Which woman comes to my mind when thinking of strong women? I think of none other than Michelle Obama. Born in 1964, she became a lawyer and eventually First Lady of the United States. In the meantime, she has become one more thing: An author.
At the end of 2018, she published her memoir “Becoming“ that climbed the bestseller lists in record time.
“Becoming“ starts with a preface written in March 2017 in which one gets to know the motivation why the former First Lady decided to write her memoir.
“When I was a kid, my aspirations were simple. I wanted a dog. I wanted a house that had stairs in it – two floors for one family.“
Michelle Obama’s memoir starts with these words. It can be said that in the end the home where she was to live for eight years became a much bigger house than she had imagined as a child.
In the first lines of the book, the former First Lady also explains the contrasts she has experienced during her life in the spotlight:
“Since stepping reluctantly into public life, I’ve been held up as the most powerful woman in the world and taken down as an ‚angry black woman.‘“
By writing this, Michelle Obama indicates that on the major stage of the American nation, the White House, there is also major polarization.
The former First Lady concludes her preface by stating that she has a lot to tell. Back then, her daughters were teenagers and her husband was getting used to his life after the White House. Her memoir is the perfect opportunity to report about the experiences and decisions that have made her the person she is today.
Failure: Is it a feeling?
In the English version, the book consists of 421 pages and is separated into three sections – “Becoming Me“, “Becoming Us“ and “Becoming More“.
On the basis of these titles, it’s easy to imagine what the sections are about:
“Becoming Me“ is about how Michelle Obama, as an individual, became who she is today. This first part starts with Michelle’s childhood, for example she talks about that she started to play the piano when she was four years old. During the first hundred pages, the reader accompanies Michelle Obama through the ups, downs and turning points of her early life. The former First Lady uses these decisive switching points in her life to point out important experiences that imparted strength of character to her.
One day, Michelle had to decide which university to attend.
Michelle received some advice from her parents – never limit your own imagination. Concerning this very important decision, Michelle Obama took her parents’ advice and considered certain things possible other people considered impossible.
One woman, who seems to be very unimportant from today’s perspective but certainly wasn’t back then, put a spoke in her wheel.
Michelle, the lawyer-to-be was planning to apply for a college place at Princeton College and was confronted by this woman with the following words:
“I’m not sure that you’re Princeton material.“
The college counsellor said this giving her “a perfunctory, patronising smile“, as the former First Lady recalls.
This sentence has the potential to throw a young woman wanting to go to the college off her course. After all, this advice didn’t throw this lawyer-to-be off her course.
The former First Lady counters the counsellor’s words strikingly by making a wisdom out of it:
“Failure is a feeling long before it’s an actual result“
Michelle was undeterred in the face of her counsellor’s verdict and decided to apply for a study place at Princeton College.
Seven months later, she found the admission to Princeton College in her mailbox.
“Becoming Me“ ends, after telling the reader about her years of study at Princeton, with the encounter of Michelle and Barack.
In “Becoming Us“, the political career of Michelle’s husband tends to take center stage. However, Michelle also writes about events concerning her family.
At the beginning, the former First Lady writes about her father’s death. He was fighting his disease for many years, refused to see a doctor or to be hospitalised. In the end, he died of a heart attack.
Michelle describes the effect of her father’s death with these words:
“It hurts to live after someone has died. It just does.“
This bereavement hits her hard but she gets happier as something occurs:.
“Eventually, our waiter came around holding a dessert plate, covered by a silver lid. He slid it in front of me and lifted the cover. I was almost too miffed to even look down, but when I did, I saw a dark velvet box where the chocolate cake was supposed to be. Inside it was a diamond ring.“
This is how Michelle Obama describes the scenario when Barack Obama proposed to her. It’s unnecessary to mention how Michelle responded to this proposal.
Barack decided to write a book about his father’s dreams – Dreams From My Father.
Those interested in this topic should read his book. While reading it, the reader gains insights concerning a lot of topics: Barack Obama’s family history isn’t the only subject. For example, the book treats Kenyan traditions which are in contrast to the American way of living.
Barack didn’t grow up in Kenya and decided to travelthrough his country of origin – that’s why the book can be read like an itinerary.
In “Becoming Us” Michelle also talks about the birth of their two daughters, Malia and Natasha. The second part of the book not only covers the marriage, but also the process of starting a family.
The other, very important part in “Becoming Us“ concerns the political career of Michelle’s husband, Barack Obama.
The former US president started his political career in the parliament of Illinois and worked his way through the US Senate as a senator for Illinois. Eventually, he became president of the United States.
First, Michelle was critical of her husband’s plans to become president of the United States but dispelled her doubts as she realised that her husband could become the first African-American president in the history of the United States.
The First Lady and the Queen
At the time Barack Obama becomes president of the United States, the memoir merges into the third and last part, “Becoming More“.
“There is no handbook for incoming First Ladies of the United States. It’s not technically a job, nor is it an official government title.“
By writing this, the former First Lady explains that every First Lady has her own ’handbook’ for performing her duties.
After the election, the daughters were Michelle’s major concern because a big chance was imminent. Between election victory in November and the inauguration in January were only three months – this has hardly been enough time for the family to plan for four years of living in the White House. Back then, no one was considering the possibility that these four years could transform into eight years.
To illustrate Michelle Obama’s self-perception during her years in the White House, there is a meaningful episode from her autobiography. After the Obama family got used to their new role, there was an encounter with Queen Elizabeth II:
“(…) We looked at each other then with identical expressions, like, When is all this standing around with world leaders going to finally wrap up? And with this, she busted out with a fully charming laugh. (…) I then did what’s instinctive to me anytime I feel connected to a new person, which is to express my feelings outwardly. I laid a hand affectionately across her shoulder.“
Michelle Obama laying her hand across the Queen’s shoulder caused a scandal because touching the Queen is against the royal protocol.
In this case, human emotions prevailed over the serious occasion of their encounter which was nothing else but the G20 summit.
Obviously, Michelle thought of herself as a common woman during her years in the White House. A common woman who has found a soul mate – the Queen.
Michelle Obama’s memoir is not a political biography. It’s a memoir that deals mostly with the experiences she has made in her life. Of course, the book covers some political occasions because her husband was president of the United States.
Furthermore, the book is about “Becoming“. What does that mean? “Becoming“ means a lot of different things to different people .
Maybe “Becoming“ means making use of one’s strength of character or even discovering one’s strength? Although this is certainly a very important aspect of “Becoming“, there are many more aspects.
After all, Michelle Obama succeeds in conveying her very own pieces of wisdom to the readers of her autobiography. By reading the autobiography, the readers get the chance to understand the wisdom and making use of it for their own path of “Becoming“. | Read more: Category “Current”
Simon von Ludwig
Cover picture: President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, and their daughters, Sasha and Malia, sit for a family portrait in the Oval Office, Dec. 11, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza). Source: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain