Who Should Read It:
All Americans, and especially students of contemporary history.
Why Should We Read It:
We will be introduced to the personal and historical forces that shaped Michelle Obama.
What Will We Learn:
Michelle Obama is a personable, authentic, and intelligent individual who got swept into the most impossible and wildest ride of her life.
"...she is more than a line item on a resume...and certainly more than her last name."
There's a funny thing about celebrities: we think we know all about them. Thanks to the indefatigable paparazzi, the private matters of a public figure feel easily accessible to all. I thought I knew all there was to know about Ms. Michelle Obama based on her brief appearances with her husband during his election campaigns. I particularly assumed I knew just a little more about Ms. Obama than the average person because I recalled that Barack Obama's Dreams from my Father mentioned that she was a former hospital executive (I don't recall that he ever mentioned her again). It's an embarrassing assumption, as she is much more than a line item on a resume. And as Ms. Obama's own autobiography Becoming attests, Ms. Michelle Obama is certainly much more than her last name.
Humble Family Origins
Ms. Obama understands labels, and the first label she grew up with comes easily enough in the United States: a black girl from a working-class family in the South Side of Chicago. Her family, slaves in Antebellum America, was part of the Great Migration into urban and northern United States. That historic movement fueled a reactionary "white flight" exodus that depressed property values and limited local governments' ability to fund schools (an all-too-familiar American phenomenon). Coupled with her father's hesitancy to become a homeowner ("I rather be cash rich than house poor"), Ms. Obama understood that the prevalent historical forces of her time nudged her toward a very common fate among Black American communities: persistent economic stagnation at best, and all degrees of victimhood from gang violence at worst.
Academic and Professional Success
Ms. Obama beat those odds thanks to her tight-knit family. Her parents worked tirelessly and indulged rarely in order to give Ms. Obama and her elder brother Craig every possible chance in life. Ms. Obama was able to enroll in magnet schools for academically gifted students, which required her to wake up early to catch two bus routes to attend. Her hard work paid off, and she matriculated into Princeton University (that decision was easy- Craig was already attending Princeton!). Her success did not end there- she then studied at Harvard Law School, and joined the prestigious law firm Sidley & Austin shortly thereafter. Michelle LaVaughn Robinson was a successful attorney practicing marketing and intellectual property law when a certain Harvard Law student named Mr. Barack Obama presented to her office as her summer intern. The rest, we are tempted to say, is history.
Yes, We Can?
History, however, is never a smooth ride, and for Ms. Obama it definitely was a bumpy journey. Up until Barack's Presidency, Michelle's major brush with history was her successful escape from the omnipresence of Black poverty. She had even successfully pivoted her lucrative law career into a more rewarding calling as an executive within city government, nonprofit, and healthcare. In essence, Ms. Obama navigated away from the major historical currents negatively affecting so many Black Americans, only to be swept into a tidal wave of transformative change affecting all Americans. I'm sure the irony was not lost on Ms. Obama. She was and continues to be an intensely private person who bristles at the pettiness of American national politics. And yet implausibly, and perhaps without her fullest consent, history chose her to bear the burden and gravitas of becoming the United States' first Black First Lady.
First Lady of the United States
Initially, Ms. Obama dealt with her celebrity status by trying to ignore it. No matter how hard she tried, normalcy was simply unattainable. Every action Ms. Obama made, whether a public gaffe or a personal moment with the Queen of England, was dissected and scrutinized for deeper meaning. Ms. Obama wrestled with this dilemma until she realized the paparazzi could be used for good. If the public insisted on knowing her every movement, then she might as well direct their gaze to causes she cared about. To that end, she used her platform to highlight childhood obesity (her signature Let's Move! public health program), the unique challenge of military families, and even lesser known fashion designers. And through these adversities and initiatives, she transformed into a global role model for working women and young girls who aspire to become more than their circumstances might initially allow.
She's just getting started
Michelle Obama has since left the White House, and has finally reverted to a semi-private life. Her autobiography Becoming feels like a mild "let's get the record straight" rebuke of her long years of dealing with the paparazzi. It is also a thoughtful self-reflection of her unique role in history. While Ms. Obama does share many private personal moments in Becoming, it serves to demonstrate just how intensely private she is. I don't truly know Michelle Obama just because I read Becoming. What I do know is that she continues to be an inspiration whenever she makes public appearances, and that charisma is honed by a wealth of life experiences. I have a feeling that Ms. Obama and history are not finished with each other just yet.