review by Patricia J. Williams, Times Literary Supplement, published February 8. 2019
by Michelle Obama
488pp. Viking. £25.
978 0 241 33414 0
US: Crown. $32.50. 978 1 524 76313 8
One of the most useless questions an adult can ask a child [is] – What do you want to be when you grow up? As if growing up were finite. As if at some point you become something and that’s the end.” This assertion appears on the first page of the former First Lady Michelle Robinson Obama’s new autobiography, and its implicit commitment to life’s infinite possibilities resonates invitingly on every page thereafter. Indeed, Obama’s fidelity to what she calls the “responsibility” of optimism is reflected in the very choice of title: Becoming .
Perhaps we all grow up by learning to be curators of our own dreams. And this is a book about the care and cultivation of the American Dream, in its best sense: the dream of survivors, played forward through generations of their descendants. The myth with which every American child is imbued – that anyone, no matter how humble their origins, can grow up to be President – is a tribute to the tenacious faith-in-a-better-tomorrow of slaves, serfs and victims of pogroms and genocides. The election of Barack Obama was supposed to have been the apotheosis of that dream, the “post-racial” triumph of the Civil Rights movement, in concert with Emma Lazarus’s paean to equality, human rights and mercy, as inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty– “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”.
Of course, dreams require a wakeful world in which to be made manifest. And so there is a kind of lurking dread as one reads of Michelle Obama’s donning a floaty gown for the Inaugural Ball, her heart filled with appreciation for the “dreaminess” of her family’s trajectory from a crowded walk-up apartment on Chicago’s South Side to the White House. We know that time has marched on to Donald Trump’s proclaimed nightmare of “American carnage”; and that the generosity of birthright citizenship has been besieged and unbalanced by wildly alienating fears of “alien invasion”.
Perhaps part of the power of Becoming derives from the rueful longing one feels for the Obama administration’s coherence and gravitas – and from the reminder of the sorts of metamorphoses made possible by kindness, inclusivity, good education and good health care for all. This acute sense of then and now inspires reflection on difference, and the meeting of extremes – what the philosopher and man of letters Édouard Glissant might have called a “trembling of thought”: he captured in that phrase an awakened state of vulnerable humanity that “unites us in absolute diversity, in a whirlpool of encounter”. Such thought trembling at this political moment operates like a quiet call to action.
Obama’s meditation on her life is broken into three sections: the first, “Becoming Me”, is about having to engage with the myriad negative messages conveyed to children like her, growing up in a working-class, largely black neighbourhood on the South Side of Chicago. She is in primary school when she observes white neighbours disappearing in droves, moving to suburbs, motivated by the notion that having a black neighbour, no matter how congenial, will “lower the property values”. (The unfortunate demographic transformation known as “white flight”, begun in the 1950s, was underwritten by government banking policies through which white people could get subsidized mortgages to live in leafy, suburban white-only geographies, while black applicants were consigned to “red-lined” “urban jungles” that had been arbitrarily designated “too risky” for loans.) In short order, her neighbourhood becomes an “inner city ghetto”. The precocious Michelle Robinson experiences this most directly as systematic disinvestment in education for children who look like her. “Failure is a feeling long before it’s an actual result”, she observes.
Fraser and Marian Robinson, Michelle’s determined parents, fight hard to educate her and her elder brother, Craig. They place a premium on books, piano lessons, gentle self-discipline and orderly comportment in a disordering world. They bypass the strictures of shamefully underfunded neighbourhood schools and, against the odds, place their children in racially integrated, city-wide programmes reserved for “gifted” students (by which is too often simply meant well resourced and privately tutored). Her parents teach her to push past the “perfunctory, patronizing” smiles of guidance counsellors who, with “practiced efficiency”, tell students where they do and do not belong. “I’m not sure”, says one such counsellor, “that you’re Princeton material.” Both Michelle and her brother defy those challenges – despite the price and the constant self-doubts–and graduate from Princeton with flying colours.
She goes on to Harvard Law School and then to work at Sidley Austin, one of the US’s leading law firms, where she meets, mentors and marries the remarkable man who will be President. Having checked off all the boxes of success, and having ambitiously and obediently proved that she is indeed “good enough”, she finally finds time and respite to listen to her own inner desires. And with that, a door opens to an important realization –that, no matter how much she excelled at it, she “hated being a lawyer”.
The next section of the book, “Becoming Us”, reveals the shape-shifting reinventions Michelle Obama undergoes in the early years of her marriage to a man she describes as both the love of her life and her dispositional opposite. Barack Hussein Obama is loose and relaxed, while she adheres to careful planning. She fears the relentlessly unforgiving world of politics as he increasingly throws himself into it. Amid this new configuration of her life she reveals yet more layers of her own complexity: never a static being, she leaves her well-paying law firm to turn to public interest projects, eventually becoming the executive director for community affairs for the University of Chicago Medical Center. She loses her father, becomes a mother, juggles the duties of work and home. She is constantly rethinking, redoing, remapping. She forgives herself as she forgives others. She is generous, nimble, resilient.
In the section entitled “Becoming More”, we are privy to an unprecedented and intimate view of both the hyper-visibility and the secrecy of life in the White House. Obama’s prose up to this point has been graceful, poignant and witty; here it really takes flight. In her tenure as First Lady she must confront the near-superhuman demands and constraints placed on any political spouse –demands and constraints that are, in the Obamas’ case, amplified by their being the first African American First Family. Here we become party to her worry as her daughter Sasha leaves for her first day of school in a government van, “peering through ballistic-proof glass”. We learn in fine detail the toll it takes, living under such scrutiny: of the bullets someone on the street fired into the windows of the West Wing; of living in a house where opening a window for fresh air or venturing outside without overseers, advance approval, and a bevy of handlers, is impossible. She makes us feel the odd sensory deprivation that results from bombproof insulation’s dampening of sound. We learn what it feels like to have one’s person constantly demeaned as too big, too dark or too “mannish”. She learns to handle being simultaneously idolized and disparaged by anonymous “kooks”, not to mention high-ranking members of Congress. “Dignity is a choice”, she declares. Most famously, she resolves that “when they go low, we go high”.
Obama does ponder the long history of racial violence in America and its ongoing eruptions; but for the most part she is remarkably restrained in calling out the retributive voices of right-wingers such as the shock-jock Rush Limbaugh, who continues to intone “I hope Obama fails”, even now. There is circumspection in her words as she struggles to describe the emotional devastation wreaked in 2015 by the white nationalist Dylann Roof, who shot nine black parishioners at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston South Carolina, proclaiming as he did so: “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go”. What she does not say is that Roof’s murders were committed on the 193rd anniversary of another massacre at the same site: in 1822, white citizens suspected Denmark Vesey, the founding pastor of Emanuel, of planning a slave revolt. As a result of that rumour, Vesey and thirty-five others were hanged and the church burned to the ground. Roof claims to have chosen his mark with that history in mind. Obama also refrains from observing that Roof’s views are echoed to an alarming degree in the discourse of her husband’s successor. Without substantiation, President Trump casts generalized blame on asylum seekers from Latin and Central America for rape, drug trafficking, child smuggling and murder. “These aren’t people”, he has said of undocumented migrants. “These are animals.”
Obama’s composure breaks, however, when she writes of her profound distress at Trump’s insidiously xenophobic and baseless conspiracy theories about her husband: that he was not born in the US, that he was not a citizen but instead a “secret Muslim”, a fifth columnist of Kenyan infiltration. To Trump, she writes, this was a game. “He knew it wasn’t true.” Yet these “loud and reckless innuendos” were “putting my family’s safety at risk. And for this, I’d never forgive him”. It is not lost on her, the fact that, to certain minds, the election of an African American President seemed almost equivalent to a foreign invasion, a radical takeover, a palace coup. No matter how genial, competent or well mannered, “we ourselves are a provocation”. Yet even as she acknowledges that such reactionary resentment is as “old and deep and dangerous as ever”, she never adorns her description of this history with any hint of bitterness. “We lived with it as a family, and we lived with it as a nation. And carried on as gracefully as we could.”
It is in her carrying on that we learn to appreciate the enormous talent for life, justice and joy that characterizes this remarkable woman, amid her teams of guards, servants, secret service, managers of schedules and controllers of information and image. We learn of the care with which she figured out how best to wield the “soft and undefined” yet still extraordinary power that comes with being First Lady: the power to lobby for causes such as better school nutrition or veterans’ benefits. It is here, too, that we learn of how deeply attentive she and her husband are to notions of public service, self-sacrifice and the pursuit of the “collective best” as a balance to individual self-interest. We learn of her pride in the complete absence of scandal during the entire eight years of her husband’s administration. (Indeed, the Obamas paid for all their own expenses while living at the White House, including any food they or their guests ate, personal sundries, and even “every roll of toilet paper”.) She notes that her husband made a point of reading ten citizens’ letters every night from the thousands received; some of them were fan mail, some quite the opposite. “He read all of it, seeing it as part of the responsibility that came with the oath . . . he knew he had an obligation to stay open, to shut nothing out. While the rest of us slept, he took down the fences and let everything inside.” Barack Obama’s understanding of his job, she says, was “to take the chaos and metabolize it somehow into calm leadership”. How she and the President “comported ourselves in the face of instability mattered”: “Part of our role, as we understood it, was to model reason, compassion and consistency”.
It is not until the epilogue that Obama gives her greatest display of resilience. After the emotionally fraught campaign of 2016, and the transfer of power to a man whose political agenda she euphemistically describes as having “caused many Americans to doubt themselves and to doubt and fear one another”, while leaving “vulnerable members of our society exposed and dehumanized”, she returns to the resolute faith that begins with opening the hearts and minds of children, teaching them possibility rather than reinforcing labels such as “ghetto” or “militant”, labels that “foretold failure and then hastened its arrival”. We who are adults, she says, must set the table for our children’s future, and that means providing the instruction in how to believe that there is a future. To her, there is no other choice: “We have to hand them hope. Progress isn’t made through fear . . . . It was possible, I knew, to live on two planes at once – to have one’s feet planted in reality, but pointed in the direction of progress . . . . You got somewhere by building that better reality, if only in your own mind. . . . You may live in the world as it is, but you can still work to create the world as it should be”.
Her words contrast with the alarmist hysteria now emanating from the White House. And it is the election of Trump that leads Obama to pose a question that haunts her whole narrative: “What lasts?”
If Obama’s tale is all about becoming, the undercurrent of that tale is one of enduring –at Princeton, in the White House, in America itself – and ultimately the generosity involved in belonging. Hence, she is careful to position her “I” so that it is never far from broad coalitions of “we”. Knowing that her life in politics has made her an attention magnet, she decides that if the media “wanted to follow me, I was going to take them places”. And so she does, directing that attention to the needs of the homeless, the status of military veterans, disability rights and social goodwill: “the gaze belonged here”.
When she visits a girls’ school in London, in 2009, she hugs “every girl I could reach”, acutely aware that she is melding for them “where I came from” with the symbolic power of being First Lady. Such existential complexity is precisely what is missing from Trump’s world view: his static, declarative sentence structure is locked in inherency. You are what you are. Or else you aren’t. It’s all in the blood. Trump’s uncle taught at MIT; the President has cited this as reason enough to believe in his own “very stable genius”.
By the last chapter of Becoming , one wants to linger among the many affable images of the Obama family with their mutual respect, kindness and general level-headedness. One wants to wallow in descriptions of the floppy bounding of their two large amiable dogs. On finishing I started reading the book again, just to stay muffled a bit longer in its bright and uplifting faith in the world. The late Amos Oz once recalled the advice given by so many elders, recent refugees from the Second World War, to “enjoy every day because not every child grows up to be a person”. It was, he mused, “probably their way of telling me about the Holocaust or the frame of Jewish history . . . . I wanted to become a book, not a man. The house was full of books written by dead men, and I thought a book may survive”. This passage comes to mind because Michelle Obama’s memoir is threaded through with similar apprehensions of short-livedness; as a child she was sheltered by elders who used African American history both to warn and to inspire. Both Oz and Obama grew up with the mandate to soak in as much knowledge as they could while proceeding with the daily enjoyments of life– card games, shared meals, the company of cousins, books on the walls of small apartments, the reinforcements of love intertwined with sad dark histories.
Becoming provides a kindly disruption to the status quo. As Michelle Obama writes on the very last page, as though it were a threshold to the future: “Let’s invite one another in”.