book review, Opinion

“When they go low, we go high.” – Review of Becoming by Michelle Obama

I had to put this book on hold. That’s how popular it still is. If you don’t put a note on it, there’s no way of getting it through the library. On the day I picked it up, my eyes were lit up. I literally couldn’t wait to read it. This memoir is set to be one of the most successful of all time. More than 10 million copies have been sold worldwide to this day.

It seems so contradictory to be a feminist, and be so interested in what a First Lady has to say. After all, being a First Lady is the epitome of patriarchy. You’re literally earning this role by being married to the US President. Isn’t the meaning of marriage rooted in patriarchy? How equal are partners within a marriage as we know it? It’s a fact that most women who are married and have kids won’t work full-time while their partners do. As society is still deeply entrenched in patriarchy, marriage can’t be completely equal yet. No matter how hard we try. As we live in this society of ours, where we’re penalised for being women, for getting married and for getting pregnant, marriage will mirror this inequality. But I’m going off on a tangent.

At the same time, she was the first black lady to be First Lady. Michelle Obama’s memoir is her truth about love, politics and life as a black woman in the US. It’s well-written, but not revolutionary. Michelle grew up in Chicago’s South side, even back then not particularly wealthy, but not quite the dangerous area it became to be known as either. She describes her neighbourhood as middle-class and racially mixed. Her parents worked hard to make sure that she and her brother had a better future. Literally, all they spent their money on was their kids. They lived upstairs at Michelle’s great aunt Robbie’s place, an apartment probably designed to be for the in-laws, not a flat for a family of four. The stories Michelle shares are interesting and tell a tale of a childhood in poverty, but blessed with a big, loving family and a lot of care. It’s the kind of story you hear quite often when you listen to people who worked their way up. They started off with little, worked hard and rose up the ranks. It’s the kind of story everyone likes to read because it bestows hope. It’s the tale of the American dream. 

Her memoir, as Michelle likes to tell it, isn’t particularly racial. There is an instance where Craig, her brother, is inspected by a police officer just because of the colour of his skin, and he was riding a new bike. Michelle was well aware that her skin colour made her more vulnerable. The school and the neighbourhood were getting less white from year to year. Friends were leaving and moving to the suburbs, too. One day, Michelle and her family branched out into the suburbs to visit one of the families that had left. It was mainly a white area. They parked the car at the curb, and when they left their friends’ house in the evening they discovered a line across the side of the car that had been scratched with a key or a rock. Michelle also discusses code-switching; how her identity was questioned by a cousin because she talked like a white girl. This also came up when her husband was campaigning.

The truth is, this is how far it goes. Michelle does cover some of the media abuse, that can only be classified as racism, she had to experience during the campaign and as a First Lady, but it all stays within the lines. An article about the book I read said “Becoming… establishment”. This is what she is, and in a way wanted to be. She wanted to become a lawyer, earn a good salary and do well. She was a “box-checker.” She went to Princeton, then Harvard Law School, and enjoyed an Ivy League education. The six-figure salary she made after law school – it was all so results-driven, check box a, box b and then c and you’re successful, right? Michelle achieved a lot, but seems oblivious to her own privilege. To her, the fact that she had been able to go so far, means that everyone can go as far. This assumption ignores the institutional racism in the US. It ignores the inequality that is inherent in our society, in politics and in the business world. You can only go high, when they go low, when you’ve already reached a certain level.

Empowerment is important, and it is needed. But, to pretend that this is the only way out? The only way of distinguishing yourself from others, plays into the narrative that things aren’t so bad. The status quo does not need to be changed. We have to change ourselves to find fulfilment and justice. This might apply to a rich woman who has more than her share of means to play cards with and participate. The average poor, black woman who suffers from racism, patriarchy and poverty, faces a Sisyphus punishment. Why would you buckle under gravity?

Michelle does call Trump out on his racism and misogyny. Still, after his election, she holds on to the belief that everything wasn’t lost. Being resolute and pointing in the direction of progress was essential. Not judging the political system, she just hoped more had gone out to vote. We need to ask ourselves; did America really leave racism behind when it elected Barack Obama in 2008? Or, did his election just prove that if you played into white supremacy and assimilated hard enough, then even a black man could succeed within the system? Even though we’re not talking about an African-American man. Barack Obama’s ancestors weren’t even slaves. He doesn’t have much of a connection to the African-American history like Michelle Obama does. Apart from this, is it worth having a black President if he’s only allowed to act within the system that is so flawed and failing its future generation every single day?

I did like the personal bits about how Michelle and Barack had to go to therapy to understand each other better. If great communicators like them need a mediator to get along, well, doesn’t everyone need one? I was hoping for more reflection on the system, and how it is serving only a few. It’s not that she denies that. Michelle focused on delivering what has worked for her in life, but it’s an ideology that needs to be questioned. All of us walk their paths within their continuum of time. As a “box-ticker” she’s certainly gotten further than she had ever anticipated. Well done, Michelle! Even though the Obamas have proven to be part of the system by staying within, I was hoping for more honesty from the first, black First Lady. In the end, who am I to judge her? It must have been incredibly hard to stay composed with what the media and Republicans were dishing out. When they go low, we go high. Do you even have another chance of succeeding as a black American in the current US? No, you don’t. Is it favourable? As honest this book is in some places, it could have been more in other places. The tale of the American dream has become a legend, and it will be no more than that until the system changes.

I enjoyed reading the book. I don’t have to agree on everything with the former First Lady to appreciate her opinions and views. Her voice and recollections matter.

23 thoughts on ““When they go low, we go high.” – Review of Becoming by Michelle Obama”

  1. I loved this book and like you, I had to wait my turn to check it out of the library. It was hard to put down once I started. I’m not big on politics, but Michelle Obama always appeared to be a very genuine person whenever I watched an interview with her or a speech that she gave. Her writing is really solid and keeps you invested in her story throughout her life. But I like your takes on her philosophies within the book. It questions their validity when applied in a more general sense without tearing down the personal accomplishments that led her to those conclusions. Still, I hope she writes more books in the future because she has a lot of good stories to tell.

    Liked by 1 person

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