I started off Women's History Month in March with Becoming by Michelle Obama.
I was so excited to read this book because I love her. I really do. As far as public figures go, I know no one is perfect, including the former FLOTUS, but something about her feels incredibly close to perfect.
Keeping in mind that I didn't want to be bias, I started reading this book with the intention of pacing myself. Trying to really take it in and write a proper review.
This first section of the book is called, 'Becoming Me.' This is about Michelle's young adult life, from childhood to finishing college. She talks about her family and her relationship with her mother, father, and brother, as well as her great aunt and grandfather. She mentions the greater vibe of her extended family is large but close knit.
I think one of the most compelling things about the way this part of the book was written is that without focusing solely on race, Michelle (I'm sorry but I like to think we would be great friends and are therefore on a first name basis) highlights ways in which it played a role in her life and the lives of those around her. She talks about her parents' decision to not buy a home, and what they had seen happen to family and friends who had striven to buy one. She talks also about the economic classes many of their family and friends were in and how being discriminated against in the workplace caused that. Men in the previous generation, being barred from joining unions, and therefore unable to work well paying jobs. It was a reminder of how blatant discrimination was really not that long ago. It also serves as a reminder that past racism has a rippling effect that has compounded for current generations.
Even as she writes about her education and her drive, and dissects the different elements that affected her confidence, she mentions race in a way you can understand both the feelings of the then child, as well as the mature assessment of what it all meant. She mentions a time where a girl asked her in front of so many other kids, 'why do you talk white?' It had mortified her in the moment, and she wasn't sure why but she got so defensive and was immediately very self conscious of how she sounded. I thought back to my own childhood, trying to fit in with various groups and feeling as if I was either too Indian or not Indian enough. A foreigner to kids on the play ground, despite being born and raised in the US, or a coconut when I met other Indian kids.
Though I recognize there are many differences in our personal experiences, reading 'Becoming Me' felt therapeutic in a way I didn't expect. It's one thing to imagine that you and the FLOTUS would be BFFs, but it's another to read her story and see the similarities to your own background. It increased my trust in her advocacy for girls, and for education. It reinforced that it didn't just feel genuine, but was coming from a very genuine place.
While reading this section, I went from feeling like, 'this is an adult, who understands how I've felt,' to feeling like a girlfriend wanting to soak up all the details of her friend's new relationship.
I loved reading about the increasing tension between Michelle and Barack. About how they just grew closer and closer. I loved reading about their first kiss. I loved reading about their wedding. I loved it all.
I especially loved that it wasn't so lovey dovey. Michelle is floored by Barack in some ways, but she's also not throwing everything away for a romance. It reminds me of when she spoke to a group of girls and said that there wasn't any boy at this age more important than their education. And I'm incredibly happy to see that she maintained that herself throughout their relationship. She had a sense of independence, and success. She mentions that part of why she started a journal was that she was feeling unsure of what she wanted and she was determined to figure it out rather than get swept up in Barack's energy. I think her commitment to be her own person aside from her relationship sets a great example, and is something I wish a lot of girls I knew growing up had seen.
Michelle didn't gloss over the less romantic parts. She spoke about the struggles they had stemming from the ways in which they both feel and communicate. She mentions their decision to go to couples counseling and Barack's hesitation. There were many times where I would read a chapter and run to Greg to tell him that I feel like I'm reading about our relationship. So much of their story felt like ours; the long distance, the differences in thought process, the differences in communication methods. Again, I found solace in reading someone else's experience, learning that our obstacles are not so impossible to overcome.
The final section of the book covers Michelle's time as First Lady of the United States.
I really saw a lot of myself in the FLOTUS when ......
Just kidding! Despite my insistence while reviewing the first two sections of the book that the FLOTUS and I are so alike, I can't say that I've had any experience that quite relates to being in that role.
The thing about the Obama presidency is that it was around the time I was half way through high school. I was becoming more involved in community service and diversity initiatives, particularly as it related to the LGBT community. I still had so much to learn about race in America.
The campaigns began as my eyes were opening up to various issues in the world. I saw the excitement around the possibility of the first Black President of the United States. I understood the excitement. It would feel like after generations of racism, someone had finally smashed through that political ceiling.
I didn't fully appreciate how meaningful the Obama presidency could be, until after he was elected, and news reporters started covering the celebrations. There was one man in particular who I still remember. He said that this meant a lot for all the kids who had to grow up without a father present. It shows them that they don't have to follow in that same path, and that they are still just as capable as anyone else.
In that moment, it clicked for me that this was inspiring for a lot of different people and for a lot of different reasons.
What I also learned, shortly into the presidency, was that electing a Black president wasn't some trophy to ending racism in America. In fact, having a Black man be so visible in leading the country brought out the angriest and loudest racists. I saw the hypocrisy. It was so sad to see the racist comments being made, both at the President and the FLOTUS. However, I remember how graceful they both were in marching forward and focusing on what they set out to do.
During this time I also learned a lot about racism in the US. Because it was going on right in front of me. Each time an attack rooted in racism was thrown at the Obamas, I learned more about the different ways in which racism has manifested itself in our society, and continued to thrive. It's true how history will not only repeat itself, but continue on its course until we learn from it.
I remember a time when another politician referred to Michelle Obama as a gorilla in heels. That was the first time I remember actively learning about how Black people have historically been dehumanized by referring to them as animals, particularly monkeys. I learned a lot in those years about racism, microaggressions, and just the state of where this country is in terms of equality.
I remember seeing a lot of comments directed at Michelle Obama, that were convinced she had no class. These were the wildest comments to me, because I watched her ignore hateful, racist, and sexist comments, all while focusing on helping others as she had planned to do.
Reading this final section of the book gave me insight into just how much she had to brace herself for those comments. How much extra thought was put into making sure people didn't have a chance to make those comments. I had thought often that she was a strong woman for not letting those things get to her, but what I learned reading this final section of the book was that they did get to her. They very much left an impression, and they made her feel strongly. But her strength was in the way she fought those comments. The way she believed in herself, her ability to get things done, and her ability to lift up and encourage others. She focused on what she could do, and what her legacy would be.
I hope we don't forget the treatment of our first Black FLOTUS. I do not want the uglier parts of our history to get swept under the rug. That's how the ugliness continues to collect, until the rug can no longer hide it. I hope we remember the ways in which it was wrong. The ways in which it was racist and sexist. And I truly hope, that we remember how strong Michelle Obama was in handling it.
I would love to know what you thought of the book if you read it. I would also love to know of other women you've learned about, who have faced adversity and succeeded none the less!