Published:  12:52 AM, 09 December 2018

Former first lady claims her story in 'Becoming'

Former first lady claims her story in 'Becoming'

-Wendi C. Thomas

Black feminist writer Audre Lorde wrote: "If I didn't define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people's fantasies for me and eaten alive." Michelle Obama, the nation's first black first lady, is too aware of the "angry black woman" trope to use such jarring, if appropriate, verbs of destruction in her new, highly anticipated memoir, "Becoming." Her version: "If you don't get out there and define yourself, you'll be quickly and inaccurately described by others." But the same unrelenting pursuit - exercising her agency to maintain her identity - surfaces again and again.

History will judge Michelle Obama's success. But as in all things, she trusts in the power of hard work and optimism to rise above, to go high when others go low.

Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama's origins are thoroughly South Side - South Shore, to be specific. In contrast to her future husband's slightly nomadic, international upbringing, her world was defined by Chicago. Her father, Fraser Robinson, held a steady job at the city's water treatment plant.

Her mother, Marian, stayed at home until Michelle reached high school. The Robinsons were solidly working-class, but they gave her and her brother, Craig, unfailing support, teaching Michelle to read before she attended school and even finding money to send her on a high school trip to Paris.

The Robinsons lived on the second floor of her great-aunt Robbie's home. Hers was an integrated neighborhood: A black jazz musician lived across the street, a Mexican family next door and white families nearby. Eventually the white families - and then anyone else who could - would move away and the neighborhood would sink into decline.

She attended at Bryn Mawr Elementary and then the city's first magnet high school, Whitney Young. "My first months at Whitney Young gave me a glimpse of something that had previously been invisible - the apparatus of privilege and connection, what seemed like a network of half-hidden ladders and guide ropes that lay suspended overhead, ready to connect some but not all of us to the sky."

It was in high school that she met Santita Jackson, the eldest daughter of Jesse Jackson, who would later seek the Democratic nomination for president, and got swept up into rallies and parades. It was an introduction to the seductive possibility that politics could bring change.

The courtship and subsequent marriage of Michelle Robinson and the future President Barack Obama was distilled long ago for political consumption. If their story was woven into a fairy tale, in "Becoming" Michelle Obama turns the fabric over to reveal the rough side. Her account of their path to parenthood is particularly gripping.

Hard work and persistence was no match for infertility. Barack Obama was then an Illinois state senator, and initial attempts to procreate were coordinated with the Illinois legislature's schedule, not ovulation. Michelle was left mostly alone to navigate the process, including giving herself daily injections.

"It was maybe then that I felt a first flicker of resentment involving politics and Barack's unshakeable commitment to the work," she writes. "I sensed already that the sacrifices would be more mine than his."

She was right. It was a pattern that continued throughout their marriage. After Malia and Sasha were born, Michelle forced Barack, who sometimes comes off as selfish, into couples' counseling. "I feared that the path he'd chosen for himself … would end up steamrolling over our every need."

Many black women can imagine Michelle Obama as a good girlfriend; her struggles are relatable. It's comforting to read that she, too, battles insecurity, wondering if she's good enough.

Obama gets frustrated by her husband's messiness. She watches HGTV to relax. She ate fast food in her car. She leans on close relationships with her parents, older brother and a squad of strong women mentors and friends. She tries to ignore what others think of her - both a high school counselor's assessment that she wasn't Princeton material and political adversaries' racist and sexist barbs - but she admits it all stings.

And she answers, indirectly, women's perennial question: Can I have it all - a family, marriage, career? No. Obama's ambition and career were subsumed by her husband's. But she made the best of it. What she could control, she would. "What didn't you do to bury me/ but you forgot that I was a seed."

The writer is the editor and publisher
of MLK50: Justice Through Journalism

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