Michelle Obama, Becoming, New York, Crown Penguine Random House, 2018, 426 pages, Hardcover, $32.00 (K411.00)
By Mwizenge S. Tembo, Ph. D
Professor of Sociology
In 1619 the first ship carrying about 19 African slaves arrived in Virginia in the United States. From 1525 and 1866, it is estimated that 12.5 million Africans were shipped to the New World during the Atlantic Slave Trade. The New World constituted North America, the Caribbean, and South America. It is estimated only about 388,000 of the 12.5 million African slaves ended up in the United States of America. Because of reproduction among the slaves on the American plantations, this number grew to 4 million at the height of chattel slavery in the United States. The brutal treatment, oppression, and racial discrimination of African Americans has lasted way beyond the period of formal, legal or institutional chattel slavery after President Lincoln’s Emancipation when slavery was abolished in the United States in 1863. African American slaves could not vote, could not legally marry, slave masters raped the women, African Americans could not be allowed to read and write or let alone gain formal education or own land. The white racial discrimination directed at African Americans later turned into Jim Crow.
The question is how did a descendant of slaves, a black woman African American descendant of the 12.3% or 34 million African Americans today, end up living in the United States White House for 8 years from 2008 to 2016? This is the most prestigious and residence of the most powerful ruler in the world: the American President.
In Becoming, Michelle Obama, former Michelle Robinson, describes her journey from the working class or blue-collar childhood in the black South Side of Chicago to the White House. How this happened in the most fascinating, intriguing, and optimistic story, which can perhaps only happen in America.
Michelle was born to a modest blue-collar black working class family in the black South Side of Chicago. The whole neighborhood has a large population of African-Americans who migrated to that neighborhood from the Southern plantations particularly in the 1920s and 30s in search of jobs and a better life away from the Deep South. Her father worked in a factory while her mother suspended any formal work outside the home so that she could raise Michelle and her older brother Craig. Michelle had tremendous support from her family as she navigated life in her neighborhood, battling obstacles of gender and racial stereotypes in school, and eventually went to college at the prestigious Ivy League Princeton University.
In the book, she describes how she was a check the box motivated and highly driven black woman. She wanted to get her law degree, join a top law firm in a great career with a clear path, buy a good car, buy a good house, meet a good man and husband, have a family and live happily in a middle class safe secure life ever after. Describing some of her earlier experiences growing up during her years in college:
“I was privately and at all times focused on the agenda. Beneath my laid-back college kid demeanor, I lived like a half-closeted CEO, quietly but unswervingly focused on achievement, bent checking every box. My to-do list lived in my head and went with me everywhere. I assessed my goals, analyzed my outcomes, counted my wins.” (Obama, 2018, p.89)
All of this changed years later when Michelle was working at a top law firm in Chicago after graduating from Law School. She was assigned to be a supervisor of a young law intern with a strange name from Harvard University called Barack Obama. Michelle and Barack Obama fell in love. Barack’s father was from Kenya in Africa. His mother was a white American from Kansas whom Obama’s father met in Hawaii. Barack’s mother lived in Indonesia both being married and being an anthropologist. Barack’s intelligent but lofty laid-back personality transformed Michelle’s perspective on life.
Twists and Turns
Every life history has its own twists and turns. The book Becoming describes numerous twists and turns Michelle Obama’s experienced. In the process, the reader learns about American history in general, the nature of race and white privilege in America, challenges of women and black women who want to pursue careers and have a family and raise children at the same time. In fact Michelle Obama says:
“I wanted to have a work life and a home life, but with some promise that one would never fully squelch the other. I hoped to be exactly like my own mother and at the same time nothing like her at all……Could I have everything? Would I have everything? I had no idea.” (Obama, 2018, p. 173).
Michelle Obama describe the challenges of political campaigning for the Presidency of her husband and the triumph of eventually becoming herself. For the reader who lived through her tenure as America’s first African-American First Lady from 2008 to 2016, you will recognize the various major events during the period. For the reader who is outside the United States, the book will give you a glimpse of some the best optimistic events of American life and history.
What is United States of America?
One can say America is bad society because of its shamefully brutal origins. But one can also say definitely that America is the best society because in spite its shameful history and its oppressive elements, the society provides change and opportunities for its citizens. Everyday America represents the many colors of life like the proverbial chameleon. America is conundrum. This may be the reason why America is a focus of envy of many nations in the world as there is no other country or society as great as America in the world. Michelle Obama’s Becoming is the best testimony of the intriguing nature and miracle of a powerful society of immigrants from all parts of the world.