Michelle Obama: An Icon Deconstructed

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NEW YORK, NEW YORK - DECEMBER 19: Former first lady Michelle Obama (L) discusses her book 'Becoming' with Sarah Jessica Parker at Barclays Center on December 19, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images)

In her debut memoir, Becoming, Michelle Obama divulges intimate details from her upbringing in her southside Chicago neighborhood, all the way through her final duties as the First Lady of the United States. Her memoir is broken into three parts: Becoming Me, Becoming Us, and Becoming More – each detailing aspects of her life and mind as she herself “becomes.”

Review: Becoming, by Michelle Obama

Becoming a Writer

Michelle Obama kept a journal. She didn’t commit herself to a writing quota, nor did she consider herself a writer (though her recent publication has proved her to be nothing short of a talent in the form). She used it to unscramble her brain and her heart when time allowed.

The period of her life during which she began her entries was filled with heart, in terms of changes of and aggressive emotionality. She had lost a young friend and peer to cancer. She had met the man who would prove to be the love of her life. She had discovered that she was perhaps meant for more than the career for which she had blindly worked her entire life. Needless to say, the conversation between her heart and mind was heated.

Becoming Michelle Obama was far from simple, and this aforementioned period of her life is just one instance exhibiting how so. As Marie Kondo popularly coaches, the future Mrs. Obama was seeking more joy. In her losses and gains, she describes her journey towards self-discovery, writing in her journal, “If there were not a man in my life constantly questioning me about what drives me and what pains me, would I be doing it on my own?”

“Becoming,” A Verb

To Michelle Obama, “becoming” as a verb is not finite. It is an evolutionary process with no specific end destination. The author implies, therefore, that this destination is indefinable and unachievable until a life’s conclusion. She is still becoming, just as you and I are still becoming, and our nation is still very much becoming, as there is always “more growing to be done.”

And yet, somehow, at the end of the book, we receive a sort of resolve from Obama. Despite her push for her readers to continue in their own becoming, she finishes her collection of memories on a somewhat sedentary note. I’m not suggesting we should expect more from the former First Lady, an educator, organizer, and accomplished activist and humanitarian. Still, the conclusion of her book begs the question: has Michelle Obama done what she has encouraged the rest of us never to do? Has Michelle Obama, in a final and fixed way, become?

What the South Side Built

In her very on-brand book, Mrs. Obama writes candidly and eloquently of her life, beginning with a history of her upbringing in a mostly-black Chicago suburb. She paints a picture of her lower-middle-class family, who appear to be of means in a non-traditional sense, as they prioritize the futures of Michelle and her brother Craig above all else. Later in the book, we can infer much of Obama’s style as a matriarch as having been directly inspired by her mother, the diligent housewife who refused to let her children fall privy to stereotypes or any lack of opportunities that might be brought on by their neighborhood or the color of their skin.

From mother Marian Robinson’s aggressive persistence in ensuring her children had the best possible educations, and father Frasier Robinson’s hardworking demeanor despite his diagnosis with multiple sclerosis, to aunt Robbie Shields’ strict piano teaching techniques, and her grandfather SouthSide’s passion for music and togetherness, two things about Michelle Obama can be directly credited to her upbringing: her vigorous pursuit of American opportunity, and her unbreakable hold on her family, always her foremost priority.

As her memoir progresses, the actions depicted become less hers, and more her husband’s. Her will, however, becomes more her own, and less based on what she always supposed was the natural progression of a young, well-educated professional woman. As Michelle LaVaughn Robinson transforms into First Lady Michelle Obama, readers will recognize in her their own transformations and ability to bloom.

Pins and Needles

Refreshing as hell was Obama’s candor in describing her hesitation in embracing her role as a potential political wife. The accomplished career woman was already caught in the balance between her work and motherhood when her husband announced his intentions to expand on his political career, going all the way. Ultimately, as we know, she made the choice to support husband Barack Obama, sidelining her concerns as a wife and mother, and recognizing the greater interest of her country and her faith in her husband’s ability to effect change for America.

Most refreshing, however, was the divulging of her experiences with seemingly taboo lifestyle issues that are not commonly admitted to by celebrities of her caliber. In her effort to open the world for women everywhere, she confesses to challenges of the most human kind, divulging on topics that prior to the release of this memoir she had not addressed; these include the personal ties to child obesity in her own family that spurred the issue as one of her primary causes during her husband’s two terms, her struggles with infertility, and her own marriage tussles for which counseling was sought.

Obama strikes gold several times throughout her 426 pages, specifically when appealing to the pathos of her readers. Her intensity and anxieties are palpable in moments such as when she is holding her father’s hand at his deathbed, as well as her time in a hospital for wounded warriors watching the struggle of a soldier harmed severely in combat as he fights to stand to salute the First Lady. She remembers and shares in visceral detail the day that Osama Bin Laden was slain. She illuminates, particularly for those of us who were too in-denial to watch for ourselves, her observations at our current President’s inauguration. She details how her disdain for her husband’s former opponent in the Democratic primary was turned to admiration and gratitude as Hillary Clinton supported her in the transition to the White House as a First Lady raising young daughters.

She pulls back the curtain on the political sphere, and on her family, who, despite having additional challenges and advantages brought on by being the most important and protected family in America, seems not extremely different from any other American family.

The Last Word on Michelle Obama’s Becoming

In Becoming, Michelle Obama has left little to the imagination. The read, despite the length, proved a quick one due to the author’s bluntness, wit, and eloquence. The message is clear, and on-brand for the legacy that the Obama administration built throughout their time in office.

I would be remiss if I didn’t share my hesitation in proclaiming Michelle Obama the perfect picture of a modern, independent woman. A political wife with a self-proclaimed distaste for politics, she certainly took the hand she was dealt and ran with it, challenging the traditions of the First Lady role and molding it to fit her interests and aspirations as a leader. But as a woman so firm in her support of seeking one’s own journey to fullness and joy, one can’t help but wonder if she might have felt more… well, “become,” had she not sacrificed her own journey for her husband’s career.

Thankfully for us, she did so. Still, she expresses certain regrets, particularly regarding her children’s inability to “become” as traditional children might – away from the spotlight and with more ability to make mistakes and grow. Certainly, Malia and Sasha, too, have much to say, and I’ll look forward to reading their own memoirs when they’re adults and feel ready to share them.

Thoroughly opaque and speckled with humor, Michelle Obama shines a 600-watt light on the lesser-known aspects of herself, the White House, and her beloved family, the history-making Imagineers of a more free world for Americans. She challenges us, unveils herself, and invites us into a story of evolution from which she hopes we will be moved to action on both a personal level and a larger scale within our own communities and our country. And we are.

Becoming is available wherever books are sold.

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