I’ve had a copy of Michelle Obama’s book since a day or two after Christmas 2018. Someone made an out-of-the-blue purchase after watching me pour through its pages for a couple of hours at an Indigo Book Store. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read “Becoming”, I’ve lost count. It wasn’t a front to back book for me to read. I found myself going to select passages, reading, then re-reading a few times because I found comfort in her warm and candid style of writing and familiarity in the richness of her experiences. I know many of you know what I am talking about or else her book wouldn’t be topping the best seller’s charts for months in countries around the world.
If I can summarize Michelle’s story, in a nutshell, I’d have to say that her book is about; Identity. Self-Identity. Owning your personal story and sharing that personal story in an outward manner to your neighbors, friends, at school, people at work, in church, with your partner, yes, even in a book should you so desire. For Michelle Obama, she believes that we connect with one another when we own our personal story:
“Let’s invite one another in.” she says in her concluding paragraph of the book ending the next couple of lines saying “Maybe then we can begin to fear less, to make fewer wrong assumptions, to let go of the biases and stereotypes that unnecessarily divide us. Maybe we can better embrace the ways we are the same. It’s not about being perfect. It’s not about where you get yourself in the end. There’s power in allowing yourself to be known and heard, in owning your unique story, in using your authentic voice. And there’s grace in being willing to know and hear others. This, for me, is how we become.“
When Barrack Obama became America’s first black president, and Michelle, America’s first-[black] First Lady, their story is now etched in history therefore making her book title, “Becoming” even more appropriately named. “Becoming” because she shares her Her story starting with childhood then intertwining her lived experiences into the identity that she has forged today. The United States of America’s first black [former] First Lady – and that’s the way history will remember Michelle Obama. No, there’s no big revelation that she shares, her life in fact in many ways are similar to yours and mine. In writing her story, it tells the tale of how she came to fill the most crucial step in becoming an Identity Leader. That “identity” was being the First Lady and more importantly what she did with all that new found power and notoriety that came with the position.
“If America elected its first black president, it would say something not just about Barack but also about the country. For so many people, and for so many reasons, this mattered a lot.” ~ Michelle Obama
Michelle shares her story of identity in three sections: Becoming, meaning becoming herself from childhood to; meeting Barack, Becoming Us, the second section about how she and her husband create a new identity together as a couple from working together at the same law firm, marriage, the birth of their two children and supporting Barrack’s political efforts while she maintained a career for herself up to winning his presidency; and the third section, Becoming More, about how they both identify as a team, that includes their children, filling the role of America’s first black presidential family living in the White House for two terms. I also appreciate her strategy in writing this book for she gave up a lot of herself for a way of life that she didn’t even want in the first place. In fact she supported her husband because she didn’t think that Barack could win. Therefore, I suppose I could interpret her story to be about being married to a man who is accomplishing greatness and how to be supportive without losing herself and her identity in the process.
“Becoming requires equal parts patience and rigor. Becoming is never giving up on the idea that there’s more growing to be done.” ~ Michelle Obama
By writing this book, it’s now HER time to shine!
“Am I good enough?”
Is a question Michelle asks herself often throughout the book. “Yes, I am!” She says, gradually changing “I” to “We”. Michelle is a graduate of Princeton and Harvard’s Law schools, where she learned quickly what being the only black woman in a room felt like and pursued a career in corporate law. She she speedily climbed the corporate ladder to make Partner and it was during her time working at a prominent law firm, that she met and then began dating Barack, who was a summer law student, then an intern at the same firm. He was expected to return to work for the firm once he graduated, but destiny had other plans for Barrack. Oddly enough, many in the firm knew about their relationship yet it didn’t bother anyone in the least bit. A quietly approved more than an “office” relationship. In time, and perhaps it was Barack’s influence rubbing off on Michelle, she became disenchanted with her job and thirsted for more meaning in her work. This disenchantment started her search to find work outside of law and despite a considerable reduction in salary as a lawyer, she made the jump from corporate to civil servant working for the City of Chicago, then to the non-profit upstarting a new organization called Public Allies:
“Negotiating the terms of the job, though, I had what maybe should have been an obvious revelation about nonprofit work: It doesn’t pay. I was initially offered a salary so small, so far below what I was making working for the City of Chicago, which was already half of what I’d been earning as a lawyer, that I literally couldn’t afford to say yes. Which led to a second revaluation about certain nonprofits, especially young-person-driven start-ups like Public Allies, and many of the bighearted, tirelessly passionate people who work in them: Unlike me, it seemed they could actually afford to be there, their virtue discreetly underwritten by privilege, whether it was that they didn’t have student loans to pay off or perhaps had an inheritance to someday look forward to and thus weren’t worried about saving for the future.“
BTW – She got the job. They searched for more funding to give her the salary she needed.
Her goal was to have a lifestyle that was a mix between Mary Tyler Moore and June Cleaver from Leave it to Beaver, and she did a pretty good job of it. She stayed in the nonprofit environment full-time until she had her first child and then dropped to part time work. Unfortunately, part time didn’t work for her when she realized that she was trying to meet her deadlines continuing to carry a full-time work load on part-time hours – way too much! She started to search for another job.
“… I didn’t want to work part-time anymore. I was done with that. I wanted a full-time job, with a competitive salary to match so that we could better afford child care and housekeeping help – so that I could lay off the Pine-Sol and spend my free time playing with the girls.“
She went to a job interview at a university hospital, met with the President of the hospital with her baby girl in hand because she couldn’t find a babysitter.
“Sasha was little, though, and still needed a lot from me. She was a fact of my life – a cute, burbling, impossible-to-ignore fact – and something compelled me almost literally to put her on the table for this discussion. Here is me, I was saying, and here also is my baby. It seemed a miracle that my would-be boss appeared to get it. If he had any reservations listening to me explain how flextime was a necessity while I bounced Sasha on my lap, hoping all the while that her diaper wouldn’t leak, he didn’t express them. I walked out of the interview feeling pleased and fairly certain I’d be offered the job. But no matter how it panned out, I knew I’d at least done something good for myself in speaking up about my needs. There was power, I felt, in just saying it out loud. With a clear mind and a baby who was starting to fuss, I rushed us both back home.“
By the way – again, she got the job.
Yes, it was a constant juggle for Michelle for she had her own career and aspirations to consider while being a supportive wife and loving mother to their two children. But it continued to be an uphill battle for Michelle who was married to a writer, who often had to take large bits of time away to write his manuscripts for his publisher that gave him healthy advances (they began by living off the royalties from the success of the book sales), a law professor and then a state legislature always whisking away to go campaigning, often leaving her alone to manage her career and the girls:
“At the heart of my confusion was a kind of fear, because as much as I hadn’t chosen to be involved, I was getting sucked in. I’d been Mrs. Obama for the last twelve years, but it was starting to mean something different. At least in some spheres, I was now Mrs. Obama in a way that could feel diminishing, a missus defined by her mister. I was the wife of Barack Obama, the political rock star, the only black person in the Senate – the man who’d spoken of hope and tolerance so poignantly and forcefully that he now had a hornet buzz of expectation following him.”
I’m going to pull out some of the tid-bits of aggression, of being the missus and having to deal with the extra negativity of racism the couple had to face only to give you a snap shot of the types of attitudes they had to endure, where she acknowledged:
“Barack, of course, got the most of it – the public adulation as well as the scrutiny that rode inevitably on its back. The more popular you became, the more haters you acquired. It seemed almost like an unwritten rule, especially in politics, where adversaries put money into opposition research – hiring investigators to crawl through every piece of a candidate’s background, looking for anything resembling dirt….Barack was aware of rumors and misperceptions that got pumped like toxic vapor into the campaign, but rarely did any of it bother him. Barack had lived through other campaigns. He’d studied political history and girded himself with the context it provided. And in general he’s just not someone who’s easily rattled or thrown off course by another as abstract as doubt or hurt.
I on the other hand, cared for what other people thought. I’d gotten better about not measuring my self-worth strictly in terms of standard, by-the-book-achievement, but I did tend to believe that if I worked diligently and honestly, I’d avoid the bullies and always be seen as myself.”
This belief, though, was about to come undone.
During the Campaign
We all know that when writing or speaking we have to be very extra careful in what we say, especially in politics. I remember my friend Joe giving me similar advice when I asked him about his experience stepping into the political arena. “People can take soundbites of what you’ve said and how you acted and twist it into something completely different. They could literally chop off what you say in mid-sentence and turn it into something else, so if you have to speak, keep things short and concise!” Those words rang so true in my ears when I read what happened next to Michelle.
With Barrack’s victory in Iowa Michelle continued to travel from city-to-city, state-to-state speaking to audiences in the range of a thousand and more. She didn’t use a teleprompter very often for her speeches and even she herself said that her words weren’t polished but she spoke from the heart. After a speech in Wisconsin in February, her assistant received a call from someone in Barack’s communications team, saying that there seemed to be a problem because Michelle said something controversial in her speech. There was nothing unusual about what she had said that day as compared to her other speeches. It turned out that someone had taken film from her roughly forty-minute talk and edited it down to a single ten-second clip, stripping away the context and putting the emphasis on a few words. They peeled back all that she said, including her references to “hope” and “unity” and how moved she was, all her nuances – gone.
“What was in the clips – and now sliding into heavy rotation on conservative radio and TV talk shows, we were told – was this: “For the first time in my adult lifetime, I’m really proud of my country.” News crews spun the story saying “She’s not a patriot. She’s always hated America. This is who she really is. The rest is just a show.“
“Here was the first punch. And I’d seemingly brought it on myself. In trying to speak casually, I’d forgotten how weighted each little phrase could be. Unwittingly, I’d given the haters a fourteen-word feast….I flew home to Chicago that night, feeling guilty and dispirited. I knew that Melissa and Katie were quietly tracking the negative news stories via BlackBerry and were careful not to share them with me knowing that it would only make things worse.
And yet a pernicious seed had been planted – a perception of me as disgruntled and vaguely hostile, lacking some expected level of grace. Whether it was originating from Barack’s political opponents or elsewhere, we couldn’t tell, but the rumors and slanted commentary almost always carried less-then-subtle messaging about race, meant to stir up the deepest and ugliest kind of fear within the voting public. “Don’t let the black folks take over. They’re not like you. Their vision is not yours.“
Then ABC News combed through twenty-nine hours of her preacher at her local church, Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s sermon, splicing his words together saying, ‘white people were to blame for America’s woes.’ This is the same Reverend who married her to Barack and baptized their children, “…seeing an extreme version of his vitriol broadcasting the news, though, we were appalled. The whole affair was a reminder of how our country’s distortions about race could be two-sided – that the suspicion and stereotyping ran both ways.”
Then someone had dug up her senior thesis from Princeton, written 20 years ago about how American American alumni felt about race and identity after being at Princeton.
“The conservative media was treating my paper as if it were some secret black-power manifesto, a threat that had been unburied. It was as if at the age of twenty-one, in stead of trying to get an “A” in sociology and a spot at Harvard Law School, I’d been hatching a Nat turner? plan to overthrow the white majority and was now finally, through my husband, getting a chance to put it in motion. “Is Michelle Obama responsible for the Jeremiah wright Fiasco?” was the subtitle of an online column written by the author Christopher Hitchens.” suggesting that she’d been unduly influenced by black radical thinkers and furthermore was a crappy writer. “I was being painted not simply as an outsider but as fully “other,” so foreign that even my language couldn’t be recognized. It was a small-minded and ludicrous insult, sure, but his mocking of my intellect, his marginalizing of my young self, carried with it a larger dismissiveness.”
“When rumors about the so-called whitey tape surfaced, a friend who knows me well called up, clearly worried that the lie was true. I had to spend a good thirty minutes convincing her that I hadn’t turned into a racist, and when the conversation ended, I hung up, thoroughly demoralized.
I was getting worn out, not physically, but emotionally. The punches hurt, even if I understood that they had little to do with who I really was as a person. It was as if there were some cartoon version of me out there wreaking havoc, a woman I kept hearing about but didn’t know – a too-tall, too-forceful, ready-to-emasculate Godzilla of a political wife named Michelle Obama.”
I was female, black and strong which to certain people, maintaining a certain mindset, translated only into “angry”. It was another damaging cliche, 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.
I was now starting to actually feel a bit angry, which then made me feel worse, as if I were fulfilling some prophecy laid out for me by the haters, as if Id’d given in. It’s remarkable how a “stereotype” functions as an actual trap. How many “angry black women” have been caught in the circular logic of that phrase? If you’re written off as “angry” or “emotional”, doesn’t that just cause more of the same? I was exhausted by the meanness, thrown off by how personal it had become, and feeling, too, as if there were no way I could quit.” NPR website carried a story with the headline: “Is Michelle Obama an Asset or Liability?” “Refreshingly honest or too Direct?” and “Her Looks: Regal or Intimidating?”
“I am telling you, this stuff hurt.”
I was told I was more active than many candidates’ spouses, which made me more of a target for attacks. My instinct was to hit back, to speak up against the lies and unfair generalizations or have Barrack make some comment, but his campaign team kept telling me it was better not to respond, to march forward and simply take the hits. “This is just politics.
“You’re so much of an asset than a liability, Michelle, you have to know that,” Barack says “But if you want to stop or slow down, I completely understand. You can do whatever you want here.“
Now here comes the turning point for Michelle in her personal branding and personal identity – I think it was a real moment of truth for her that turned not only her results around but also in her thinking.
A few members from Barrack’s main campaign team sat Michelle down to watch a video of her speaking at an event. All looked well and complimented her on how effectively she was able to rally Barack’s supporters. And then they muted the volume and replayed her speech removing her voice so that they could observe and read her body language and specifically her facial expressions. Boy, that told a whole different story:
“I saw myself speaking with intensity and conviction and never letting up. I always addressed the tough times many Americans were facing as well as the inequities within our schools and health-care system. My face reflected seriousness of what I believe was at stake, how important the choice that lay before our nation really was.“
“But it was too serious, too severe, – at least given what people were conditioned to expect from a woman. I saw my expression as a stranger might perceive it, especially if it was framed with an unflattering message. I could see how opposition had managed to dice up these images and feed me to the public as some sort of pissed-off harpy. It was, of course, another “stereotype”, another trap. The easiest way to disregard a woman’s voice is to packager her as a “scold”.
“I was a wife of a candidate, obviously, so perhaps the expectation was for me to provide more lightness, more fluff. And yet, if there was any question about how women in general fared on Planet Politics, one needed only to look at how Nancy Pelosi, the smart hard-driving Speaker of the House of Representatives, was often depicted as a shrew or what Hillary Clinton was enduring as cable pundits and opinion writers hashed and rehashed each development in the campaign. Hillary’s gender was used against her relentlessly, drawing from all the worst “stereotypes”. She was called domineering, a nag, a bitch. Her voice was interpreted as screechy; her laugh was a cackle. Hillary was Barack’s opponent, which meant that I wasn’t included to feel especially warmly toward her just then, but I couldn’t help but admire her ability to stand up and keep fighting amid the misogyny.”
“Reviewing the video tape I felt tears pricking at my eyes I was upset. I could see now that there was a performative piece to politics that I hadn’t fully mastered. It was harder to convey warmth in larger auditoriums. Bigger crowds required clearer facial cues, which was something I needed to work on.” Michelle started to get some advice and cues after realizing she was doing this all on her own without any help from her husband’s team to giver her advice and cues. She started communicating what she needed to do a better job, more staff, a bigger budget, more training and with every bit of help she received she got better and felt more relaxed in front of the audience, she started to feel comfortable in using her natural humor and actually started laughing at the hurtful rumors and making jokes on The View with Barbara Walters and the girls, it really made a difference. “I felt new ease, a new ownership of my voice. I was having an impact and beginning to enjoy myself at the same time, feeling more open and optimistic.“
Bravo! Michelle! Bravo!
Supporting Hilary in a speech against Donald Trump
“Since childhood, I’d believed it was important to speak out against bullies while also not stooping to their level. And to be clear we were now up against a bully, a man who among other things demeaned minorities and expressed contempt for parishioners of war, challenging the dignity of our country with practically his every utterance. It was dignity I wanted to make an appeal for- the idea that as a nation we might hold on to the core thing that had sustained my family, going back generations. Dignity had always gotten us through. It was a choice, and not always the easy one, but the people I respected most in life made it again and again, every single day. There was a motto Barack and I tried to live by, and I offered it that night from the stage: When they go low, we go high.”
“Though I was thought of as a popular First Lady, I couldn’t help but feel haunted by the ways I’d been criticized, by the people who’d made assumptions about me based on the color of my skin. “
“Back in 2008, during Barack’s first run for president I’d rehearse and re-rehearse my convention speech because I’d never given a speech on live television like that and also because the personal stakes felt so high. I was stepping onto the stage after having been demonized as “an angry black woman” who didn’t love her country. My speech that night gave me a chance to humanize myself, explaining who I was in my own voice, slaying the caricatures and stereotypes.”
“If I’d learned anything from the ugliness of the campaign, from the myriad ways people had sought to write me off as angry or unbecoming, it was that public judgement sweeps in to fill any void. If you don’t get out there and defined yourself, you’ll be quickly and inaccurately defined by others. I wasn’t interested in slotting myself into a passive role, waiting for Barrack’s team to give me direction. After coming through the crucible of the last year, I knew that I would never allow myself to get that banged up again.”
The Bradley Effect
“Voting, for me, was a habit, a healthy ritual to be done conscientiously and at every opportunity. My parents had taken me to the polls as a kid, and I’d made a practice of bringing Sasha and Malia with me any time I could, hoping to reinforce both the ease and the importance of the act. My husband’s career had allowed me to witness the machination of politics and power up close. I’d see just a handful of votes in every precinct could mean the difference not just between one candidate and another but between one value system and the next. If a few people stayed home in each neighborhood, it could determine what our kids learned in schools, which health-care options we had available, or whether or not we send our troops to war. Voting was both simple and incredibly effective.”
By now we understood enough about politics and polling to take nothing for granted. We knew of the phenomenon called the Bradley effect, named after an African American candidate, Tom Bradley, who’d run for Governor in California in the early 1980s. While the polls had consistently shown Bradley leading, he’d lost on Election Day, surprising everyone and supplying the world with a bigger lesson about bigotry, as the pattern repeated itself for years to come in different high-profile races involving black candidates around the country. The theory was that when it came to minority candidates, voters, often hid their prejudice from pollsters, expressing only from the privacy of the voting booth. (As they did with the vote for Trump) Throughout the campaign, I’d ask myself over and over whether America was really ready to elect a black president, whether the country was in a strong enough place to see beyond race and move past prejudice . Finally we were about to find out.
“Are we good enough? Yes, we are.“
“When Barack was first elected, various commentators had naively declared that our country was entering a “postracial” era, in which skin color would no longer matter. Here was proof of how wrong they’d been. As Americans obsessed over the threat of terrorism, many were overlooking the racism and tribalism that were tearing our nation apart…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 nations and we carried on, as gracefully as we could.”
Michelle did such a great job co-campaigning for her husband and working on her own initiatives as First Lady many expected her, even wished for her to step into the political scene. Sorry to disappoint. In the closing chapter Michelle explains her position:
“Because people often ask, I’ll say it here directly: I have no intention of running for office, ever. I’ve never been a fan of politics, and my experience over the last 10 years has done little to change that. I continue to be put off by the nastiness – the tribal segregation or red and blue, this idea that we’re supposed to choose one side and stick to it, unable to listen and compromise, or sometimes even to be civil. I do believe that at its best, politics can be a means for positive change, but this arena is just not for me….”
Well many women who’ve been asked to join politics feel the same way. This is why it takes them weeks to months to answer a simple question if they would like to run in a riding for politics. That’s why I support in any and every way that we do try to change the way that we do politics, from the nastiness of doing business, gross invasions of privacy meant to smear the opponent and the name calling to creating a welcoming environment through electoral reform for women and minorities. If it’s the environment we need to change to welcome Identity Leaders – then let’s change it! As nations, we’ve got lots of important decisions to make (i.e. climate change) and we need the right people in place to help us make those decisions. Then maybe – just maybe, we can change the atmosphere so much that we could then welcome reluctant leaders, like Michelle Obama, to reconsider.
Your Personal Power
It must be difficult being the “other” to someone who is living a standard of greatness and power. As I read Becoming I kept seeing the nuggets of truths I learned while reading Identity Leadership. You see Stedman Graham, the author of Identity Leadership, is Oprah Winfrey’s husband. In his book he speaks about how difficult it was being his own person beside someone so successful, powerful and popular as Oprah Winfrey. Boy did the tabloids go after him with a bunch of trashy stories, they totally had a field day; unbelievable! In his story, he was able to – or had to or else lose Oprah or his self-esteem – establish his own identity and in the end it was not at the cost of his relationship with Oprah. He was able to “self-actualize”, (a term he actually uses in his book) to be his own person and carve out his own destiny in that he didn’t lose himself within her reality or needed to ride on Oprah’s coat tails of success to define his successes. Gee, Oprah is a one very lucky woman to have found true love with Stedman – it sure gets lonely at the top!
“I’m a better person because I have had to do the work to define myself, to be who I am, as opposed to being defined by who she [Oprah] is. Sometimes people recognize me because of her, and that motivates me to work more on myself so I am not defined by our relationship. As I’ve said, it’s not how the world defines you; it’s how you define yourself. You have to figure out how to be yourself. That’s what Oprah has done. Despite her difficult circumstances from the beginning of her life all the way through high school, she not only figured out who she was, but found a way to maintain her identity in the face of tremendous obstacles. She understood who she was and how to be who she was.” ~ Stedman Graham
And that’s where most couples falter and it’s usually the woman giving up a whole lot of herself to be with “a” man or “her” man. Or a man having to deal with his “masculinity” if he’s in a partnership with a powerful and successful [business/political] woman as Stedman had to work through with Oprah. In their stories, Michelle’s and Stedman’s, we learn what it’s like to be coupled with a partner that has a whole lot of personal power and how important it is no matter what you do in life, since their stories are quite extreme examples, or who you are with, it is important to “know thy self” and operate within those means as a single person and in a relationship.
And it all starts with knowing your “personal story”.