Michelle Obama’s memoir Becoming was released on November 13. By the end of the month, it had become the best-selling book of the year 2018, selling over 2 million hardcover copies within the next fortnight in North America alone.
Becoming, already having been published in 31 languages, is topping charts across Europe as well, including Britain, Germany, the Netherlands and France.
These countries, among others, have been jarred by the rise of the global populist political surge. And at a time when damning verdicts on the now US President Donald Trump are being churned out, it’s perhaps as a reminder of saner times in the White House — by those scores who choose to interpret the events in the US as such — that is adding to the demand for the book.
But of course, Michelle Obama’s time as the first lady of the US forms only a third of Becoming, the majority of which plays outside the White House.
Divided into three sections, ‘Becoming Me’, ‘Becoming US’ and ‘Becoming More’, the book first narrates the author’s own upbringing, then the formulation of the relationship with Barack Obama, which eventually meant Michelle Obama spending eight years at the helm of US politics.
Michelle LaVaughn Robinson was born to Fraser Robinson III, who worked at a city water plant tending boilers, and Marian Shields Robinson who stayed a homemaker until Michelle reached high school. Robinson was a Democratic precinct captain, and Michelle’s first familial link to the Democratic Party.
Michelle was born in Chicago, Illinois but her family has roots in the American south, with her paternal great-great-grandfather being born into slavery in Georgetown, South Carolina, providing context to the much-cited Michelle Obama quote, “I wake up every morning in a house (the White House) that was built by slaves.”
Born into a native African-American household, Michelle Obama’s upbringing came in the shadow of Jim Crow laws telling the story of an average black working class American family in the 1960s US.
After high school, Michelle followed her brother Craig Robinson to Princeton, which indeed is not how she preferred to describe the journey, having spent the entirety of her student years fighting both racial and gender discrimination.
“Princeton was extremely white and very male. There was no avoiding the facts. Men on campus outnumbered women almost two to one. Black students made up less than nine percent of my freshman class. If during the orientation program we’d begun to feel some ownership of the space, we were now a glaring anomaly — poppy seeds in a bowl of rice.”
She would go on to earn her Juris Doctor from Harvard Law School in 1988 and began working at Sidley & Austin in Chicago. This is where she met Barack Obama, who joined the firm as an intern.
‘Becoming Me’ culminates in two cone ice creams at a Baskin-Robbins on the block near Barack’s apartment, and the couple’s first kiss.
The next section, ‘Becoming Us’, delineates the foundation on which the relationship was constructed from the time when Barack as a colleague was “too cerebral to put up with”, to present day — two years after his terms as the first African-American president of the United States.
Michelle reflects on Barack’s political career, which kicked into high gear with the 1996 Illinois Senate seat election. While she was supportive of everything that Barack aimed for, there was always a part of Michelle who was concerned about her husband’s ambitions, regularly asking him to be content with what he had.
‘Becoming the US’, fittingly, leads up to the 2008 Presidential elections, with the campaign — Michelle’s pivotal role in it — thoroughly narrated in the book. And the closer they got to the White House, the surer she was that it’s not going to happen. “There’s no way he’s going to win. And we can just sort of get this out of the way… That was my whole plan,” Michelle has said on record.
The last section of the book, telling the tale of the Obamas’ time at the White House, is perhaps the least penetrative and the most carefully drafted. While Michelle’s early years were spent vocally taking down racial discrimination, which has been reiterated accordingly in Becoming, she doesn’t take the same issue head-on while discussing the White House years.
The surge in the killing of African-Americans at the tail end of the presidency and the rise of #BlackLivesMatter only get a passing mention. This could signal ambitions to return to the helm, or could just be owing to the fact that these questions weren’t hers to address but Barack’s.
Becoming bids farewell with Trump’s election win, leaving Michelle Obama fighting with a barrage of emotions as she reflected on her time at the White House and accepted the reality of its latest inhabitants.
“That day, I was feeling everything all at once — tired, proud, distraught, eager. Mostly, though, I was trying just to hold myself together, knowing we had television cameras following our every move.”
Becoming is many stories in one. That of a young African-American girl coming of age, overcoming the racial, gender and economic handicaps that life had thrown at her. It confesses a beautiful romance between two strong people who complemented each other meticulously.
It also carries a feminist discourse in the author’s role as a daughter, sister, wife and mother, while expressing vulnerabilities in how she dealt with her father’s death, pregnancy infertility, or living under the spotlight as the spouse of the most powerful person in the world.
But most of all it is the story of becoming Michelle, more than it is about becoming Michelle Obama. And it is in understanding the former that one can truly claim to know the latter.
Becoming Author: Michelle Obama
Publisher: Viking, 2018
Price: Rs2550, Hardcover