“Becoming Us,” the second part of Michelle Obama’s memoir tells how two very different people, two nearly polar opposite people in fact, came not only to love and cherish one another but to build a life and a partnership that would work from Chicago to the whole world.
One of their first social functions together, a non-date, was an outing to Les Misérables with other lawyers where they are both working, he as a summer associate and she as a full-time attorney.
… I spent the next hour feeling helplessly pounded by French misery. … Millions of people around the world had fallen love with this musical, but I squirmed in my seat, trying to rise above the inexplicable torment I felt every time the melody repeated.
When the lights went up for intermission, I stole a glance at Barack. He was slumped down, with his right elbow on the armrest and index finger resting on his forehead, his expression unreadable.
“What’d you think?” I said.
He gave me a sideways look. “Horrible, right?”
I laughed, relieved that he felt the same way.
Barack sat up in his seat. “What if we got out of here?” he said. “We could just leave”
Under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t bolt. I wasn’t that sort of person. I cared too much what the other lawyers thought of me—what they’d think if they spotted our empty seats. I cared too much, in general, about finishing what I’d started, about seeing every last little thing through to the absolute heart-stopping end … This, unfortunately, was the box checker in me. I endured misery for the sake of appearances. But now, it seemed, I’d joined up with someone who did not. (p. 104)
In Barack’s books, he writes about how, in addition to Michelle’s personal qualities, she gave him an extended Black American family, a sense of connection different from what he had grown up with. Not least, she has a father who is very present in her life and very supporting. (He’s also a little skeptical of Barack.) In Becoming, Michelle writes about what he added to her life, what he brought that she needed without having fully realized that she did.
“Until now, I’d constructed my existence carefully, tucking and folding every loose and disorderly bit of it, as if building some tight and airless piece of origami. [It is left to the reader to consider that this may have been the only way that the Black daughter of a public-sector worker could have risen to Princeton and Harvard Law.] I had labored over its creation. I was proud of how it looked. Bit it was delicate. If one corner came untucked, I might discover that I was restless. If another popped loose, it might reveal I was uncertain about the professional path I’d so deliberately put myself on, about all the things I told myself I wanted. I think now it’s why I guarded myself so carefully, why I still wasn’t ready to let him in. He was like a wind that threatened to unsettle everything.” (p. 105)
A few weeks later, they are at a summertime party for the law firm, and she sees him “..[getting] along with everyone—from the older, stuffier lawyers to the ambitious young bucks who were now playing basketball. He’s a good person, I thought to myself, watching him pass the ball to another lawyer.” (p. 106)
Michelle’s older brother Craig had been a high school and collegiate player, and she knows the game well. “I recognized a good player when I saw one, and Barack quickly passed the test. He played an athletic, artful form of basketball, his lanky body moving quickly, showing power I hadn’t noticed before. He was swift and graceful, even in his Hawaiian footwear. I stood there pretending to listen to what somebody’s perfectly nice wife was saying to me, by my eyes stayed fixed on Barack. I was struck for the first time by the spectacle of him—this strange mix-of-everything man.” (p. 106) Her older brother says she introduced Barack to the family that summer, though she does not recall it. “My father appreciated Barack instantly, but still didn’t like his odds.” (p. 114) The family had seen several boyfriends come and go, and Michelle had said she was too focused and busy. “According to Craig, my father shook his head and laughed as he watched me and Barack walk away. “Nice guy,” he said. “Too bad he won’t last.” (p. 114)
One evening, she goes with him as he does some work in the parts of South Side Chicago where he had been a community organizer before heading off to law school. “I’d never been someone who dwelled on the the more demoralizing parts of being African American. … My purpose had always been to see past my neighborhood—to look ahead and overcome. And I had. I’d scored myself two Ivy League degrees. I had a seat at the table at [law firm] Sidney & Austin. I’d made my parents and grandparents proud. But listening to Barack, I began to understand that his version of hope reached far beyond mine. It was one thing to get yourself out of a stuck place, I realized. It was another thing entirely to try and get the place itself unstuck.” (p. 117–18)
Lest anyone think that “becoming us” was all her bending to him, consider that same autumn, when he returned to law school and she stayed in her job as a Chicago attorney.
“Barack told me, ahead of leaving, that he preferred letter writing.
“‘I’m not much of a phone guy’ was how he put it. As if that settled it.
“But it settled nothing. We’d just spent the whole summer talking. I wasn’t going to relegate our love to the creeping pace of the postal service. This was another small difference between us: Barack could pour his heart out through a pen. He’d been raised on letters, sustenance arriving in the form of wispy airmail envelopes from his mom in Indonesia. I, meanwhile, was an in-your-face sort of person—brought up on Sunday dinners at Southside’s, where you sometimes had to shout to be heard.
“In my family, we gabbed. … Friends, neighbors, and cousins of cousins also regularly turned up on Euclid Avenue and planted themselves in the living room next to my father in his recliner and ask for advice. …
“I informed Barack that if our relationship was going to work, he’d better get comfortable with the phone. ‘If I’m not talking to you,’ I announced, ‘I might have to find another guy who’ll listen.’ I was joking, but only a little.
“And so it was that Barack became a phone guy.” (p. 119)
Writing about Becoming is difficult because nearly every page offers an insight of one sort or another: about Michelle, about Barack, about becoming a couple, becoming a family, becoming the First Family. She’s a planner, a reviser, and the book has been both planned and revised so that it reads effortlessly and yields both lovely stories and larger points. Like this one about campaigns. And spouses.
“‘Why didn’t you guys talk to me about this sooner?’ I asked. ‘Why didn’t anyone try to help?’
“The answer was that no one had been paying all that much attention. The perception inside Barack’s campaign seemed to be that I was doing fine until I wasn’t. …
“For me, this was a turnaround point. The campaign apparatus existed exclusively to serve the candidate, not the spouse or the family. And as much as Barack’s staffers respected me and valued my contribution, they’d never given me much in the way of guidance. Until that point, no one from the campaign had bothered to travel with me or show up for my events. I’d never received media training or speech prep. No one, I realized, was going to look out for me unless I pushed for it.
“…If I was going to campaign like a candidate, I needed to be supported like a candidate. I’d protect myself by being better organized, by insisting on having the resources I needed to do the job well. In the final weeks of the primaries, Barack’s campaign began expanding my team to include a scheduler and a personal aide … plus a no-nonsense, politically savvy communications specialist named Stephanie Cutter.” (pp. 268–69)
The possessive form in those paragraphs is crucial. It highlights the massive improvisation of a presidential campaign, along with the absolute centrality of one person and the tunnel vision that power, even the prospect of power, elicits in so many people.
Later on, another point about being a woman in politics, as a candidate’s or president’s wife surely is, combined with a reminder of where Michelle came from: “I never expected to be someone who hired others to maintain my image, and at first the idea was discomfiting. But I found out a truth that no one talks about: Today, virtually every woman in public life—politicians, celebrities, you name it—has some version of Meredith [personal aide and wardrobe stylist], Johnny [hairdresser], and Carl [makeup artist]. It’s all but a requirement, a built-in fee for our societal double standard.” (p. 334)
To close, three of her paragraphs on how she fits her story with larger stories.
“I felt that I owed more to children in general, and in particular to girls. Some of this was spawned by the response people tended to have to my life story—the surprise that an urban black girl had vaulted through Ivy League schools and executive jobs and landed in the White House. I understood that my trajectory was unusual, but there was no good reason why it had to be. … As my mother, the plainspoken enemy of all hyperbole, still says anytime someone starts gushing about me and Craig and our various accomplishments. ‘They’re not special at all. The South Side is filled with kids like that.’ We just needed to help get them into those rooms [of power].” (p. 355)
“[In commencement addresses, particularly at historically black colleges and universities] I tried to communicate the one message about myself and my station in the world that I felt might really mean something. Which was that I knew invisibility. I’d lived invisibility. I came from a history of invisibility. I liked to mention that I was the great-great-granddaughter of a slave named Jim Robinson, who was probably buried in an unmarked grave somewhere on a South Carolina plantation. And in standing at a lectern in front of students who were thinking about the future, I offered testament to the idea that it was possible, at least in some ways, to overcome invisibility.” (p. 405)
“Hamilton touched me because it reflected the kind of history I’d lived myself. It told a story about America that allowed the diversity in. I thought about this afterward. So many of us go through life with our stories hidden, feeling ashamed or afraid when our whole truth doesn’t live up to some established ideal. We grow up with messages that tell us that there’s only one way to be American—that if our skin is dark or our hips are wide, if we don’t experience love in a particular way, if we speak another language or come from another country, then we don’t belong. That is, until someone dares to start telling that story differently.
“I grew up with a disabled dad in a too-small house with not much money in a starting-to-fail neighborhood, and I also grew up surrounded by love and music in a diverse city in a country where an education can take you far. I had nothing or I had everything. It depends on which way you want to tell it.” (pp. 415–16)
As she wrote at the beginning of Becoming, “And here I am, in this new place, with a lot to say.”