BOOK REVIEW: ‘Becoming,’ by Michelle Obama

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Michelle Robinson grew up in South Chicago; her father worked in the city water department, her mom was active in the school PTA. Both encourage Michelle and her brother Craig to do their best in school. Her older relatives could not work at the jobs for which they had trained because most labor unions were for whites only. The local high school is poorly equipped and staffed. Michelle’s mom, by that time a bank clerk, has her apply to Whitney Young High School, a more distant “magnet” school which, after interviewing Michelle, accepts her as a student. Michelle says her parents raised their kids to be adults. Not setting curfew, but asking, “What’s a reasonable time for you to be home?” and then trusting them to keep their word. Faced with complaints about school, her mom counsels her, “You don’t have to like your teacher. But that woman’s got the kind of math in her head that you need in yours. Focus on that and ignore the rest.”

Her high school grades get her into Princeton University, where her brother Craig is already on a sports scholarship. Her performance there wins her acceptance at Harvard Law School. Each spring, head hunters — corporate recruiters — descend on top law schools seeking new talent, and she steps onto the first rung of the corporate ladder. She sees coworkers learning the intricacies of antitrust law and corporate agreements, but discovers that she has no such interest. Her attention is more on matters affecting her disadvantaged neighbors in South Chicago, where her parents still live. After two years of clerical drudgery in a Chicago law firm, a senior lawyer in the firm asks her if she would mentor a newcomer who, like her, has attended Harvard Law School, and she agrees.

The guy is late for his appointment. Everyone in the firm who has met him remarks on his ability, but her own job is in a different specialty group demanding up to 70 hours per week. “I didn’t need to be wowed,” she writes She and this Barack Obama are friendly; they eat lunch out about once a week. What does impress her is that he is the only one at the law firm who knows his way around South Chicago, having worked as a neighborhood organizer there for three years.

As their relationship became more serious, Michelle takes him to meet her family. They had become used to her having a new boyfriend at each stage of her career. According to her brother, her father liked Barack from the start, but shook his head and laughed as she and Barack walked away. “Nice guy,” he said, “Too bad he won’t last.”

But as they continue to explore South Chicago, where steel mills are closing, Michelle finds that Barack has a different view of progress. She sees it as getting herself out of a stuck situation; Barack focuses on getting the situation itself unstuck. She sees the world as it is; he sees it as it should be. Their solution is to leave the high-end law firm, Barack to consolidate some of his thinking by writing a book and joining a small independent law firm, oriented more to people than to corporations. Michelle works in the Chicago chapter of Public Allies, a civic minded group of workers in Chicago’s city government, and she later takes a job at the mayor’s office.

She and Barack marry in 1992 at the Trinity United Church of Christ on the South Side, in front of 300 guests, Later in the day, their across-the-street neighbor’s jazz band plays at their reception. After their honeymoon, Barack is approached by the leaders of Project VOTE!, a national organization, to ask if Barack would open a field office in Chicago to encourage young blacks not only to register, but to vote for change. Over the next four years, and with his wife’s agreement, Barack becomes a politician, and in 1996, is elected a state senator for Illinois, commuting weekly between Springfield and their home in Chicago.

Meanwhile, Michelle leaves the now active Public Allies, and accepts a post at the University of Chicago as associate dean of community relations, in hopes of creating more opportunities for students living in lower-income communities.

About the same time, she takes on the full-time job of motherhood with the birth of their daughter Malia, and three years later their second daughter Sasha. This puts more responsibility on Barack to get home in time for 6:30 dinner, and 8:00 pm lights out for the children. It becomes his fatherhood job to catch up with his family.

This he did (more or less) but time moves on, and in July 2004, for the Democratic National Convention in Boston, Senator John Kerry, who is running against George W. Bush for president, enlists Barack for a speech. The response to Barack’s 17-minute address draws a deafening roar of applause. Michelle concludes it must have been a good speech when Oprah Winfrey shows up at the door to interview her around the same time that Barack’s new book hits the New York Time’s best seller list. He is elected to the US Senate by the largest majority in Illinois history — even white people are recognizing him now. Nevertheless, he and Michelle decide not to move to Washington, in order to keep the children in familiar surroundings. It would be two more years before they move, to the White House.

That was a major change for them all. In a single day, President Bush’s family and all belongings are moved out and theirs moved in. As a secret service agent puts it, “Ma’am, your whole life is about to change in the next few minutes.” Everywhere that any or all of them go now, they will be accompanied by armed, alert Secret Service agents for the next eight years, whether for a kid’s play date, school class, or a walk in the park. Michelle moves her own mother into the group so that the children can always be able to have a family member with them during transport. Even friends visiting are briefly inspected. The parade of official vehicles preceding and following their car takes some getting used to.

Throughout this absorbing book, Michelle Obama maintains a writing style that is frank, descriptive and thought-provoking, whether describing her husband’s blurringly rapid decision-making, or her watchful encouragement of children to reach their highest potential. At the end of two four-year terms, she leaves a legacy of concern for people of all races, ages and work. On a more material level, her White House garden produces 2,000 pounds of nutritious food per year, to encourage a healthier diet for all America’s increasingly obese children.

She says firmly that she herself will never seek public office. But during the next several decades, she will be a person to watch.

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