Commentary on Becoming Part 1: Becoming Me by Michelle Obama
The day has finally arrived that we have been gifted with First Lady Michelle Obama’s much-anticipated book. I have not been able to put the book down since purchasing mine. I would like to provide some reflections on the first riveting and insightful section of the book Becoming Me. The book is broken into three parts, chronologically going through her life history, from her childhood in a small, quaint apartment in the Southside of Chicago, to her time as the first black First Lady of the United States of America. This section takes us from the beginnings of the powerhouse and role model that is Michelle Lavaughn Robinson, up until she begins working for the law firm Sidley & Austin, after finishing her law education at Harvard University, in my neck of the woods. Firstly, the book has such a high quality of writing and imagery, and she really paints a picture of what her humble beginnings were and what it felt like growing up in the era that she did and in the place that she did. I won’t tell the entire section, because I hope you will read it for yourself, but what was striking for me was that her experiences were so similar to mine. It really hit home for me that blacks in this country have a specific set of shared elements of our life history that define us as a people. Below, I will be sharing some of the things that our wonderful first lady said that has instilled in me a new drive to keep keeping on in the hopes of “becoming” the woman I want to be.
“I can’t tell you much about the counselor, because I deliberately and almost instantly blotted this experience out…I got stuck on one single sentence the woman uttered. ‘I’m not sure,’ she said, giving me a perfunctory, patronizing smile, ‘that you’re Princeton material.'”
Students of color are often underestimated-This experience that she remarks about with her high school counselor has been so many of us, it has definitely been me. While applying to my PhD programs, one white male professor asked me have I thought about waiting to apply, another supposed mentor (white female) fixes to tell me a story about a young women she knew that applied to six schools her first round and did not get accepted into any, and so I should probably not get my hopes up-this was her way of encouraging me. Despite the lack of support, what is important is that neither myself nor Michelle Obama let that negativity fester. We proved all the doubters wrong.
“Failure is a feeling long before it’s an actual result”
Failure is a feeling first I never thought about it this way, but it is very true. As soon as you start telling yourself that you are a failure, then your actions will also reflect that. So don’t-
“All of [them] have had doubters….Some continue to have roaring, stadium-sized collections of critics and naysayers who will shout I told you so at every little misstep or mistake. The noise doesn’t go away, but the most successful people I know have figured out how to live with it, to lean on the people who believe in them, and to push onward with their goals”.
Onward and Upward– Speaking to my point earlier about doubters, I think it is so important to continue to push onward and upward towards your ultimate goals. There will always be people whispering negativity in your ear, but if you have something you are passionate about, or something you want to try, go for it. You only have on life.
“But even today, with white students continuing to outnumber students of color 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”.
“Minority and underprivileged students rise to the challenge all of the time-but it takes energy. It takes energy to be the only black person in a lecture hall or one of few non white people trying out for a play….It requires effort, an extra level of confidence, to speak in those settings and own your presence in the room”.
It takes energy– I couldn’t have characterized my experience in higher education any better than this. I appreciate her for acknowledging that student of color are not asking for a hand out, but recognition that a system was designed that does not support us-and it takes energy-trust me I know. You feel the pressure always, always. You feel like eyes are always on you because you are the only one. You get drained by people making assumptions about you because of the color of your skin, or you age, but then looking shocked when you dismantle all those assumptions.
“Cathy, one of my roommates, would surface in the news many years later, describing with embarrassment, something I hadn’t known when we lived together: Her mother had been so appalled that her daughter had been assigned a black roommate…she’d been “horrified” by my proximity to her daughter”.
Fear of the black body is a real thing, and people of color, especially black women who room with white women, have had horror story roommate situations-trust me I know-my ex-roommate threatened to call the cops on me if I was not moved out of my last apartment by 8 am on MOVE-IN-DAY.
“I would add, with a touch of pride or maybe defiance, ‘the South Side’. I knew that if those words conjured anything at all, it was probably stereotyped images of a black ghetto, given that gang battles and violence in housing projects were what most often showed up in the news. But again, I was trying …to represent the alternative”.
This is so important and I admire her being proud of where she is from despite the negativity that is attributed to it. I get this all the time, when I say I was born and raised in Detroit, MI, “oh, I am so sorry”, or “wow, really, have you been exposed to gang violence?” and the list of statements goes on. As Michelle says, she was trying to represent the alternative. That you could be from the Southside of Chicago and still be successful, that I can grow up on Harvard in between East Warren and Cadieux, in the hood, and still make it to a top ten Social Work PhD program.
“…I was also coming to the understanding that there were other versions of being black in America. I was meeting kids from East Coast cities whose roots were Puerto Rican, Cuban, and Dominican”.
For the culture. I appreciate her pointing this out as a significant part of her experience at Princeton, because it is important. I think this is the danger in using African-American and Black interchangeably, and race and ethnicity interchangeably. For my research, I have decided to use “Black” when discussing the population that I am interested in studying, because oftentimes all people of African descent get grouped into the African-American category, and that is not accurate and does not capture the entire essence of the black experience.
Stay tuned for parts 2 and 3! Her book is very affordable, I purchased mine on Amazon for 20 dollars. It is worth the money, for sure, and I am still reading through it. Her book has sold 1.4 million copies in just one week. Get your copy today: Here
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