“Becoming”: From Chicago south side to the White House (I)

Michelle Obama’s memoir, BECOMING, is on its way to becoming (all pun intended, lol) the most popular autobiography on record as its sales in hard cover, audio books, and e-books hit the 10 million mark in less than a year. Her book tour tickets are usually sold out.

But hey, who would not want to read or listen to a Michelle Obama? Those who would not want to listen or read are definitely in the minority and might not understand even if they tried. The book is a pleasure to read, the careful chronicle of her development, the clarity, the genuineness, the attention to minutest details, the holistic account of ‘Becoming’ a Michele Obama from her childhood with brother Craig and parents, adolescence, her education through high school to Princeton and Harvard, her work experiences, meeting and mentoring Barack, their relationship from courtship to marriage, the painful loss of her father, her aunt and friend, their difficulty with pregnancy and eventual success with IVF, the birth of her two daughters, their political journey through their communities in Chicago and all the way to the White House and the highs and lows of being a woman and black in America.

But the brilliance that shone through the book comes as no surprise given that her campaign speeches as her husband campaigned through his political career put her on a pedestal that many believe greatly moved votes in her husband’s favour. She is today one of the most influential women in the world. From Chicago to Iowa, Mississippi to Washington, etc., Michelle won hearts as she genuinely connected with human beings irrespective of race, gender, class or creed. Her focus was mainly on her own social and political metamorphosis and on the man she first met at the law firm she worked at and who she had been a mentor to.

Despite her skepticism about politics, she had found in him the cerebral capacity, the genuine empathy, the integrity, and the community spirit to impact on lives as a politician starting from Chicago through to US congress then to the White House. She takes us through her effort at sacrificing the full presence of Barack in their family to sparing him time for politics in the better interest of America and her future as a country. Being a woman that left her high profile job to work with her community, she knew that given the person of Barack, he would bring value to the people. This was the motivation that fired her total support for him in ways not too many women in history have done.

She gave an account of her childhood, her parents’ dedication to family, her father’s struggles with his illness and his spirit of defiance and her mother’s sacrifices for the family and a brother who hovered over her in protective mode all the time. Her upbringing prepared her for her becoming the Michelle the world adores today.

On the contrary, Barack was pretty much raised by his grandparents and unlike her stable story, he moved a lot as a child with his mother. He did not have the luxury of growing up with his father. However, she was intrigued by how he turned out a gentleman in spite of the stereotyping that usually goes with his sort of checkered childhood. Barack displayed an unusual sense of dignity and respect. Given his attributes, he could have gotten away with some airs but he was grounded and a complete gentleman that did not take himself too seriously. From day one he treated Michelle with absolute love and sincerity. She gushed over his unusual marriage proposal that came in a very goofy and casual way that struck at his personality.

Their relationship as narrated in the book comes at a time that the world needs to rethink what it means for a man to be respectful and loving enough to the women in his life and his immediate family as Barack was. Invariably he deservedly got Michelle’s loving support because she saw in him values that go with leadership at all levels, home, family , community and the greatest of all, the Presidency of the United States. And Barack saw in her an invaluable partner in his personal and political lives. His respect for her was a valuable tool that paid off as he tapped into her potential as a friend, wife, and political strategist…well not on paper but with the execution of ideas that shot him to global pedestal as the 44th President of America.

His victories through his political career were indicative of the values he espoused and the validation by a supportive spouse. Nonetheless, what ails the world still trailed them, the divisiveness of those with complex expressed through divisively populist rhetoric. Michelle experienced through her education and as FLOTUS what it means to be black and a woman in America. But her triumph against all odds is still a lesson in fortitude and perseverance. She narrates in her memoir their decision to be as regular in the White House as any couple but conscious of the fact that America and the world put them on a pedestal. They were very deliberate in actions and words because they realized the expectations from them as role models and that guided their total conduct for the eight years in the White House.

On her part, she chose to be a calming voice for her husband by being strictly focused on the family rather than being involved in the policy matters even as a fellow professional lawyer who passed through the campaign grill. Very admirably keeping the family grounded together with her Mum in the white house. This attitude paid off as theirs seems a model family with their two daughters coming off as well taken care of and fully grounded despite the privileges of their birth.

She bared everything about their struggles as a couple to conceive, her miscarriages , their resort to IVF and their success with their two adorable daughters. Her experiences with motherhood and Barack’s political engagements that saw him battling for a balance between parenting and his political life is one most people can connect with. He however took nothing for granted and turned out a husband and father she and the daughters are eternally proud of.

The ‘Becoming’ memoir is all that any reader would value for its authenticity and deep human angle narrative. It has sold as many as ten million copies for a reason…it is a story of growth, of development, of the reality of the American society, of being a daughter, a woman, a mother, a wife, a career woman but in all it is a valid example of the capacity and resilience of the human spirit.

Through the book, she tells the story of the average Black family in America, the challenges and the determination of most regular black families to succeed against all odds. She takes us through her extended family life of aunts and uncles who are normally an integral part of black families coming with support and encouragement for development. She laid bare her most intimate relationships with her friends male and female alike taking us through her planned first kiss and all other adolescent growth experiences in comical ways we can all connect with.

The ‘YES WE CAN’ campaign slogan of an Obama was rooted in the inner core of the man and his equally cerebral wife. The book is an empowering tool to generations to come of all that is possible with the human spirit. An Obama did not win with only black votes or white votes, his was a rainbow of voters and those who believed in the capacity of every human to excel and to achieve when they work very hard and that should be a lesson for those with divisive political rhetoric across the globe. There is strength in diversity! Skin color does not define competence.

Nnedinso Ogaziechi is a Lagos-based journalist.

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