On Watching Michelle Obama Becoming…

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Image courtesy of commonswikimedia.org

She is an international icon, yet she talks with strangers as if they are her very best friends. She revels in her status, yet openly discusses her vulnerabilities. She moves deftly from riotous humor to wrenching soul-searching with an apparent spontaneity that’s surely grounded in practice. She’s a marvel.

If you’re fortunate enough to have Netflix access, you can watch the new documentary, Becoming, now. If you don’t have Netflix, I’m sure it will be more widely distributed in the near future.

I don’t think my description of the film will detract from your experience: Michelle Obama’s magnetism—and the poignancy of the recent trajectory of her life and that of President Obama—must be witnessed to be fully appreciated.

(The amazing orator, President Charisma, plays a relatively small part in this documentary.)

But if you’d rather watch it without a sense of deja vu, I excuse you from reading this post—with absolutely no hard feelings.

I viewed the documentary as a welcome antidote to the present. It combines snippets from Michelle’s 34-city 2018 book tour following the publication of her book Becoming, with shots from those often happy White House years filled with hope, and remembrances of her childhood and early years with Barack.

It reminds us that our national reality not so many years ago says much about who we are as a people—the good and the bad—but in better perspective than many of us can currently manage.

When asked what those last hours in the White House were like, she says they were very busy. Apparently, daughters Malia and Sasha often had sleepovers there with their friends, and the friends pleaded for one last visit the night before.

So the 44th First Lady of the United States ran around calling out to sleepy young girls,

“Wake up; the Trumps are coming and you got to get out!”

While we’re on the subject of the White House, I note two actions Michelle took early on.

She and Barack were dismayed they were being served by aging African American or Latino men dressed in tuxedos. These men could have been her uncles, she said.

“I didn’t want them [her daughters] seeing grown men serving them in tuxedos.”

So they changed the dress code.

Additionally, she begged the housekeepers not to make Malia and Sasha’s beds. As she explained:

“They won’t be living here forever. I am not raising girls who don’t know how to make a bed!”

The last day in the White House was highly emotional, but she knew she had to keep her feelings hidden for fear her tears would be misunderstood. But once on the plane, she says:

“I sobbed for thirty minutes—eight years of trying to do everything perfectly.”

Elsewhere she notes that

“It was hard to wake up every day and maintain the level of perfection absolutely required of Barack and me as President and First Lady.”

She recalls the first campaign, in 2008. She had become an effective campaigner, and the opposition knew it. She was depicted as “the angry black woman,” and Fox News commentators asked: “Does Michelle Obama hate America?”

The fun “fist bump” the Obamas shared became a nefarious sign of their alleged radicalism, their “otherness.”

This barrage had an impact: she began to talk less freely and became “more scripted than ever before.”

Being so falsely portrayed wasn’t easy. She is candid about the impact.

“That does hurt. That changes the shape of a person’s soul.”

If anyone wonders whether Michelle Obama will ever run for office, which is an oft-heard liberal dream, I believe she has definitively provided her answer.

With Obama’s election, she recalled:

“Life changes instantly—we were shot out of a cannon and didn’t have time to adjust. Every blink of eye is analyzed. Your life isn’t yours anymore.”

There’s surely a measure of irony in the fact that she chose this very public book tour as a time to reflect on what she’d just been through, to be “unplugged for the first time in a long time.”

I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest that it was also a thoroughly justified means of reminding the public of Barack and Michelle Obama’s many solid accomplishments in those eight years—at a time when they have—in public, at least—silently watched the White House’s current occupant systematically seek to destroy every one of them.

There’s no mention in the film of Michelle’s famous “kitchen” garden, that tangible evidence of her successfully launching a campaign to improve the health of Americans, especially school children, which included improvements in the quality of school lunches.

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Image courtesy of letsmove.obamawhitehouse.archives.gov

To me, the destruction of that garden and all its bounty was an early and potent symbol of the senseless cruelty and disregard for the public’s health that Donald Trump has demonstrated (an attitude writ large in our present disastrous situation).

But back to our heroine. On the book tour, she greets each admirer with warmth and humor. They love her, and she basks in that affection. She challenges young people, urging them to ask themselves these questions: Who are you? What are you about? And what gives you joy?

They tell her how profoundly she’s affected them. One young woman says that Michelle’s discussing her postpartum depression helped her get through her own. Michelle describes the benefits she derives:

“Sharing somebody’s story gives me what I don’t have because all my actions are so sanitized. It helps me stay connected.”

Watching her connect with each book buyer on those interminably long lines was one of my favorite parts of the film.

Notably, in one gathering she met with the members of two book clubs who had read Becoming: one comprised of all African American women; the other all white women. The book “creates bridges.”

One of the white women describes her family’s being part of the “white flight” from Chicago neighborhoods as the racial composition changed. Michelle observes that it was her family from whom they were fleeing.

She points to her class photos: the kindergarten class has many white faces; the 8th grade class is entirely African American.

When an African American teenage girl asks her how she’s able to avoid feeling invisible, she pays tribute to her parents: at the dinner table on the South Side of Chicago, she and her brother were always encouraged to speak up, ask questions.

“My parents always made me feel visible,” she says. “We can’t afford to wait for the world to regard us as equal. I have high expectations of young people.”

She describes in detail a searing occasion on which—without the confidence her parents’ instilled—she might have been invisible. Her brother had gone to Princeton, but the high school guidance counselor told Michelle she was not Princeton material.

She did go to Princeton, where she learned on arrival that one of her intended roommates had moved out after hearing she was African-American, believing she was dangerous.

Still, she excelled there, graduated from Harvard Law, and learned that not everyone in these hallowed institutions is as special as one might think.

She makes a similar observation based on world travels and being in some of the most rarefied meetings among leading, exalted individuals.

“I’ve been at the most powerful tables in the world. I’m coming down from the mountaintop. Don’t listen [to the naysayers who may question these young people’s worth]; they don’t know how they got there.”

Of the guidance counselor’s misguidance, she says she’s “still a little salty about that one.”

In the course of the book tour, she fills large venues—with people exuding happiness and good feeling.

“What I experience in those big arenas is the power of gathering: we’re sharing a set of experiences.”

The image of those diverse, highly civilized audiences is in stark relief to the Presidential rallies marked by hatred and divisiveness that we’ve been witnessing in the past several years.

Michelle provides a stunning insight into her thoughts, feelings, and White House life in detailing the day that marriage equality became the law of the land.

It happened to be the same tragic day as the funeral services for the African Americans gunned down in church by a white supremacist in Charleston.

When the Obamas returned from Charleston to the White House, now illuminated with the appropriate equality colors, they saw joyous people congregating in front. “I need to be a part of this,” she said, dragging Malia as her partner in crime to get outside.

After pulling on the locked front doors, she persuaded the Secret Service to let them slip out the back, where they saw some of the celebration from the steps.

“I had to have some indicator that all this is worth it,” she says—“we’re moving the country forward.”

She expresses sadness about the voters in 2016.

“A lot of our folks didn’t vote. It was almost like a slap in the face. I understand those who voted for Trump. But people who didn’t vote at all—young people, women—thought this was a game. They just couldn’t be bothered at all. That’s my trauma.”

I sure hope that sentiment resonates broadly this November.

Does she still feel that “when they go low, we go high?” she was asked. “I try,” she says, with a wry smile. But she does still feel there’s a desire to overcome “the racialism and tribalism that are tearing this country apart.”

“If we’re gonna get anywhere with each other, we have to say who were are…I am the former First Lady, and the descendant of slaves…

“The energy that is out there is much better than what we see. This country is good; the people are good.”

When Stephen Colbert interviews her about filling arenas with people from all different backgrounds, she says,

“I’m not alone. I like this not being divided. Share stories; be vulnerable. I remain hopeful that people want better…”

She has been doing just that. And now,

”My life is starting to be mine again. There is another chapter waiting for me out there.”

I haven’t yet read her book Becoming. But I look forward to reading every chapter. And then watching her evolve into her next chapter…and the next…

Annie

36 thoughts on “On Watching Michelle Obama Becoming…

      1. I found it interesting that he’s vetting women that I (personally) have never heard of. I’m sure in the political world they are worthy candidates, but it does surprise me that he would seek a lesser-known. But then again, it’s experience and compatibility that will make the combination work … not necessarily notoriety.

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      2. I think there’s a certain amount of political politesse in the vetting process: names are publicly floated to show respect—whether or not they’re under serious consideration. I have to believe that Biden, who knows well what the role of VP can entail and has made it clear he realizes he’s a transitional figure, will select someone he believes can step into the presidency pronto.

        Just curious: who was being vetted who was unfamiliar to you? Maybe there are some I hadn’t heard mentioned.

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      3. Annie, I would have to go back through the TONS of stuff I’ve read over several days to find where I saw the article … so I hope you’ll forgive me and just take my word. 😟

        If I do happen to come across it, I’ll send you the info post haste! 😉

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      4. who was being vetted who was unfamiliar to you?

        One lesser-known person under consideration is rep Val Demings of Florida. She’s black, a former police chief, from the biggest swing state, and said to be an excellent public speaker. There’s also Michelle Lujan Grisham, the governor of New Mexico. I’m not as familiar with the grounds for considering her.

        The most popular option among Democratic voters is Elizabeth Warren, but if she were to leave the Senate, her replacement would be chosen by the Massachusetts governor, who is a Republican — a serious issue when every Senate seat may count. Gretchen Whitmer is another obvious option, but it would be hard for her to campaign while also functioning as governor of Michigan, with its terrible covid-19 problem. I’ve heard that Klobuchar isn’t well liked by black voters, which could be an issue since they’re such an important part of the party base. By process of elimination, if I had to guess, I’d guess it will be Kamala Harris.

        Biden will certainly be extremely cautious. Given his age, his running mate will attract more than the usual amount of scrutiny. That was also true of McCain in 2008, whose careless choice may have helped sink his candidacy (though I doubt any Republican could have won that election anyway). There’s a serious chance that whoever he chooses will become the first woman president. There would be a certain appropriateness in choosing Hillary Clinton, but she doesn’t give the impression of being interested.

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      5. I like Val Demings a lot; I think she did a terrific job in the impeachment hearings. But I’m not sure she’s well known enough or has been in the national arena long enough. I think it was Jonathan Capehart who made a compelling numerical case for why the nominee should be a black woman: in terms of turning out the vote in critical states—women in general and African American women in particular fueled 2018 House wins and transformed Biden’s campaign (of course it was James Clyburn who set the ball rolling, and I’m sure he’s involved in this process). And after Biden’s latest gaffe, I think it’s even more important that he shows the necessary respect. But as I’ve mentioned elsewhere in these comments, he knows better than most what’s needed in a VP. I believe/hope he will pick someone he not only feels comfortable with, but also can see assuming the Presidency.
        I also think it could well be Kamala, and though she wasn’t embraced by African American voters during the primaries, there seem to have been regrets when she had to withdraw. Although Jill Biden was reportedly very angry with her for attacking Joe over busing in the first debate, she was apparently very close with Beau Biden. Susan Rice would be an interesting choice, but I’m not sure she would bring the energizing factor.
        Michelle Lujan Grisham is the governor of New Mexico and the first Latina to serve in that capacity. In Congress, she led the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
        One other thing about Kamala: If trump drops Pence and brings on Nikki Haley, Kamala’s prosecutorial skills could be most useful.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. Just wonderful. You are an amazing writer and clear thinker. I only wish I sat next to you in Mrs. Discin’s English class. I might have become someone else

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    1. Thank you so much! I was just—and I mean as in last Thursday—telling friends a story about Mrs. Dincin. Uncanny! I’ll connect to share it with you. Great to hear from you!

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  2. The most interesting part of your piece was about how she was affected by the bad treatment she got by those who were political opponents of her husband. And then I thought about how the current First Lady has had the same treatment, but with the dial turned to 11 and left there. I think we must decide whether First Spouses are fair game in politics or not. I believe not and have been saddened by the pariah status of the current First Lady. I think the arts and entertainment communities have much to answer for here.
    I do not adore Mrs O (as is fashionable) but there is much to admire in the way she created a strong and safe environment for her daughters in the fishbowl that is Washington. She had one of the hardest jobs there is – all the flak but none of the power – and did well with it.

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    1. Last time I saw, no one was calling Melania a monkey and threatening her life. The situations are so vastly different that I don’t see any grounds for comparison. Because she hasn’t been featured in a magazine? I recall two instances when she was criticized. First, when she wore an “ I really don’t care, do u?” jacket on her way to visit migrant children in cages; the other the pathetic hypocrisy of her anti-bullying online efforts (practically non-existent) in view of her husband’s taking bullying to new depths. I would feel sorry for her being married to him except she clearly knew whom she was getting. And there was one time when some in the press wrote negatively about Barron and were justifiably called out for it. From what I see, Melania has chosen to stay out of the public eye and shield her son, and I have no problem with that.

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  3. It sounds good – I really enjoyed the book when I read it last year…..well worth a read. She’s a real person, as opposed to the current first lady who seems so wooden in comparison. I alternate between being annoyed and feeling sorry for her.

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    1. I’ve heard that the book is good. I’m thinking about the audio because I like to hear her voice. When I read some individual reviews on Amazon, they were thinly disguised tirades to denigrate her—so depressing.
      I never think about Melania at all; I suspect she’ll go down in history as one of the least interesting First Ladies we’ve had, whereas Michelle is so very interesting and accomplished.
      But I guess that’s Melania’s choice.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes Annie, that’s a good description. She’s not interesting, and although some of her clothes are stylish, she reminds me of a Barbie doll. I never read book reviews on Amazon, but prefer Goodreads.com. That’s where I head to if I want to see if a book is worthwhile, or if I’m not enjoying it and don’t know if I want to continue. Some of the reviewers are paid by publishing companies to preview their new books, the majority are honest, individual reviews.

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      2. I didn’t go to Amazon for reviews; I just stumbled on them. But they were so mean-spirited and out of sync that they really struck me as politically motivated, if not worse, rather than literary.

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      3. Thanks, Joni. I follow Frum on Twitter and he’s wise and witty, but I don’t want to read a book about the Trumpocalypse as I see it every day. I do appreciate the suggestion, however.

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      4. I sometimes wonder if Trump isn’t behind Melania’s infrequent appearances. He’s such a gloryhound, he may be afraid she’d get too much attention. But it may also have something to do with their son. I’ve read that he’s autistic so maybe she just wants to protect him from what the press might do to him. We’ll probably never know.

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      5. I prefer to think she can’t stand the sight of him. She is, however, clearly protective of her son. I really can’t see the press going after young Barron, autistic or not. That’s something his father would do, though.

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  4. I read Ms. Obama’s book, but didn’t know there was a film out! Fortunately, we do have Netflix and this is on my MUST BE WATCHED list for the coming week. I admire her so much … she and Barack served this country with grace and dignity, never a harsh word, never a breath of scandal. The contrast between them and the current “First Couple” is unbelievable. Thanks for this post, Annie!

    Liked by 1 person

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