Back in the ancestral homeland of Michelle Obama, the architects of Jim Crow took great pains to set down the boundaries and define the roles of anyone living in the pre-modern South. Signs directed people to where they could sit, stand, get a sip of water. They reinforced the social order of an American hierarchy — how people were seen, what they were called, what they had been before the Republic was founded and what was presumed they could never be. The signs reminded every inhabitant of the very different place of black women and white women in the hierarchy. There were restrooms for “white ladies” and often, conversely, restrooms for “colored women.” Black women were rarely granted the honorific Miss or Mrs., but were addressed by their first name, or simply as “gal” or “auntie” or worse. This so openly demeaned them that many black women, long after they had left the South, refused to answer if called by their first name. A mother and father in 1970s Texas named their newborn “Miss” so that white people would have no choice but to address their daughter by that title. To the founding fathers and the enforcers of Jim Crow, and to their silent partners in the North, black women were meant for the field or the kitchen, or for use as they saw fit. They were, by definition, not ladies. The very idea of a black woman as first lady of the land, well, that would have been unthinkable.
It was with the weight of this history in her bones that Michelle Obama walked onto the world stage as the first black woman to become first lady when her husband, Barack Obama, was sworn in as president in January 2009. Her memoir, “Becoming,” is a long-awaited account by a woman others have tried to decode for the last decade. The book was almost as closely guarded as the nuclear codes, and, as soon as the embargo was lifted, journalists tore into it for newsworthy bombshells of score-settling palace intrigue. There were few, aside from her blunt words for her husband’s successor, Donald Trump, whose birther attacks — “his loud and reckless innuendos,” she calls them — had put her family at risk. “And for this, I’d never forgive him,” she writes. But those focused on sound bites will be missing the larger meaning of a serious work of candid reflection by a singular figure of early-21st-century America.
While many of the 45 first ladies who preceded her were the daughters of wealthy merchants (Edith Roosevelt), bankers (Ida McKinley), judges (Helen Taft) and slaveholders (Martha Washington and Julia Grant), Michelle Obama was a descendant of the very caste of people that some of the previous first ladies had owned. She knew, as she held the Lincoln Bible at her husband’s swearing-in that frigid day in Washington, that she would be held to a different standard from that moment forward, her every gesture scrutinized. “If there was a presumed grace assigned to my white predecessors,” she writes, “I knew it was not likely to be the same for me. … My grace would need to be earned.” She adds, “I stood at the foot of the mountain, knowing I’d need to climb my way into favor.”
In finally telling her story, Obama is doing several things with this book. She is taking the country by the hand on an intimate tour of everyday African-American life and ambition, while recounting her rise from modest origins to the closest this country has to nobility. She’s meditating on the tensions women face in a world that speaks of gender equality but in which women still bear the greater burdens of balancing career and family, even with a forward-thinking husband like Barack Obama. And she is reminding readers that African-Americans, like any other group, experience the heartbreak of infertility, as she describes the challenges she and her husband confronted in order to become parents. The book is a Chicago coming-of-age story; a love story of a pair of opposites; and a political saga by a woman who was skeptical, if not outright disdainful, of politics, who tried to apply the brakes where she could, and who ultimately transcended her worries to become one of the most popular first ladies in history. As a measure of the public’s adoration, her memoir sold more than 1.4 million copies in its first week and quickly became the best-selling book of the year.
“Becoming” is refined and forthright, gracefully written and at times laugh-out-loud funny, with a humbler tone and less name-dropping than might be expected of one who is on chatting terms with the queen of England. One of Obama’s strengths is her ability to look back not from the high perch of celebrity or with the inevitability of hindsight but with the anxieties of the uncertain. She writes in the moment, as she saw and felt and discovered — as events were occurring. Even though we all know that she and Barack Obama end up getting married and having two kids, that he wins the 2008 Iowa caucuses and that they make it to the White House, she never takes any of it for granted. On the contrary, her tone is one of wonderment as to how this all happened. This gives the book’s first half, in particular, covering the part of her life we know least about, an unexpected suspense. She writes in the confident cadence we have come to recognize from her campaign speeches, looking back at her youth from within the aspiring heart of a daughter of South Side Chicago. Over and over, from high school to the White House, she asks, “Am I good enough?”
She was born Michelle LaVaughn Robinson, in January 1964, during the term of Lady Bird Johnson. Her family lived on the second floor of a brick bungalow owned by a prim great-aunt and her fastidious husband. Her father, Fraser Robinson III, worked for the city tending boilers for a water filtration plant, and her mother, Marian Shields Robinson, stayed at home looking after Michelle and her older brother, Craig. The Shields and Robinson families had fled the Jim Crow South for Chicago decades before, during the Great Migration of African-Americans out of the South to the North and West. Her ancestors on the Shields side came from Alabama, the Robinsons from South Carolina. Both her grandfathers ran into obstacles in the North. They tried to enter the trades but found that many unions excluded African-Americans, and thus many well-paying jobs were closed to them. They carried a heaviness about them that Michelle didn’t fully understand at the time but which impressed upon her the need to make the most of whatever opportunities came her way.
This was a neighborhood, South Shore, where “people tended to their lawns and kept track of their children,” she writes. Grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles lived within blocks of one another, and her own family doubled up in their one-bedroom apartment with low ceilings and faded carpet. She and her brother had adjoining space in what was intended to be a living room, now divided into two makeshift bedrooms separated by a paneled partition and plastic accordion doors that their grandfather built for them.
Afternoons, piano keys plinked in her great-aunt Robbie’s rear room below — her young students practicing their scales. Aunt Robbie bore the unspoken disappointments of her generation and was an exacting elder in Michelle’s life. Perhaps everyone has had an Aunt Robbie, the one with the porcelain figurines that children were not to touch and the plastic-covered furniture that stuck to bare legs. Michelle would eventually take lessons from Aunt Robbie, too, on the older woman’s old upright with the chipped keys, and find it hard to please her. Yet the aunt’s tenderness broke through in an especially lovely moment at a piano recital, and Michelle would go on to admire Aunt Robbie’s “devotion to rigor.”
Full story originally posted by The New York Times