonderful books that I read this year (or any year), and why, like millions of people around the world, I find Michelle Obama’s story so powerful and uplifting.
“Your story is what you have…It is something to own”
A book can be beautifully written, but I don’t really care for it if it doesn’t touch my heart. And Becoming was a very, very emotional read. Here we have a lady who has lived in the White House for eight years, and who speaks with such pride and love about her working class parents, the cramped little apartment she spent her happy childhood in, in the poorer section of Chicago, about her relatives, all blue-collared, like her parents. This is who I am, she says, this my story. “I had nothing or I had everything. It depends on which way you want to tell it”. We can think of many women in her position who would perhaps underplay their background, hide some of the facts, but not a strong, direct, honest woman like her. It is this humility, the pride and the self-respect with which she shares her background with the rest of the world, which will touch you to the core.
“…they (my friends in South Chicago), like me, were descended from slaves”
Like Michelle points out, repeatedly, let us not forget for a minute her roots – that not too long ago, her forefathers were working as slaves in a country they were forcefully brought to, loaded like animals onto ships from Africa. “I was the great-great-granddaughter of a slave named Jim Robinson, who was probably buried in an unmarked grave somewhere on a South Carolina plantation”.
America might have got its first black President, but – a century and a half after the Civil War of 1865, and more than half a century after the Civil Rights Act of 1961 - racial discrimination is still alive and kicking in that country.
“I carried a history with me, and it wasn’t that of presidents of First Ladies…The struggles of Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King were more familiar to me than that of Eleanor Roosevelt or Mamie Eisenhower”. Yes, I had to Google Rosa Parks, and Coretta King, and if the names are not familiar to you, I suggest you do so as well, to understand what a long journey the Obamas have undertaken, and what she refers to as the “push and pull” of history.
Her description of her Uncle Terry, who had once been a Pullman porter, is particularly poignant, and will go straight to your heart “Years after retirement, Terry still lived in a state of numbed formality – impeccably dressed, remotely servile, never asserting himself in any way…It was as if he’d surrendered a part of himself as a way of coping”. I didn’t know what a Pullman porter was, and I again had to Google it. What I read had me in tears. It was too late for Uncle Terry, but not for the next generation of African-Americans, and not for his brave, intelligent, hardworking niece and nephew.
The power of education, or “I will show you “
Michelle reached where she did through sheer hard work and intelligence, and an enormous desire to make something of herself in life. This is perhaps the only right way to “become” what you want to be. “Education had been the primary instrument of change in my own life, my lever upward in the world”. “Strive” is an important word in Ms. Obama’s dictionary – perhaps the most important.
Every schoolgirl (or boy) should be encouraged to read this book, because the lessons it impart are invaluable. It is also a book for parents to read, for the way in which Michelle and her brother were brought up by their parents is inspirational. Their parents treated them like adults, encouraged them to take their own decisions, and constantly reiterated that – “you belong. You matter. I think highly of you.”
A yin-and-yang duo
In Becoming, we gain a whole new perspective of Barack Obama; not the president, but the boyfriend, husband, father and son. We meet a man who is least interested in the rat race, or in any material trappings. What excites him, and what he is passionate about are books and ideas, especially ideas to make the world a better place - “Do we settle for the world as it is, or do we work for the world as it should be?”. Unlike Michelle, he is “hardwired for optimism”, and while she is a detail person, a box-checker, Barack is quite at home with “the unruliness of the world”. It was clear early on their relationship that “We were built differently”. Yet their relationship thrived, and when Barack’s aspirations became clear, she supported him, not because she thought he would win (“Barack was a black man in America…. I really didn’t think he could win”), but because she loved him. The rest is, of course, history.
The end of Obama’s term, and the next occupant
When she walks out (almost with relief, it seems) of the “most famous address” in the world, she begins a fresh journey – all over again. And that, perhaps, is what awes you and touches you most about her – that she doesn’t let her years as the FLOTUS define her, or restrict her in any way. While being a loving, supportive wife and mother, she could never be JUST Mrs. Obama, the wife of arguably the most powerful man in the world. She was, and will always be, a person in her own right. A person who has strived all her life, and will continue to strive, to be the best she can be - constantly evolving, constantly reinventing herself.
The White House was definitely not the end of the road for her – “you are left in many ways to find yourself again”. As is her nature, she makes no bones about the current occupant of the White House, expressing her opinion in a direct, upfront manner. “..we were up against a bully, a man who among other things demeaned minorities and expressed contempt for POWs, challenging the dignity of our country with practically every utterance”.
“Becoming” is about Michelle’s childhood, her Ivy league education, her career, her abiding love for her husband and children and her country, her years at the White house, but above all, it is about a woman who steadfastly holds on to her identity in spite of being married to the most powerful man in the world. She was never a “missus defined by her mister”,
“At 54, I am still in progress, and I hope that I always will be”.
It’s people like the Obamas who make America great. Not the bullies who are currently in power – they take America back to the dark ages. That, at least is my view; your views may be different – but hey, it’s a free world, isn’t it?
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