Saturday 25 May 2019

The First Lady who never settled for second place

Memoir: Becoming Michelle Obama, Viking €25.00

Michelle Obama speaking in 2012
Michelle Obama speaking in 2012
Michelle Obama with husband Barack after his 2009 inauguration

Frieda Klotz

The greatest risk with political memoirs is that they will be boring, sticking to the approved account. This book, though, pulls no punches. After years of maintaining the public stance American politics required of her, Michelle Obama is finally speaking out, and she's in control. Becoming, despite its awkward title, shares the former first lady's opinions on a range of issues, including her thoughts on racism, sexism, marriage, relationships and Donald Trump.

Michelle Obama's memoir has been long awaited and remained tightly under a global embargo before publication. The accompanying book tour has been compared to a Madonna concert, with tickets costing up to $4,750 for a front row seat and meet-and-greet package.

An article in The New York Times cautioned against complaining when people from minority groups want to make money from their experiences, but concluded knowingly with a quote from Michelle herself: "We have a hard time saying… that I know my worth and I can put a monetary number on it, too."

Such backhanded observations embody the troubles Michelle Obama faced during her husband's campaigns and presidency, pilloried for speaking her mind but, ultimately, for being black, different, other. (Remember the "terrorist" fist-bump?) Here, she responds, noting the way in which stereotypes, like that of "angry black woman," act as a trap. When she was attacked during the campaign, she says, "I was now starting to actually feel a bit angry, which then made me feel worse."

Michelle Obama with husband Barack after his 2009 inauguration
Michelle Obama with husband Barack after his 2009 inauguration

The juicy parts of the book were in the ether pre-publication and have already been dissected on talk shows. Michelle talks about her miscarriage, the Obamas' experience with IVF and their time in couples' counselling. While it's true that discussion of these issues helps to remove taboos, the book's real value lies in its detailed account of what it's like to be a black woman in American public life. It both conveys the nastiness of politics and shows that on race and gender, America still has a long way to go.

Parts of Michelle's story read like a typical tale of American privilege. As a young lawyer working in Chicago, she earned about $120,000 per year, drove a Saab and subscribed to a "wine service". The difference is that as an African-American woman, she had earned these luxuries rather than simply acquiring them. In fact, money was a constant concern and her parents didn't own their own house until the aunt who was renting to them died.

Race is everywhere in this account. Michelle writes empathetically about her snappy, angry grandad, born in 1912 - a clever man who might have become a professor but, facing educational, financial and professional barriers, never could. "My grandfather lived with the bitter residue of his own dreams," she says.

Yet her family was comfortably working-class. Her mother had already taught her to read before she went to kindergarten, and she later won a place at a high school for gifted children in Chicago, getting up at 5am to wind her way across the city by bus.

After that it was Princeton, then Harvard Law, followed by a series of jobs at which she excelled. Her stature as an imposingly accomplished professional woman lies in no doubt.

As a working mom, she would get up at 5am to ensure she got the job done. She remarks of her role in community relations at the University of Chicago Medical Center, "I started with one person working for me but eventually led a team of 22."

Possibly it was the depth of her professional experience that made the transition to politician's wife a tricky one. Early on in Obama's primary campaign, she addressed audiences largely unscripted and from the heart, and was known within the team as "the Closer".

This ended with the infamous speech in which she talked of feeling proud of her country for the first time, a line that was stripped of context and used to hint that as an African-American, her loyalties would always be mixed.

After that debacle, David Axelrod and Valerie Jarrett replayed videos of her speeches to her, removing her voice. Her face "was too serious, too severe", she realised, "at least given what people were conditioned to expect from a woman."

It's a telling moment, showing the extent to which a politician's wife is expected to be voiceless. Subsequently she focused on talking about family, her roots and her love for her husband.

Michelle was more than aware of the expectations people held of her, but the book's outspokenness is a sign that those constraints are past.

She can now respond directly to the columnist Maureen Dowd who suggested that she emasculated her husband when she talked about how he left dirty socks lying around at home: "Maureen Dowd would have preferred, apparently, that I adopt the painted-on smile and the adoring gaze."

And what about Barack? Beyond his untidy habits, we glimpse a philosophical, almost ascetic creature, a brilliant man who was never interested in the money his law career could bring in.

Some of his success was messy. He missed the deadline for Dreams from My Father, losing the book deal and having to repay the $40,000 advance. He then went (with Michelle's permission) to a beach in Bali where he wrote the entire thing in six weeks, and found a new publisher.

Where Michelle liked order, he preferred chaos, or at least over activity. She notes, rather wittily, that once he decided to run for president he became "a kind of human blur, a pixelated version of the guy I knew".

Despite the Obamas' triumphs, Becoming could never have a simple, happy ending, with Trump's arrival complicating everything that came before it.

The Obamas' place in history is already assured. But by crafting her own account of her life in the White House, Michelle brings a welcome, female perspective to American politics as it continues along its unpredictable trajectory.

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