Many people assume life in the White House is a constant glamorous whirl of interesting meetings, fancy dinners, ballroom dances and dazzling entertainment.
Ask former First Lady Michelle Obama. She’ll tell you the White House can too often be a kind of limiting prison in which one’s natural spontaneity is constantly squelched by the need for security agents watching every move. She and her two young girls could not even step outside to walk on the lawn without a contingent of wary, watchful agents guarding their every move.
The First Lady wasn’t complaining; she was just expounding on what a strangely wonderful but oddly constricting place the White House is in which to raise a family.
She details all of it vividly in her bestselling memoir titled “Becoming.” I just finished reading it, and it is a real page-turner, one of the most insightful and well written books I’ve ever read about having to live constantly in the limelight of scalpel scrutiny and cruel criticism.
Michelle Robinson was raised in South Chicago with her brother Craig, the children of loving working-class parents, Fraser and Marian, who scrimped and saved to make it possible for their children to succeed. They knew the key to the “American Dream” was a quality education, and the children knew it too, almost by osmosis, as they excelled academically and went on to earn degrees at Princeton University.
“Becoming” is brimming with keen (often comical) observations, vivid memories both happy and sad, and profound psychological insights, especially comments about the roadblocks and hurdles Michelle and other blacks had to – still have to – struggle against in a society of systemic, racial biases. One example is that her parents taught her always to speak impeccably correct English. At Princeton, when hanging out with black women students, she was hurt to the core when one of them derisively asked her how come she talks like a “white girl.” Yes, the racial biases came sometimes from blacks too.
She met and fell in love with Barack Obama when she was tutoring him as a new employee at a corporate law firm in Chicago. Her life soon changed drastically as she began to focus on public service, like Barack, rather than corporate problems.
For a long time, she was a queasily reluctant wife of a passionate political leader/community activist – mainly because she worried always about their two daughters, Malia and Sasha, missing time with their father and always being in the public eye. How she handled all the hurdles, all the juggling of family and work duties, makes for fascinating reading in a perfectly titled book – “Becoming.” Her constant “becoming” and adapting to political life was not easy. Far from it. At times it was a case of cursed if you do, cursed if you don’t, as detractors used vicious tactics in attempts to vilify her and her husband.
She writes this: “I was female, black, and strong, which to certain people, maintaining a certain mind-set, translated only to ‘angry.’ It was another damaging cliché, one that’s been forever used to sweep minority women to the perimeter of every room, an unconscious signal not to listen to what we’ve got to say.”
In her book, Michelle doesn’t whine or complain or blame, but she does lay it on the line in a straightforward no-nonsense style and dissects many of her own insecurities and doubts.
She has a touch of the poet. Some of her sentences and paragraphs are virtual poems: “Here’s a memory and like most memories is imperfect and subjective – collected long ago like a beach pebble and slipped into the pocket of my mind.”
I love her evocation of winter: “In the Midwest, as I’ve mentioned, winter is an exercise in waiting – for relief, for a bird to sing, for the first purple crocus to push up through the snow. You have no choice in the meantime but to pep-talk your way through it.”
“Becoming” is a stunning book in every way. Please check it out.
Author: Dennis Dalman
Dalman was born and raised in South St. Cloud, graduated from St. Cloud Tech High School, then graduated from St. Cloud State University with a degree in English (emphasis on American and British literature) and mass communications (emphasis on print journalism). He studied in London, England for a year (1980-81) where he concentrated on British literature, political science, the history of Great Britain and wrote a book-length study of the British writer V.S. Naipaul. Dalman has been a reporter and weekly columnist for more than 30 years and worked for 16 of those years for the Alexandria Echo Press.