Back in the ancestral homeland of Michelle Obama, the architects of Jim Crow took great pains to set down the boundaries and define the roles of anyone living in the pre-modern South. Signs directed people to where they could sit, stand, get a sip of water. They reinforced the social order of an American hierarchy — how people were seen, what they were called, what they had been before the Republic was founded and what was presumed they could never be.
The signs reminded every inhabitant of the very different place of black women and white women in the hierarchy. There were restrooms for “white ladies” and often, conversely, restrooms for “colored women.” Black women were rarely granted the honorific Miss or Mrs., but were addressed by their first name, or simply as “gal” or “auntie” or worse. This so openly demeaned them that many black women, long after they had left the South, refused to answer if called by their first name.
A mother and father in 1970s Texas named their newborn “Miss” so that white people would have no choice but to address their daughter by that title. To the founding fathers and the enforcers of Jim Crow, and to their silent partners in the North, black women were meant for the field or the kitchen, or for use as they saw fit. They were, by definition, not ladies. The very idea of a black woman as first lady of the land, well, that would have been unthinkable.
It was with the weight of this history in her bones that Michelle Obama walked onto the world stage as the first black woman to become first lady when her husband, Barack Obama, was sworn in as president in January 2009. Her memoir, “Becoming,” is a long-awaited account by a woman others have tried to decode for the last decade. The book was almost as closely guarded as the nuclear codes, and, as soon as the embargo was lifted, journalists tore into it for newsworthy bombshells of score-settling palace intrigue.
There were few, aside from her blunt words for her husband’s successor, Donald Trump, whose birther attacks — “his loud and reckless innuendos,” she calls them — had put her family at risk. “And for this, I’d never forgive him,” she writes. But those focused on sound bites will be missing the larger meaning of a serious work of candid reflection by a singular figure of early-21st-century America.
While many of the 45 first ladies who preceded her were the daughters of wealthy merchants (Edith Roosevelt), bankers (Ida McKinley), judges (Helen Taft) and slaveholders (Martha Washington and Julia Grant), Michelle Obama was a descendant of the very caste of people that some of the previous first ladies had owned. She knew, as she held the Lincoln Bible at her husband’s swearing-in that frigid day in Washington, that she would be held to a different standard from that moment forward, her every gesture scrutinized. “If there was a presumed grace assigned to my white predecessors,” she writes, “I knew it was not likely to be the same for me. … My grace would need to be earned.” She adds, “I stood at the foot of the mountain, knowing I’d need to climb my way into favor.”
In finally telling her story, Obama is doing several things with this book. She is taking the country by the hand on an intimate tour of everyday African-American life and ambition, while recounting her rise from modest origins to the closest this country has to nobility. She’s meditating on the tensions women face in a world that speaks of gender equality but in which women still bear the greater burdens of balancing career and family, even with a forward-thinking husband like Barack Obama. And she is reminding readers that African-Americans, like any other group, experience the heartbreak of infertility, as she describes the challenges she and her husband confronted in order to become parents. The book is a Chicago coming-of-age story; a love story of a pair of opposites; and a political saga by a woman who was skeptical, if not outright disdainful, of politics, who tried to apply the brakes where she could, and who ultimately transcended her worries to become one of the most popular first ladies in history. As a measure of the public’s adoration, her memoir sold more than 1.4 million copies in its first week and quickly became the best-selling book of the year.
“Becoming” is refined and forthright, gracefully written and at times laugh-out-loud funny, with a humbler tone and less name-dropping than might be expected of one who is on chatting terms with the queen of England. One of Obama’s strengths is her ability to look back not from the high perch of celebrity or with the inevitability of hindsight but with the anxieties of the uncertain. She writes in the moment, as she saw and felt and discovered — as events were occurring. Even though we all know that she and Barack Obama end up getting married and having two kids, that he wins the 2008 Iowa caucuses and that they make it to the White House, she never takes any of it for granted. On the contrary, her tone is one of wonderment as to how this all happened. This gives the book’s first half, in particular, covering the part of her life we know least about, an unexpected suspense. She writes in the confident cadence we have come to recognize from her campaign speeches, looking back at her youth from within the aspiring heart of a daughter of South Side Chicago. Over and over, from high school to the White House, she asks, “Am I good enough?”
She was born Michelle LaVaughn Robinson, in January 1964, during the term of Lady Bird Johnson. Her family lived on the second floor of a brick bungalow owned by a prim great-aunt and her fastidious husband. Her father, Fraser Robinson III, worked for the city tending boilers for a water filtration plant, and her mother, Marian Shields Robinson, stayed at home looking after Michelle and her older brother, Craig. The Shields and Robinson families had fled the Jim Crow South for Chicago decades before, during the Great Migration of African-Americans out of the South to the North and West. Her ancestors on the Shields side came from Alabama, the Robinsons from South Carolina. Both her grandfathers ran into obstacles in the North. They tried to enter the trades but found that many unions excluded African-Americans, and thus many well-paying jobs were closed to them. They carried a heaviness about them that Michelle didn’t fully understand at the time but which impressed upon her the need to make the most of whatever opportunities came her way.
This was a neighborhood, South Shore, where “people tended to their lawns and kept track of their children,” she writes. Grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles lived within blocks of one another, and her own family doubled up in their one-bedroom apartment with low ceilings and faded carpet. She and her brother had adjoining space in what was intended to be a living room, now divided into two makeshift bedrooms separated by a paneled partition and plastic accordion doors that their grandfather built for them.
Afternoons, piano keys plinked in her great-aunt Robbie’s rear room below — her young students practicing their scales. Aunt Robbie bore the unspoken disappointments of her generation and was an exacting elder in Michelle’s life. Perhaps everyone has had an Aunt Robbie, the one with the porcelain figurines that children were not to touch and the plastic-covered furniture that stuck to bare legs. Michelle would eventually take lessons from Aunt Robbie, too, on the older woman’s old upright with the chipped keys, and find it hard to please her. Yet the aunt’s tenderness broke through in an especially lovely moment at a piano recital, and Michelle would go on to admire Aunt Robbie’s “devotion to rigor.”
One of the great gifts of Obama’s book is her loving and frank bearing-witness to the lived experiences of the black working class, the invisible people who don’t make the evening news and whom not enough of us choose to see. She recreates the dailiness of African-American life — the grass-mowing, bid-whist-playing, double-Dutch-jumping, choir-practicing, waiting-on-the-bus and clock-punching of the ordinary black people who surrounded her growing up. They are the bedrock of a political party that has all too often appeared to take their votes for granted in the party’s seeming wistfulness for their white equivalents (for whom the term “working class” has come to stand in public discourse).
Like many Americans, Obama’s parents made do with what they had and poured their energy into their children, who they hoped would fulfill the families’ as yet unrealized aspirations. The parents bought them a set of Encyclopaedia Britannica and insisted on proper diction. They went on Sunday drives to a richer neighborhood known as Pill Hill (after the number of black doctors living there) in her father’s Buick Electra, looking at houses they could only dream of. Michelle’s father suffered from multiple sclerosis, a degenerative disease, and his beloved Buick gave him mobility that his legs alone could not. He never complained and rarely spoke of his condition, she says, but it was a daily consideration. “Our family was not just punctual,” she writes. “We arrived early to everything.” This was in part to allow time for any contingency, given her father’s declining strength, a habit that instilled in her the value of planning and vigilance in one’s life. Her mother kept their cramped apartment in such good order that years later Obama would remember how it smelled: “It’s because of my mother that still to this day I catch the scent of Pine-Sol and automatically feel better about life.”
Upstanding though the Robinsons may have been, they watched as moving vans showed up at the houses of one neighbor after another, and soon the remaining white residents along with the better-off black ones peeled off for the suburbs. Michelle’s family stayed on, Craig attending Catholic school and Michelle qualifying for an elite magnet high school. We follow her as she logs three hours round trip to the school, switching buses at Michigan Avenue in the thick of rush hour, noticing the “men and women in smart outfits — in suits and skirts and clicking heels — carrying their coffee to work with a bustle of self-importance,” and admiring “how determined they looked.”
We see her father’s diminishing health and his uncompromising work ethic. At one point, he used a motorized scooter to get from boiler to boiler. “In 26 years, he hadn’t missed a single shift,” she writes. We feel her heartbreak as she loses her father to the disease he refused to let define him. By then, Obama was a grown woman, grieving and even more appreciative of her parents’ sacrifices for her sake. Her parents had never taken trips to the beach or gone out to dinner. They didn’t own a house until Aunt Robbie bequeathed them hers when Michelle was halfway through college. “We were their investment, me and Craig,” she writes. “Everything went into us.”
Their investment paid off when she got into Princeton, following her big brother there, despite a high school counselor’s dismissive assessment of her chances. She majored in sociology and discovered things she had never heard of back home: Lacrosse. Squash. “‘You row crew?’ What does that even mean?” At Princeton, for the first time in her life as a black student, she was in the minority and she picked up what she calls “the quiet, cruel nuances of not belonging.”
One of the better-known stories from her time in college involves the mother of one of her roommates having her daughter moved to another dorm room after discovering that she had been assigned a black roommate. News reports in 2008 quoted the mother and the daughter describing the incident, but Obama says she was thankfully oblivious. “All I knew at the time is that midway through our freshman year, Cathy moved out of our triple and into a single room,” she writes. “I’m happy to say I had no idea why.”
She grew accustomed to being the only person of color — as well as a young woman surrounded by confident men: “I tried not to feel intimidated when classroom conversation was dominated by male students, which it often was. Hearing them, I realized that they weren’t at all smarter than the rest of us. They were simply emboldened, floating on an ancient tide of superiority, buoyed by the fact that history had never told them anything different.” In college, she writes, “I lived like a half-closeted C.E.O., quietly but unswervingly focused on achievement, bent on checking every box.” She took the LSAT and applied to the best law schools in the country — ultimately landing at Harvard — “driven not just by logic but by some reflexive wish for other people’s approval.”
In time, she would see the problem with caring about what other people think. “Maybe you spend three years in Massachusetts, studying constitutional law and discussing the relative merits of exclusionary vertical agreement in antitrust cases.” Maybe, she writes, you meet “people who seem genuinely called to the bloodless intricacies of the law, but you yourself are not called. Your passion stays low, yet under no circumstances will you underperform.” For now, she was following the path she had assigned herself and, by 25, was a lawyer at Sidley & Austin in Chicago, with an office on the 47th floor, an assistant, a wine subscription service, Armani suits. And, “because you can, you buy yourself a Saab.”
One day, a senior partner asked her to mentor an incoming summer associate who, like her, was black and from Harvard but had an unusual name. Their first meeting did not get off to a promising start. He was late, for one thing. “Any sign of this guy?” she asked her assistant. “Girl, no,” the assistant called back, amused. There had been a lot of advance hype at the firm about Barack Obama, which only made her skeptical. She had seen his picture in the summer staff directory. “I checked out his photo,” she writes. “A less-than-flattering, poorly lit head shot of a guy with a big smile and a whiff of geekiness — and remained unmoved.” As was expected of mentors, she took him to lunch, at which he did something that seemed to foreclose any romantic possibilities. “Appallingly, at the end of lunch, Barack lit a cigarette,” she writes, “which would have been enough to snuff any interest, if I’d had any to begin with.” She had constructed her well-ordered life into a “tight and airless piece of origami” and actually tried to fix him up with several of her friends during happy hour at a downtown bar.
How their office relationship turned into a quick-moving romance that summer, how the box-checking pragmatist warmed to the loose-limbed free spirit, is a delight to read, even though, or perhaps because, we know the outcome. His cerebral intensity was clear from the start. One night, soon after they had become a couple, she woke to find him staring at the ceiling, apparently troubled. She wondered if their new relationship was on his mind, or perhaps the death of his father. “‘Hey, what are you thinking about over there?’ I whispered. He turned to look at me, his smile a little sheepish. ‘Oh,’ he said. ‘I was just thinking about income inequality.’”
He struck her as a visionary with no material interests. The first time she visited him in Cambridge during the long-distance phase of their young relationship, he picked her up in a “snub-nosed, banana-yellow Datsun” with a “four-inch hole in the floor” and a tendency to spasm “violently before settling into a loud, sustained juddering.” She knew then that “life with Barack would never be dull,” she writes. “It would be some version of banana yellow and slightly hair-raising.”
After some theoretical disquisitions on the subject of marriage, in which she was the traditionalist and he was, well, not, he surprised her in a sweetly clever scene that could be out of a Hollywood rom-com. They were married by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, whose sermons would cause them trouble down the line. At the time, she was in a new job working with Valerie Jarrett at City Hall, and he had found what she considered “a noble balance” — practicing law at a public-interest firm and teaching part time at the University of Chicago. (She would soon become executive director at a nonprofit focused on training and mentoring young people for public service.) Then, in 1996, a seat opened up in the Illinois State Senate, and Barack wanted to run for it. Michelle stood her ground as best she could. “But you can see that it stopped absolutely nothing,” she tells us.
Years before, she had trailed along with her father, a Democratic precinct captain, as he made his weekend visits to his South Side constituents. She knew from her high school friendship with a daughter of the Rev. Jesse Jackson that politicians were frequently away from home. And “having grown up black and on the South Side, I had little faith in politics,” she writes. Nor did she have much faith in politicians and “therefore didn’t relish the idea of my husband becoming one,” she continues. “In my heart, I just believed there were better ways for a good person to have an impact.” Yet she relented, not wanting to interfere with his optimism.
Once he was elected to the State Senate and she had taken a position as an associate dean at the University of Chicago, they settled into what she called “a golden time for us,” happy in their marriage and inspired by their work. But they were having trouble getting pregnant, and his spending much of the week in Springfield was not improving their chances, despite his “flooring it up the interstate after a late vote so that he could hit my ovulation window.” They experienced the brief joy of a positive pregnancy test, only to miscarry shortly after. “Seeing women and their children walking happily along a street, I’d feel a pang of longing followed by a bruising wallop of inadequacy,” she says. They turned to in vitro fertilization. It was then, in the midst of a regimen of intrusive examinations and hormonal injections she had to administer to herself in his absence, that she began to resent politics, and to feel “the acute burden of being female.”
They would go on to conceive two daughters, Malia and Sasha, and the resentment was supplanted by joy. But by the time Barack set his sights on the United States Senate, “my distaste for politics was only intensifying,” Michelle writes. As it was, his commutes to and from Springfield had disrupted her vision of family life now that they had the two little girls. She agreed to support his Senate bid on the condition that, if he didn’t win, “really and for real, this would be the end.”
After a series of unlikely events, among them scandals forcing one opponent after another to drop out of the race, Barack won. Michelle, against the advice of a veteran Senate wife, chose not to move their family to Washington. “None of this had been my choice in the first place,” she writes of the stress of being a politician’s wife and managing a household while her husband commuted from the capital when he could. “I didn’t care about the politics per se, but I didn’t want to screw it up.” When Barack began mulling a run for the White House and consulting trusted advisers, “there was one conversation he avoided having,” she writes, “and that was with me. He knew, of course, how I felt.”
This was where their temperaments and upbringing were at odds. She wanted the kind of family stability she had grown up with. “Barack had always had his eyes on some far-off horizon, on his notion of the world as it should be,” she writes. “Just for once, I wanted him to be content with life as it was.” By then, they had been through five campaigns in 11 years. “Each one had put a little dent in my soul and also in our marriage,” she writes. Bottom line: She didn’t want him to run for president, especially not then. They talked about it over and over. She agreed to support him, she writes, because “I loved him and had faith in what he could do.” Speaking in London in early December, she was more candid, saying “deep down” she believed “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.”
The plan backfired spectacularly, and the pressures would be immense. “We knew that as a black candidate he couldn’t afford any sort of stumble,” she writes. When she began stumping for her husband in Iowa, campaign advisers told her that her mission was to energize volunteers and win over local leaders in talks across the state. But she says she was given “no script, no talking points, no advice.” She had to figure out on her own what her message would be, and decided to be herself in what would be the public introduction of the frank and down-to-earth persona that would land her the nickname “the Closer.” “I didn’t sugarcoat my feelings about politics,” she writes. “The political world was no place for good people,” she told audiences, explaining how she’d been “conflicted about whether Barack should run at all, worried about what the spotlight might do to our family.”
True to her fears, the bigger the two of them got, the greater the scrutiny and criticism. Just before the Wisconsin primary, a 10-second clip from a 40-minute speech in Milwaukee began to circulate online. In it, Michelle opened up about how the outpouring of support for her husband’s campaign had made her feel hopeful, given the country’s divisive history. “For the first time in my adult lifetime,” she said, “I’m really proud of my country.” The condemnation was immediate. People fell over themselves to declare how much they loved their country. “In trying to speak casually,” she writes, “I’d forgotten how weighted each little phrase could be.” She worried that she had sunk her husband’s chances on the eve of a tight race. She called him while he was en route to Texas, and apologized. He shrugged it off. “I know this stuff is rough,” he said. “But it’ll blow over. It always does.”
When he finally won the Democratic nomination, she joined him on stage in Minnesota and greeted him with what she considered “a playful fist bump,” only to see it interpreted on Fox News as “a terrorist fist jab.” A news chyron on the same network called her “Obama’s Baby Mama,” playing to an ugly stereotype about urban black women, “implying an otherness that put me outside even my own marriage.” Over time, people would critique the width of her hips and the color of her nail polish. “I am telling you this stuff hurt,” she writes. As it was, the government had assigned her husband Secret Service protection earlier than any presidential candidate, a full year and a half before he could even become president-elect, owing to the seriousness of the threats against him. She didn’t want to think about the dangers they faced, much less talk about them, though privately she was grateful for the people of all backgrounds who clasped her hands at campaign events and told her, “We’re praying nobody hurts you.”
On Election Day, her husband glanced over at her at the voting booth. “You still trying to make up your mind?” he asked playfully. “Need a little more time?” That night, awaiting the returns, she was more than ready for either outcome. “I still would’ve been content to lose the election and reclaim some version of our old lives,” she writes. But she also felt the country needed his win in order “to stop thinking about something as arbitrary as skin color.”
At 10 p.m., Barack Obama’s face flashed across television screens around the country as announcers declared him the 44th president of the United States. In a suite at the Hyatt Regency in Chicago, Michelle, Barack, her family and friends leapt to their feet. “I felt as if I’d been lifted out of my own body,” she writes.
As a young girl, she had modest aspirations: a family, a dog and “a house that had stairs in it — two floors for one family.” She had grown up in a 900-square-foot attic apartment. Now, at the end of Inauguration Day, she was the first lady, moving into a home with “132 rooms, 35 bathrooms and 28 fireplaces spread out over six floors,” and a staff of ushers, florists, housekeepers, butlers and attendants for her every need. Three military valets oversaw the president’s closet. “You see how neat I am now?” he said to her one day. She had seen, she said, smiling back, “and you get no credit for any of it.”
She consulted with nearly all her living predecessors — Hillary Clinton, Nancy Reagan, Rosalynn Carter and Laura Bush — and she enlisted Craig, by then the men’s basketball coach at Oregon State University, to persuade their mother to come live in the White House with them and help with the girls. Her mother, initially reluctant to move into what felt to her like a museum, agreed to come but declined Secret Service protection, insisted on doing her own laundry and would slip in and out of the White House to go to Filene’s Basement or to lunch with a friend whenever she pleased. Michelle fretted about how her daughters would fare with a Secret Service detail in their classrooms and on play dates (for which the hosts would need to get White House clearance), not to mention their learning to drive or going to the prom. She could no longer move about like a civilian, but she got the one thing she’d wanted all along and hadn’t managed to achieve before they moved into the White House: The family could finally spend more time together because they lived above the office.
Soon she began to recognize that the luxuries accorded her and her daughters were in truth designed to keep the president on task: “Our happiness was tied to his. If our safety was compromised, so too would his ability to think clearly and lead the nation. The White House, one learns, operates for the purpose of the well-being, efficiency and overall power of one person.” Through Michelle Obama, we can imagine what it would be like for someone of ordinary origins, like most Americans of any color, to live in the White House. She responds to the strictures and expectations as we might imagine anyone would. Life was a kind of gilded incarceration. It was beautiful but also a sealed “fortress disguised as a home,” she called it, with walls so thick you couldn’t hear helicopters landing or birds singing and with attendants in nearly every hall. It took ingenuity for her and Malia to make a break for it one rare, heady evening to see the celebrations of the Supreme Court’s ruling on marriage equality, stunned aides and guards trailing nervously behind them.
She had at first felt “overwhelmed by the pace, unworthy of the glamour, anxious about our children and uncertain about my purpose,” she writes. She sought apolitical endeavors, such as cultivating the White House vegetable garden (which originally met resistance from those who manage the White House grounds), and promoting healthy nutrition and exercise for children. She tried to steer clear of West Wing matters, which she saw as her husband’s domain, though it often held sway over hers. The president’s advisers could be so “overly fretful” about her appearance that her staff felt the need to consult with the West Wing when she decided she wanted bangs in her hair.
In the second term, her daughters were passing into adolescence and she was feeling the generational dissonance awaiting all parents, no matter their station. “Don’t you want to come downstairs tonight and hear Paul McCartney?” she asked them. “Mom, please. No,” was the response. When Malia did in fact go with a date to the prom, her parents were unusually calm. After all, they knew that a Secret Service detail “would basically ride the boy’s bumper” there and back and “remain on quiet duty throughout.”
As the book turned to the Obamas’ final years at the White House, I looked forward to Michelle’s insights on one of the biggest running stories of her husband’s second term — that of the high-profile killings of African-American men, women and boys at the hands of the police, often caught on video, and which ignited the Black Lives Matter movement. But it became clear that, while she makes mention of these things, she has chosen to focus on events that touched her personally, such as the 2013 shooting of Hadiya Pendleton, a 15-year-old high school student from Michelle’s hometown.
Throughout their time in the White House, she writes, as the opposition party seemed “devoted to Barack’s failure above all else,” she often felt crushed and infuriated: “I felt emotions that perhaps Barack couldn’t afford to feel.” Then, in June 2015, after a white supremacist killed nine black parishioners at a historic church in Charleston, she watched her husband lead mourners in a poignant rendition of “Amazing Grace.” Voices swelling around her in response to yet another tragedy, she thought about the paradox of their ascension: “For more than six years now, Barack and I had lived with the awareness that we ourselves were a provocation.”
It was during the presidential campaign of 2016 that she famously said, “When they go low, we go high.” But for the first time in years, neither she nor her husband had a role to play on election night: “The moment ahead wasn’t ours. It was merely ours to witness.” The numbers rolling in were looking “kind of strange,” her husband told her. She turned in early, not ready to face what that meant. That January, sitting on the inaugural stage at the swearing-in of her husband’s successor, she looked out into the crowd whose composition was so different from those who had gathered for her husband. She looked at the incoming president and registered the chasm in ideals. “I stopped even trying to smile,” she writes. Afterward, the helicopter that would take them from the White House lifted off, and the toll of living so long in fear of any misstep finally hit her.
“When I got on the plane, I think I sobbed for 30 minutes,” she said in a recent interview with Oprah Winfrey. “I think it was just the release of eight years of trying to do everything perfectly. I said to Barack, ‘That was so hard, what we just did, that was so hard.’” There can be few African-Americans, or other marginalized people, who would not nod in recognition at some aspect of her story, including her response to the extreme scrutiny she has faced. But just as important, her family’s devotion and work ethic, the steadfastness and sacrifice, are evidence of how much we all have in common if we could but see it. To this day, when people speak to her mother, Marian Robinson, about the success of her children, coming out of the South Side of Chicago as they did, she is quick to correct them. “They’re not special at all,” Robinson says. “The South Side is filled with kids like that.” And, one might add, so is America.