Reviewed by Max Rodriguez, Editor, QBR
On Claiming Oneself
“Writing ‘Becoming’ has been a deeply personal experience,” Obama said in a press release. “It has allowed me, for the very first time, the space to honestly reflect on the unexpected trajectory of my life. In this book, I talk about my roots and how a little girl from the south side of Chicago found her voice and developed the strength to use it to empower others. I hope my journey inspires readers to find the courage to become whoever they aspire to be.”
The Obamas have been praised for their historic accomplishments and have been lambasted, too, in certain circles, for “not having done enough” to benefit under-served African Americans. There had been wistful hope – early in President Obama’s tenure – that long-simmering discussion on African American reparations would be allowed public discourse. The Obamas instead held high the virtues of human value as American aspiration for everyone.
At first wary of politics and its undertones, Michelle quickly – and not so quickly – learned to navigate the feral scrutiny of media, tabloids, and the opposition party. “For the first time in my adult lifetime,” she told a crowd before the Wisconsin primaries, “I’m really proud of my country.” She got hammered for it and felt blindsided, taking it as a lesson that she needed to be even more careful and prepared than she already was, said Jennifer Szalai in her New York Times review. The media firestorm that followed the Obamas now-infamous celebratory fist bump would again remind her of the precariousness at hand. During her entire time in the White House, she tells her readers, “I had lived with an awareness that we ourselves were a provocation.”
Wendi C. Thomas’ Chicago Times review reflects Michelle’s inner struggles: “Many black women can imagine Michelle Obama as a good girlfriend; her struggles are relatable. It’s comforting to read that she, too, battles insecurity, wondering if she’s good enough.” Thomas tells us more, “Obama gets frustrated by her husband’s messiness. She watches HGTV to relax. She ate fast food in her car. She leans on close relationships with her parents, older brother and a squad of strong women mentors and friends. She tries to ignore what others think of her — both a high school counselor’s assessment that she wasn’t Princeton material and political adversaries’ racist and sexist barbs — but she admits it all stings.” There is real telling in this book.
My reticence lies not in the book’s narrative but in its cover photograph. There is much to be said about the journey of claiming oneself; there is something else to be said about being claimed by unintentionally-projected stereotype. Despite the proffered message of pragmatic optimism, determination, self-acknowledgment and success, Michelle Obama, in the selection of her cover photo, is narrowed to contextualized, bare-shouldered innuendo. A befitting portrait, some may say, of a contemporary, successfully-empowered woman. But Michelle Obama has proven herself far and beyond a woman-above. Joyful, yes, but Michelle’s "glam" is rooted in dignity, depth of character, integrity and classic beauty. Michelle Obama may be gifted with a model-like look but she has earned the globally-acknowledged honorific of First Lady of the United States of America. Given her attained stature, the photograph lands as perhaps well-intended but reductive.
Becoming is a memoir of Michelle Obama’s personal triumph in spirit, offered as a grounding for anyone who chooses to believe and embrace the possibility of anything in their lives.