Becoming: A Former First Lady Speaks Out

There are more than 3,600 reviews for Michelle Obama’s memoir Becoming on Amazon. The vast majority of readers give the book five stars, submitting detailed, substantive reviews, evidence that the book was actually purchased and read. The one-star reviews, none that are labeled “verified purchase,” take the opportunity to (pardon the expression) talk trash. Ironically, these trolls prove one of the points Michelle Obama makes in her book, that many in our country never accepted her husband, Barack, as president, or her as first lady. Politics? Of course. But since the Obamas have left the White House our current president has made it acceptable to voice racist views. Michelle Obama may no longer be first lady, but according to a recent Gallop poll, she and her husband are the most admired couple in our country. 

Michelle Obama’s story begins with her childhood on the South Side of Chicago, growing up on the second floor of a house owned by her great-aunt, Robbie, who taught piano and directed the choir at a local church. The late 1960s were a time of turmoil in our country. “The 1968 Democratic National Convention turned bloody as police went after Vietnam War protestors with batons and tear gas in Grant Park, about nine miles north of where we lived,” she writes. As a “kid,” none of that registered with a young Michelle whose “family was my world, the center of everything.” 

The family apartment was hardly spacious with Michelle and her brother, Craig, a basketball star in high school and then at Princeton, sharing a bedroom and then occupying two small rooms created with a partition. Her father, Fraser, a blue collar worker, loved art and jazz, and for most of his life struggled with multiple sclerosis, but never let the disease curtail his activities. 

Her mother, Marian, had high expectations for her children, but was never controlling, allowing them to make their own decisions. But when Michelle “fumed” about her new second grade teacher, Marian listened. “She never indulged my outrage, but she took my frustration seriously,” Michelle writes. “She knew the difference between whining and actual distress.” Without telling Michelle, Marian went to school and for weeks lobbied for her daughter and several other high-performing children to be moved to a third grade classroom. Later, Marian sought out the second grade teacher and told her, “as kindly as possible,” that she should find another profession.

It’s easy to view Michelle Obama as she appears today, a former First Lady who now counts many celebrities as her close friends and is often photographed wearing designer clothes. But like so many other Americans, she worked hard, nothing was handed to her. And she often had to fight against a system that was not accepting of ambitious women, let alone ambitious black women. After graduating from Princeton University and Harvard Law School, she went to work for the prestigious Chicago law firm Sidley & Austin, handling work for major corporations while also helping to recruit young lawyers for the firm. That was how she met Barack Obama.

He was late for their meeting, but Obama’s reputation already has partners at Sidley eager to have him come to work for the firm. “Rumor had it that he was exceptional,” she writes. “Word had spread that one of his professors at Harvard – the daughter of a managing partner – claimed he was the most gifted law student she’d ever encountered.” And he had just finished his first year!

Theirs was not love at first sight, but a relationship that grew closer over time. There were trips to Hawaii, where Michelle met his mother, Ann, his grandparents, Madelyn and Stanley Dunham, or “Toots and Gramps,” and his half sister Maya. There was also a trip to Nairobi, Kenya, where his father was from. Their wedding in Chicago was attended by more than 300 people. Michelle’s father had died so she was walked down the aisle by her brother, Craig.

Was it Barack’s influence or did Michelle come to a career crossroad on her own? She left the law firm and sought out more meaningful work in Chicago. A friend introduced her to Valerie Jarrett, who was working in the mayor’s office. Michelle’s career included working as executive director for the Chicago chapter of Public Allies, whose aim was to guide young people into working in public service or for nonprofits, and then for the University of Chicago focusing on community relations.

She shares some very personal information, discussing the couple’s struggle to have children, ultimately opting for IVF to have Malia and then Sasha. Michelle often says, and she states emphatically in the book, that she never sought a life in the public spotlight. Yet she soon realized that Barack was meant for that life. His first election in November 1996, landed him a seat in the Illinois State Senate. In 1999, while running for a seat in the U.S. Congress, the Obamas were on Christmas vacation in Hawaii when Barack needed to go back to Chicago for an important senate vote on crime legislation. Malia, 18 months old at the time, was running a high fever. Forced to choose between his job and his family, Barack stayed in Hawaii and paid the price. His opponent quickly used Barack’s absence against him (the bill failed to pass), and he lost the election. “To use your child as an excuse for not going to work also shows poorly on the individual’s character,” a fellow state senator named Donne Trotter said. “I wasn’t used to having opponents or seeing my family life scrutinized in the news,” Michelle writes.

Of course, we know the rest. Barack would be elected to the U.S. Senate and, after delivering a moment-defining speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, be thrust onto the national stage. “I’ve just seen the first black president,” Chris Matthews declared on NBC. The pressure began to build and, in 2008, Barack would decide to run, sparing with then frontrunner, Hillary Clinton. The demands on Michelle were overwhelming, taking her not just around Illinois, which she had done when he ran for the Senate, but across the country. If she had doubts, those around her did not. Valerie Jarrett would come to work for his campaign and even Michelle’s brother, Craig, told her, “If Barack’s got a shot, he’s got to take it.”

Barack’s rise was so meteoric that Michelle had virtually no time to adjust. She was no longer able to go out on her own, even to meet friends or shop for clothes. Malia and Sasha now had their own Secret Service detail which followed then to school and on play dates. Every word and action was now scrutinized. It was the life in the fishbowl that she had hoped to avoid. But she consoled herself with the knowledge that the country needed her husband’s vision. 

She doesn’t mince words about Barack’s successor. (She’s particularly angry about the birther issue which, she feels, placed her family in danger of being targeted for possible violence.) But she ends the book on a hopeful note: “Let’s invite one another in. Maybe then we can fear less, to make fewer wrong assumptions, to let go of biases and stereotypes that unnecessarily divide us. Maybe we can better embrace the ways we are the same.”

Michelle Obama

Top Bigstock photo: NEW YORK-MAY 5: First Lady of the United States Michelle Obama speaks at the Anna Wintour Costume Center Grand Opening at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 5, 2014 in New York City.

About Charlene Giannetti (351 Articles)
Charlene Giannetti, editor of Woman Around Town, is the recipient of seven awards from the New York Press Club for articles that have appeared on the website. A graduate of Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, Charlene began her career working for a newspaper in Pennsylvania, then wrote for several publications in Washington covering environment and energy policy. In New York, she was an editor at Business Week magazine and her articles have appeared in many newspapers and magazines. She is the author of 13 non-fiction books, eight for parents of young adolescents written with Margaret Sagarese, including "The Roller-Coaster Years," "Cliques," and "Boy Crazy." She and Margaret have been keynote speakers at many events and have appeared on the Today Show, CBS Morning, FOX News, CNN, MSNBC, NPR, and many others. Her last book, "The Plantations of Virginia," written with Jai Williams, was published by Globe Pequot Press in February, 2017. Her podcast, WAT-CAST, interviewing men and women making news, is available on Soundcloud and on iTunes. She is one of the producers for the film "Life After You," focusing on the opioid/heroin crisis that completed filming on February 1, 2020. Charlene divides her time between homes in Manhattan and Alexandria, Virginia.