History has proved over and over again that the place of wives of great men is usually in the shadows of their husbands.
Many famous men, from Abraham Lincoln to Napoleon Bonaparte and even Shakespeare, are widely written about.
However, both 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 away from 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 in the introduction to her much anticipated 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 lets loose, shrugs off the fame and offers us her story in a very intimate manner.
MEET MICHELLE THE GIRL
In the first section ‘Becoming Me’, Michelle focuses on her childhood in the Southside 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 for 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 thought the high school counsellor thought she wasn’t ‘Princeton material.’
This section also gives us a glimpse into the teenage Michelle and her friendships; the most memorable one being with Reverend Jesse Jackson’s daughter Santita. It was at the Jackson’s house that Michelle had 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 came 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 bike he was riding simply because the officer didn’t think that a young black boy could honestly own a bike. “The colour of our skin makes us vulnerable. It was a thing we’d always navigate,” Michelle writes.
She begins to see discrimination in the neighbourhood, at school and even as a university student at Princeton.
Her eyes then open 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.
Of her own grandfather Dandy, Michelle writes, “If this were an American dream, Dandy, who arrived in Chicago in the early 1930s would have found a good job and a pathway to college. But the reality was far different. Jobs were hard to come by, limited at least somewhat by the fact that managers regularly hired European immigrants over African American workers … Gradually he (Dandy) downgraded his hopes, letting go of the idea of college, thinking he’d train to be an electrician. But this too, was quickly thwarted.”
‘Becoming Us’ focuses on Michelle’s marriage to Obamain 1992, the struggles to get children, his journey into politics and its effect on their young family.
Here, Michelle passionately and candidly 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 and family balance emerges, and though Becoming does not offer a universal solution on how this matter should be handled, it offers invaluable experiences and lessons which couples can learn from.
Weighty personality conflicts emerge: A gregarious Michelle coupled with a man who is a lover of thoughts, books and solitude.
In fact, just six weeks into their marriage, Barrack had to fly off to Bali, Indonesia, to complete what would be Dreams from My Father — a manuscript that was so delayed that the publisher who had given Barrack $40,000 in advance to write it cancelled the contract and asked for a refund.
“I was the yang to his yin,” says the super planner who was always baffled by Obama’s random habits. “He was a serial over-committer. Taking on new projects without much regard for limits of time and energy.”
Her young lover, who seemed self-assured and stayed late into the night ploughing through history, biographies and Toni Morrison, made Michelle question her own motives and passions.
Though she was doing excellently with two Ivy League university degrees an office and a good salary at the prestigious law firm Sidley & Austin, she opted to quit her job and take a pay cut so as to venture into a more community focused field.
‘Becoming Us’ is full of juicy anecdotes about the White House years and Michelle’s pet project to reduce child obesity in America.
CONVERSATIONS WITH FORMER FIRST LADIES
It is also laced with conversations with the former first ladies, their fears about raising famous children in White House and her opinion on Obama’s successor Donald Trump.
In many ways, it is very 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 important because in this fake news era, hundreds of rumours about her have been splashed on the front pages of newspapers and magazines.
Though only in its third week, Becoming is already the best-selling book of 2018 having sold over 2 million copies in the USA and Canada alone.
Michelle’s book tours have also been fully booked with readers in New York waiting for more than 16 hours in the cold to get their copies signed.
Even at the Southbank centre in London, the tickets for Michelle’s book tour sold out within half an hour with 60,000 people attempting to buy one ticket.
All this could be a clear indication that the world has ushered in a new dispensation and is ready to include the stories of women in its history.
SHEDDING OFF THE CLOAK
By shedding off the cloak of propriety and wearing her different hats, Michelle has made it OK for powerful women to be both strong and vulnerable, to talk freely about the discomfort and stress that stems from holding such big offices.
Hannah Giorgis, in reviewing Becoming for the Atlantic, rightfully points out that the book is a political memoir partly aimed at solidifying Barack Obama’s legacy as a complex and multi-layered milestone for the country.
But so is the fact that it is a witty, funny and excellently paced book.
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 their won way.
After all, unless the lion learns to tell its tale, the story will always glorify the hunter.