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BOOK REVIEW : A candid Michelle



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History has proven over and over again that the place of the wives of great men is often in the shadows of their husbands.

Many famous men, from Abraham Lincoln to Napoleon Bonaparte and even William Shakespeare, are widely written about.

However, history and literature seem to have few stories about the spouses of these men.

The very figures who work behind the scenes, organising dinners and galas, giving speeches, campaigning, fundraising and raising children in the glare of the limelight.

“Even when it’s not pretty or perfect. Even when it’s more real than you want it to be your story is what you have, what you will always have. It is something to own,” writes Michelle Obama in the introduction to her memoir Becoming.

Michelle, like the other first ladies before her, had to walk the tightrope of being perceived as both strong and gracious.

However, in Becoming, she cuts loose, shrugs off the fame and offers us her story in an intimate manner.

In the first section “Becoming Me,” Michelle focuses on her childhood on the South Side of Chicago.

We meet the little girl who is so affirmed by her parents that on the first day of kindergarten when she fails to get one word correct in a spelling bee, she demands a do-over so that she can get a gold foil star stuck on her dress.

Smart and motivated, Michelle gets admissions into nice schools and later on to Harvard and Princeton — even though the high school counsellor thought she was not “Princeton material.”

This section also gives us a glimpse into the teenage Michelle and her friendships; the most memorable one being with Rev Jesse Jackson’s daughter Santita.

It is at the Jackson’s house that Michelle has her first encounter with the effects of fame and politics on domestic life.

It is also around this time that Michelle realises that her skin colour comes with serious disadvantages.

She gives many instances of this, one of them being the time her brother Craig was picked up by a police officer and accused of stealing the new bicycle he was riding simply because the officer did not think that a young black boy could own his own bike.

“The colour of our skin makes us vulnerable. It was a thing we’d always navigate,” writes Michelle.

The rug is pulled from under her so that even though her parents provide both security and stability, Michelle begins to see discrimination in the neighbourhood, at school and even as a university student at Princeton.

Her eyes are opened to the realities around her and she realises that the American dream is a dream to some and in the words of Malcolm X, a nightmare to others.

“Becoming Us” focuses on Michelle’s marriage to Barrack Obama in 1992, the struggle to have children, Obama’s entry into politics and its effect on their young family.

Here, Michelle opens up about their fights and different world views. She also talks about the numerous trying hours on the campaign trail and how compromises had to be made.

The age-old question of work-family balance emerges, and though Becoming does not offer a universal solution on how to handle this matter, it offers invaluable experiences and lessons that couples can learn from.

The last section “Becoming More” is full of juicy anecdotes about the White House years and Michelle’s pet project: To reduce child obesity in America.

It is also laced with conversations with former first ladies, their fears about raising children in the White House and her opinion of Obama’s successor Donald Trump.

In many ways, it is important that Michelle takes time to record her own achievements and give an official version of her story — in her own terms.

This is especially so because, in this fake news era, hundreds of rumours about her have been splashed on the front pages of newspapers and magazines.

Though barely a month since it hit bookstores, Becoming is already the best-selling book of 2018, having sold over two million copies in the US and Canada alone.

Michelle’s book tours have also been fully booked. All this could be an indication that the world has ushered in a new dispensation and is ready to include the stories of women in its history.

By shedding the cloak of propriety and wearing her different hats, Michelle has made it okay for powerful women to be both strong and vulnerable, to talk freely about the discomfort and stress that stems from holding high office.

One only hopes that after reading this book, the first ladies and powerful women across our continent will rise up and take responsibility for crafting their own narratives.

After all, unless the lion learns to tell its tale, the story will always glorify the hunter.

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