I love Michelle Obama. I like her for many reasons, first among them the fact that her story resonates with many of our stories — an ordinary girl from the south side of Chicago with an incredible, extraordinary story.
I also like Michelle because she is incredibly intelligent, which is sad because she has time and again reiterated that she will not be running for elective office.
Today’s column is not a book review, but a stocktaking of her amazing story, which she captured in her new book Becoming, a riveting autobiography that kept me busy all week last week.
In some ways, I see a lot of myself in Michelle’s story. Her struggles, fears and insecurities are similar to mine and I must admit that reading her book was just like having coffee with a good old friend.
Michelle pleasantly writes well, succinctly weaving her story with funny and thoughtful anecdotes all the while careful to temper her fairy tale story with admissions of failure, guilt and shortcomings. Michelle, to me, is the girl next door.
The book begins with an interesting insight into the life of young Michelle — then “Michelle Robinson”, a bright kid who proved wrong a school counsellor who told her that she was not “Princeton material” by making it to not one, but two Ivy League universities before landing a job at a law firm in downtown Chicago.
It was very clear for Michelle from the beginning that a good future would be envisioned first in her mind, before she could actualise it.
Young Michelle grows up often asking herself, “Am I enough?” a struggle that many young women, including me, often grapple with.
We go about life wondering if we are good enough, smart enough, capable enough; but from the book, we learn the power of self-belief and the destructive power of self-doubt, which I will come to later in this piece.
In Becoming, we see youthful Michelle in her 20s, battling two worlds. While she admires her mother Marian, a stay-at-home mum, for her devotion to her family, Michelle also wants another life – to become an independent career woman with her own goals, achievements and her own money.
It is a struggle I and many other young women battle with. While on one side we envision a life dedicated to our families, we also have dreams and aspirations that we want to achieve for ourselves.
In the end, Michelle chose to follow a quiet path of a career in non-profit organisations, working with young people and a hospital before leaving it altogether to become the ultimate political wife.
Michelle makes a profound statement about failure, noting that “failure is a feeling long before it becomes an actual result”.
Failure, according to Michelle, is almost often a combination of self-doubt and vulnerability, propelled by fear — and these words are so deep and thoughtful — coming from a black woman in a country where being black and female automatically excludes you from the race.
Michelle also talks about dealing with bullies. As the first African American woman to be FLOTUS, Michelle became a target of criticism, racism and all kinds of insults.
Her looks, body size, education and speeches became fodder for the critics, all under the unforgiving gaze of the media. How did she handle it all?
How did she manage when she was accused of being unpatriotic, following the infamous statement “for the first time in my life, I am proud of my country”, which was taken completely out of context?
She alludes to a common maxim in the black community that says: “You’ve got to be twice as good to get half as far”, pointing to the fact that black people — black women — are judged more harshly than their male and white counterparts, making the Obamas hold themselves to extremely high standards of dignity and integrity, because everything they did, said or even wore would be held to a higher standard.
In the end, the book teaches us the power of resilience, the capacity to withstand difficulties while clinging on to a greater hope.
Resilience, was a lesson she learnt from her late father Fraser Robinson, a man who battled multiple sclerosis for nearly three decades and never once missed a day of work.
It was resilience that kept young Michelle going through those tough moments as a teenager, trying to show the world that she was indeed Princeton material.
I guess that was the key lesson for me from the story of Michelle, that resilience is how we become.