Unbecoming

“Becoming”, Michelle Obama’s 426 page autobiography was one of the best selling hardcover non-fiction books in the United States in 2018.

Clearly, interest in her is high.

It may have had something to do with the fact that once her husband’s Presidential candidacy was announced and during her husband’s two terms as President, her public image was tightly controlled. Besides the few biographical details of her birth, schooling (Princeton University, Harvard Law School) she was a great blank in the American consciousness.

Once she was in the White House we were  told that she had toned arms, didn’t smoke (and tried to persuade her husband to quit), liked fashion.

We knew almost nothing about her academic or artistic interests.

When they left the White House in 2017, the window began to open.

They immediately left for multiple succeeding vacations. They bought real estate. They entered into lucrative commercials deals to write autobiographies and produce films for Netflix. They gave paid speeches.

But who is Michelle Obama?

Physically, she is said to be close to six feet. She seems to have a forceful personality, often jabbing her finger in the air for emphasis. The appearances she has made since 2017 often show her as an aggrieved witness to perceived slights.

But who, really, is Michelle Obama?

We will not learn the answer from “Becoming”. It is an ordinary book. The writing is often repetitive and forced.

Strangely, it reveals as much by what it omits or glosses over as by what it admits.

The take-away?  Michelle Obama’s “Becoming” portrays her as judgmental.

Nearly every individual is introduced by reference to their skin color. The degree of color matters, too. She tells us Barack is half-white. Valerie Jarrett is light-skinned. There are few people who she doesn’t initially identify by color.  She sees everything in terms of race, usually critically anti-white.

Even her kindergarten memories have negative white connotations She writes about stumbling on the vocabulary word “white” and returning to school the next day, demanding a “do-over”.

Some specifics:

  • pg 96 “In my experience you put a suit on any half-intelligent black man and white people tended to go bonkers.”
  • pg 209 “nervousness of white people”
  • pg 217 “Even white people were recognizing him now.”
  • pg 219 “The truth was Washington confused me, with it decorous tradition and sober self-regard, its whiteness and its maleness, its ladies having lunch of to one side.”
  • pg 223 She writes of the death of her father, Frazier Robinson at age 55. Michelle blames his failure to seek treatment, partly “to spare himself the feeling of being belittled by a wealthy white doctor.” (Wealthy white doctor? No evidence is given.)
  • pg 226 “Barack was a black man in America, after all, I didn’t think he could win.”
  • pg 395 “only woman of color in the room”
  • pg 366 “Though I was thought of as a popular First Lady, I couldn’t help but feel haunted by the ways I’d been criticized, by the people who made the assumption about me based on the color of my skin.” (No evidence is given)

Obama writes of her gratitude to her parents and extended family. Her parents are described as self-sacrificing and devoted to her and her older brother. Her father worked for the City of Chicago water plant. She blames his failure to advance on white men. No evidence is given for the allegation. He was precint captain for the City of Chicago Democratic Party ”for years”. She and her father “visited constituents, passed complains on to elected alderman”. Michelle Robinson early learned the power of political activism and influence.

Her mother, Marian Robinson was a stay-at-home parent who taught her to read at age 4.

Her great-aunt gave her piano lesson and taught her discipline.

Are the kids asleep? Michelle and Barack lived together before they were married. In her parents’ house.

She moves from job to job without listing the dates. She states her first salary at Sidley & Austin in Chicago and her salary with the City of Chicago but doesn’t mention her subsequent salaries. Her final job was with the University of Chicago Medical School where she helped create “The Office of Business Diversity”.

Oddly, her portrait of Barack Obama portrays him as a narcissist. Even his marriage proposal was self-centered and insensitive (pg 156). As Michelle relates it, they were in a restaurant and he argued that he didn’t want to get married.  She tried to respond. After a while a waiter came by with a ring on covered tray. “Well,” he (Obama) said lightly, “that should shut you up.” (pg.157)

She describes the pivotal speeches that introduced them to the American people. Both Michelle and Barack Obama built their careers on folksy stories of their upbringings. Barack wrote two autobiographies for which he reportedly received millions.

She was an ambitious networker. She was also confrontational and aggressive, hypersensitive to her status as a woman and as a minority.

Reading “Becoming” one is reminded is how quickly the Obama’s progressed from working Chicago unknowns to the White House. It was a matter of three years from the time he won election as Senator to his announcement of his candidacy for the Presidency.

She repeatedly tells us whom she dislikes.

At the top of the list are Republicans.

  • pg 312 “From where I sat, I could see much of the chamber below. It was an unusual bird-eye’s view of our country’s leaders, an ocean of whiteness and maleness dressed in dark suits. The absence of diversity was glaring — honestly, it was embarrassing — for a modern multicultural country. It was most dramatic among Republicans. At the time, there were just seven non-white Republicans in Congress–none of them African American and only one woman.”
  • pg 313 “I watched from the balcony as Republican members of Congress stayed seated through most of it, appearing obstinate and angry, their arms folded and their frowns, deliberate, looking like children who hadn’t gotten their way.”
  • pg 347  She writes about what her family did not discuss at dinner in the White House. “Bin Laden was not invited to dinner nor was the humanitarian crisis in Libya nor were the Tea Party Republicans”
  • pg 350 “Republicans who said he was ruining the country”
  • pg 352 She compared Obama’s critics to “lions and cheetahs”.  She writes about “cable shows”. “The whole thing was crazy and mean-spirited and of course, its underlying bigotry and xenophobia hardly concealed”.
  • pg 352 “obstinate congressional Republicans”
  • pg 370 “Republicans blocked them”
  • pg 371 “entire political party conspired to see Barack fail”
    Trump receives his own entires.
  • pg 352  He is “the reality-show host and New York real estate developer”.
  • pg 407 Trump is a “bully”
  • pg 418 She describes Trump’s inauguration. It was “overwhelmingly white and male” and ”I stopped trying to smile.”

She doesn’t seem to have been an admirer of Hillary Clinton. She made an impassioned speech personally attacking Trump at the close of the 2016 campaign which may have reminded voters of Hillary’s offensive slip-ups and Trump’s rejoinders. (pg 409). Ever the good Democrat, Michelle Obama omits any mention maelstrom surrounding Hillary’s uranium, Clinton Foundation and email scandals from ”Becoming”.

So, what drives Michelle Robinson Obama?

“Becoming” is an admission that for some reason, despite her Ivy League education and prestigious jobs, the admiration of millions, great financial success, she seems to never think she is good enough (or is pandering to some readers and provoking others). To be “becoming” is also a term usually applied to females who are attractive and socially pleasing. It makes one wonder why an individual who has accomplished as much as Michelle Obama would chose the title.

“Becoming” has no index.

If someone wants to check something, they are going to have to read it again.

About the Author
Elaine Rosenberg Miller writes fiction and non-fiction. Her work has appeared in numerous print publications and online sites, domestically and abroad, including JUDISCHE RUNDSCHAU, THE BANGALORE REVIEW, THE FORWARD, THE HUFFINGTON POST and THE JEWISH PRESS. Her book. FISHING IN THE INTERCOASTAL AND OTHER SHORT STORIES will be published by Adelaide Books in 2019.
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