Monday, January 14, 2019
Becoming by Michelle Obama -- a review
Michelle Obama's memoir is perfect to start 2019. It's open and eye-opening. This book scatters seeds of Yes-we-can, gently telling us little bits about people who are not to-the-manner-born, but learn,
do well, and make a difference. It's her view of herself and her experiences and of the people around her that strengthens my optimism about America. And about humanity in general. Optimism that is being sorely tested.
Wikipedia identifies Michelle Obama as "Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama (born January 17, 1964) is an American writer, lawyer, and university administrator who served as the First Lady of the United States from 2009 to 2017." This paragraph identifies her as her, not just the wife of Barack Obama, 44th President of the United States, first black President of the United States. Not just as first black First Lady of the United States.
More than half the book is about her life before her husband ran for president. And that life was amazingly normal, working class, American. Her father, Fraser Robinson III, worked for the City of Chicago at a water treatment plant. And her mother, Marian Shield Robinson was a stay at home mom until Michelle went to high school. Both were born in Chicago to people who'd come North during the Great Migration. (I knew nothing about the Great Migration until I read Isabel Wilkerson's book, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration, published in 2010 by Random House.)
Like my own family, there were only two children -- Michelle and her older brother Craig. Being less than two years apart, they were always close (also like my brother and me, although I'm the older one.) The Robinsons maintained close ties to their extended family, grandparents, aunts and uncles, great-aunts and -uncles, and lots of cousins. All, of whom lived close enough to get together easily and often. And, let me tell you, from personal experience, a small family of four doesn't feel small at all with that many kin close by.
Michelle says she wasn't really aware of racial problems until she was older.
When she was small, Michelle's South Shore neighborhood was more diverse than my white one was. Oklahoma was determinedly segregated.
Bryn Mawr, her elementary school was considered one of Chicago's best public schools when she started kindergarten there. The children in her class picture are described by a classmate as "five little white faces and 23 shades of brown faces and one Middle Eastern face.”
By the time she finished the 8th grade, there were only brown faces. The children may not have questioned where their white and wealthier classmates went, but the grown-ups knew what was going on. At least some did.
When Michelle was entering the seventh grade, the Chicago Defender, a newspaper widely read by the African American community ran an OpEd describing Bryn Mawr as a "run-down slum" governed by a "ghetto mentality." Michelle's school principal, Dr. Lavizzo wrote his own letter to the editor in which she says he made it clear that "he understood precisely what he was up against. Failure is a feeling long before it becomes an actual result. It's vulnerability that breeds with self-doubt and then is escalated, often deliberately, by fear."
She says "There were predatory real estate agents roaming South Shore, whispering to home owners that they should sell before it was too late, that they'd help them get out while you still can." They used the word everyone was most afraid of -- 'ghetto' -- dropping it like a lit match."
In Oklahoma City, it was 'busing.' My parents bought it and moved us to the suburbs.
Mrs. Robinson did not. Michelle describes her mother -- "She'd lived in South Shore for ten years already and would end up staying another forty. She didn't buy into fearmongering and at the same time seemed equally inoculated against any sort of pie-in-the-sky idealism. She was a straight-down-the-line realist, controlling what she could." A yes-we-can kind of mom.
And one thing Mrs. Robinson could do was to lobby for "a special multigrade classroom ... grouping students by ability rather than by age -- in essence, putting the brighter kids together so they could learn at a faster pace.
Dr. Lavizzo's background is a yes-we-can seed. The multigrade classroom "was the brainchild of Dr. Lavizzo, who'd gone to night school to get his PhD in education." Night school.
The importance of education is emphasized throughout this book. Michelle's brother Craig was offered basketball scholarships to the University of Washington and Princeton. Washington's offer was a full ride. Princeton would cost $3,500 per year. Although Craig told his father he'd rather accept the University of Washington offer so it wouldn't cost the family anything, Mr. Robinson, being a yes-we-can kind of father, wouldn't hear of it. He wouldn't let his son choose based on saving them money. They'd figure out a way. And Craig chose Princeton, no doubt, breaking trail for his sister.
Michelle was a determined student. She was salutatorian of her high school graduating class. Her inspiration to follow Craig to Princeton? A high school counselor told her that she wasn't the sort of student to go to Princeton. Hah! Another yes-we-can seed. She graduated cum laude from Princeton then went on to Harvard where she got her law degree. And, yes, she was a normal, working class daughter who achieved a big salary at a prestigious law practice back in Chicago which she needed even though she continued to live with her parents in South Shore so she could pay back her college loans. And that's where she met Barack Obama. She was his mentor. It was part of her job to lure him to work for the law firm when he graduated Harvard Law.
As it turned out, he lured her away. And into the White House.
There is so much in this book. So much. So much. Becoming is a good read, an inspiring read. I could fill pages with Michelle Obama's words. Her fears. Her aspirations. The places she went and the people she met.
And she explained something to me that I did not understand. Why, or at least part of why, we could celebrate electing an African American man to be our President, a face to prove that America truly does hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. That all people are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. From that to the shameful situation we have now.
Here's what she said:
"For more than six years now, Barack and I had lived with an awareness that we
ourselves were a provocation. As minorities across the country were gradually
beginning to take on more significant roles in politics, business, and entertainment,
our family had become the most prominent example. Our presence in the White
House had been celebrated by millions of Americans, but it also contributed to a
reactionary sense of fear and resentment among others. The hatred was old and
deep and as dangerous as ever.
"We lived with it as a family, and we lived with it as a nation. And we carried on,
as gracefully as we could."
I do believe that we, as a people and as a nation, will survive this regressive period in our history and again move forward. We will work toward the American dream of true freedom and equality of opportunity for all.
Yes we can.