by Ľubomíra Tomášová
Throughout the history, there were myriad of biographies written about First Ladies of United States and a number of memoirs written by them. In each case the story was unique and different mirroring both their backgrounds and eras in which they served. At the end of the 2018, Michelle Obama’s memoir Becoming was published and soon it became the best-selling book of 2018 in the United States. This memoir is an account of the 44th First Lady of the United States and at the same time the first African American First Lady, which makes the author even more unique and relatable to her readers. Obama writes very authentically about her childhood struggles as an African American, finding herself as a young woman, wife and mother, navigating her life and finding her own voice as a First Lady and even after this part of her life being over, still continuing to be an inspiration for many.
Obama begins her book by recounting her childhood experiences. She did not grow up in a privileged household. On the contrary, she was born to a working-class African American family, who was renting the top floor of her aunt’s house, in the South Side neighborhood of Chicago. She was always aware of the struggles that were tied to being a part of a minority not hiding the fact that her great great grandfather was a slave. Perhaps that was the reason why she was taught from the very young age to work hard for everything. Her strong work ethics and dedication seem to be the driving forces in her life to this day, however in her book she makes it clear that they have been born out of the broken dreams of her ancestors and ongoing cynicism of her peers. At one point she was accused by her cousin of talking “like a white girl” (Obama 40). If Obama’s childhood, as it is depicted in Becoming, was to make a statement alone, it would be that of earning everything one has with diligence, being brought up equally with a brother and standing up fiercely for one’s core values.
These experiences then carried her through her Princeton and Harvard studies and early career days during which she met Barack Obama. When describing her university years, she did not try to hide the challenges she encountered on the road toward finding herself or even seemingly private moments, such as her first date or marriage proposal, with her then future husband. During those formative years, when most young adults have a clear vision of what they want in life and they expect to be halfway there, Obama was brave enough to question her own choices and really high expectations set by the society, reconsider them and even change her direction. In these chapters, Michelle Obama can be seen as a young woman whose carefully built vision of the world are slowly but surely knocked down by the man she has fallen in love with as well as by all the diversity and creativity which her curious young mind finds at university. It was because of her husband, who had never set strict guidelines for his career, and his unconditional support that she was able to surrender her longterm goal of becoming an established lawyer. In the book, she provides her readers with a mind map of her journey to a more meaningful career and life which many women are afraid to take.
The author of the book did not hesitate to express her distaste toward politics, which might seem like a great irony considering her title of the First Lady. Instead of chasing the power, she was chasing the meaning and positive change in her city and later in the entire country. It was her husband who first inspired her interest in working for the non-profit organizations and communities. She was convinced that changes in the society should come and be encouraged from the ground rather than be established by force from the government. Obama writes about her main initiatives during her service in the White House, the obstacles she faced along the way and how all of her projects eventually came to fruition. Being the first African American presidential couple in the history of the United States put an enormous amount of pressure on her entire family and Becoming provides an account of her own legacy on the African American community within American society and shows how the achievement of her family has become an important chapter in the African American civil rights movement.
If there should be a prominent theme underlying this memoir, it is the theme of feminism. Although this might be a delicate issue taking into consideration the fact that the status of the First Lady does not allow much space for gender equality with its role strictly defined and inferior in comparison to the President, Obama dealt with the issues of gender equality at all stages of her life and addressed it in her memoir openly. When she was discouraged from applying for Princeton or confronted with the decision whether to support her husband in presidential elections and surrender her own career, she stayed true to her goals, but at the same time did not hesitate to put others first for the common good. Obama did not try to portray herself as a perfect role model. Instead of that she has chosen to be honest about her personal struggles. As a child, she was confronted with prejudice, but remained resilient. As a young woman, she found courage to take risks, prove herself in a predominantly white male environment and balance her career and motherhood at the same time. She wrote about losing her loved ones to sicknesses, miscarriage and marriage counseling she went to with her husband. As a First Lady, she became a figure of empowerment for young girls, people from underprivileged backgrounds and minorities who were never before represented.
In her memoir Becoming, Michelle Obama shares words of encouragement with her readers: “Even when it’s not pretty. Even when it’s more real than you want it to be. Your story is what you have, what you will always have. It is something to own. (Obama Preface xi)” This is precisely what she has accomplished in her own life. Obama’s story is far from perfect and perhaps that is the reason why it is so exceptional. She does not want to paint a picture of herself as a unique or out of touch elite woman. Her mission as a First Lady until now has been rather the opposite – proving that she is like her readers and her readers are just like her.
Ľubomíra is studying for a Bachelor’s degree in English Language and Literature, and earned a Bachelor’s degree in Philosophy last year. She loves traveling around Europe, watching films and reading non-fiction books about inspirational people, self-development and society. She is currently learning French and hopes to be fluent one day. She enjoys spending evenings social dancing or having conversations with her friends. One day she really wants to find her dream job which would involve sharing her thoughts, writing and communicating with people.
Obama, Michelle. Becoming. New York, Viking, 2018.