It was raining most of the afternoon, so I had a lazy Sunday reading Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming. I feel like this book has been staring at me since I got it on pub day, screaming, “Read me!” I am so glad I moved it up in my TBR. It lives up to the hype. But I am also feeling incredibly self-conscious, because this woman has accomplished so much in her life, and while I think I’m doing pretty well (good job, good relationship, supportive friends and family, all that good stuff), this book is giving me a lesson in perspective. I’m not sure Michelle Obama gets to have many lazy reading afternoons anymore, or that she ever did.
I’m about half-way through, and I’m sure I will have so much more to write once I finish the book, but there are a few ideas I want to put out there now. One is that Obama never lets you forget her roots, and she makes it very clear that each individual’s experience matters. She takes pride in her family and their work ethic and example, and makes sure the reader knows it. Her writing puts the American family, and what it means to be an American family, into perspective.
I grew up in an upper middle-class, predominantly white town and went to mostly white schools. I was taught from a very young age that I had strengths, and that I had opportunities. Coming from a black, working-class family in Chicago, this was not how Obama was raised. Her parents were clearly supportive and wanted her to succeed, and worked incredibly hard to help her get there, but they did not have the safety net that I had that allowed them to tell their children to find themselves, even if it meant taking a pay cut. They had to work harder, and I know that race played a huge role in that. This isn’t to say that my parents did not work hard, and that I don’t either, because we do, but white privilege is a real thing, and I’m glad that Obama highlights it.
Another point she won’t let me forget is that there is no one “black experience” in America, and that everyone deserves to be seen as individuals, which I know is a challenge for many to do. It is a sad and unfortunate part of this country that we need to grapple with. Obama shows us two very different lives just by comparing hers to Barack’s, and yet there is a tendency to group all people of color into one narrative. Individuality is not allowed or expected. But if we granted everyone the right to their own stories and lives, I think we’d have a much richer, deeper experience of each other, and I think Obama is trying to show readers how valuable that can be.
And the thing is, she is so nice about it. She is able to lay out her story as it was and draw attention to the unfairness of certain parts of our system without pointing fingers or prescribing blame directly. The book provides a safe space for open and honest reflection about how race and class and gender are discussed in this country. This woman has overcome a lot of barriers, and she is going to make sure your remember that.
But there is so much more to this book, and I’m not giving it enough credit by focusing this post only on issues of race and class. It is a major component, but not the whole thing. Obama has dealt with both adversity and success with a dignity most of us can only hope to emulate, and she still knows how to have a good time and connect with others. As a woman, she had been the target of many criticisms yet still continues to live her life and be an example to her two daughters. I am so excited to finish this book soon and write down some more thoughts on it later.