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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 27, New Delhi, June 19, 2021

A Black Woman’s Journey to White House | M R Narayan Swamy

Friday 18 June 2021



Reviewed by M R Narayan Swamy


by Michelle Obama

published by Viking
(an imprint of Penguin Books)
Pages: 428; Price: Rs 999

Long before she moved into the opulent White House as the US First Lady, Michelle Obama’s family lived in the poor side of Chicago, one of the few who didn’t own a home. The lack of air-conditioning made the apartment unbearably hot in the afternoons. Michelle, her brother and their parents were packed into less than 900 square feet, with no privacy. And these were not the only problems which the blacks — like Michelle’s family — faced.

Deeply held discrimination irrevocably derailed the destinies of generations of African Americans, including many men in Michelle’s family, limiting their income, opportunity and aspirations. The lack of stable and high-paying jobs kept them from buying homes, sending their children to college or saving for retirement. Blacks were routinely suspected. When Michelle’s brother rode his new bike, a police officer accused him of stealing it, unwilling to accept that a young black boy would have got it in an honest way. Even as Michelle was enrolled in Bryn Mawr, the school’s student population grew blacker and poorer every year as white families left for the prosperous suburbs.

Michelle was keen to join Princeton University. But the counselor at Whitney M. Young High School — which she had moved into from Bryn Mawr and which too was 80 percent non-white — stunned her by saying: “I’m not sure you’re Princeton material.” Michelle was angry. “My only thought was ... I’ll show you.”

Princeton was extremely white and very male. It was the first time Michelle would be part of a predominantly white community. But she didn’t have many white friends. The students of colour largely stuck together. “Even today, with white students continuing to outnumber students of colour on college campuses, the burden of assimilation is put largely on the shoulders of minority students. In my experience, it’s a lot to ask.”

It was at the Chicago office of a high-end law firm, Sidley & Austin, where she got a job that Michelle met Barack Obama, who had just finished his first year of law school when he got a chance to work for a while. Michelle was to be Barack’s adviser. She took him out for lunch on company expense on the first day, marking the involuntary start of a friendship that culminated in marriage.

Before Barack Hussein Obama — that name would later spark much rumour mongering — was elected to the Illinois senate in November 1996, Michelle had little faith in politics. Politics, she felt, had traditionally been used against blacks to keep them isolated and excluded, leaving the community undereducated, unemployed and underpaid. The first time she had gotten close to big-time politics was when she became friends with Sanita, the eldest child of the Reverend Jesse Jackson, the firebrand Baptist preacher.

Barack’s political trajectory zoomed. He was re-elected to the Illinois senate. After a temporary setback, his electrifying speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston made an NBC commentator declare: “I have just seen the first black president.” He was soon elected to the US Senate, with the largest margin in Illinois history and the biggest landslide of any Senate race. But when Barack decided to run for presidency, Michelle was sure he would not win because, after all, he was a black man in America.

While Barack hogged the limelight, Michelle bore the brunt of running the household which would include two daughters, Malia and Sasha. The more Barack plunged into politics, the more was the family burden Michelle had to bear on her own. Motherhood and the need to spend more time with the children made Michelle quit her high-paying job at Sidley & Austin, and take a city hall job as an assistant to Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley — for half her earlier salary. The more politics consumed Barack, the more adjustments Michelle had to make. She ended up taking two more jobs — first with Public Allies, a community oriented organization (“In hindsight, I think of it as the best job I ever had”), and then with the University of Chicago — before Barack scripted history to become the first black president of the United States.

Motherhood was Michelle’s motivator. It dictated her movements, her decisions, and the rhythm of every day. Her mother (father had died by then) helped in taking care of the children as Barack’s politics kept him more and more away from home. At one time, he was flying back and forth to D.C. all the time. She admits that every election campaign of Barack put a little dent in her soul and also in their marriage. “I wanted Barack for our family. Everyone else seemed to want him for our country.”

Michelle was pained at the kind of charges flung at her husband during the battle for presidency. His citizenship was questioned, with suggestions that he was born not in Hawai but in Kenya and so ineligible to become president; that he was schooled in a radical Muslim madrassa and sworn into the Senate on a Koran; and that he had a friend who was a domestic terrorist from the 1970s! Although her public rallies in support of her husband helped him, she felt worn out physically and emotionally. Michelle was so ripped apart by the media over her speeches and body language that she wanted to call it quits before better sense prevailed.

It was during the presidential campaign that Michelle realized that the hopes of change that Barack had been talking all this while were really possible. As it became clear that Barack was likely to win, Secret Service protection was assigned to Michelle and the daughters. The family’s privacy and freedom slipped away.

When Barack became the 44th president, the White House — with 132 rooms, 35 bathrooms and 28 fireplaces spread out over six floors — became the new home. This was a world apart from the cramped house Michelle had lived in not too long ago in Chicago. Life suddenly became a bubble, sealed off at least partially from the everyday world. But the Obamas knew that as the first African American family in the White House, they were seen as representatives of the black race. “Any error or lapse in judgment would be magnified, read as something more than what it was.”

Michelle plunged into several campaigns as the First Lady, which she describes as “a strange kind of sidecar to the presidency”. The daughters went to school, constantly shadowed by the Secret Service. In a bid to democratize the White House, she began to invite school children and families of US war veterans for social gatherings. She set up — for the first time — a huge kitchen garden in the White House lawns and advocated for healthy food for children across the country to battle obesity. She learnt for the first time and from close quarters the suffering of the war veterans and their families.

But politics would be politics. Despite the Republicans, Barack got a second term as president, and it was better than the first. Osama bin Laden was gone but ISIS had arrived. The homicide rate in Chicago was only rising. Killings of innocent children in schools became widespread. The Obamas’ presence in the White House was celebrated by millions 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.”

Becoming is a captivating and intensely honest account of an ordinary black woman who was catapulted into the White House after battling great odds in life. You cannot put it down even if you are no lover of American politics.

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