What is the book about?
Becoming is the memoir of Michelle Obama, former US First Lady, published in 2018. The book delves deep into her upbringing and its impact on her future life. The book provides an explanation of how Michelle found her voice. The book gives its readers an insight into what it was like in the White House, what it was like running a highly impactful public health campaign, and what it is like being a mother. Covering a wide range of Michelle Obama’s experiences, Michelle described authoring this book as a “deeply personal experience”.
A highly influential book, Becoming sold more copies than any other book in the US in 2018. More remarkably, Becoming was only released 15 days before the end of 2018. Therefore, it sold more books in that short space of time than any other 2018 book had in the entirety of that year. The book is broken down into 24 chapters but is ultimately separated into three sections. The first section is titled Becoming Me and focuses on Michelle’s early life. Becoming Us then delves into her education, meeting Barack Obama and the beginning of Barack’s political career. Finally, Becoming More concludes with thoughts on the experiences surrounding Barack’s presidency, Michelle’s Let’s Move campaign, and her role as “head Mom in chief” to her and Barack’s two daughters: Malia and Sasha. Therefore, this book summary will also be broken down into these three sections. Each section will be filled with the most impactful experiences, thoughts, and conclusions made by Michelle Obama.
About the author
Michelle Obama is an American lawyer and author. Raised in Chicago, Michelle is a graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Law School. After working for multiple law firms and for non-profits, Michelle’s most influential role was as the First Lady of the US from 2009 to 2017. As the first African-American First Lady of the US, Michelle was a trailblazer during Barack Obama’s two terms and she continues to be a trailblazer today. During her time in the White House, she served as an advocate for poverty awareness, education, nutrition, physical activity, and healthy eating.
“For me, becoming isn’t about arriving somewhere or achieving a certain aim. I see it instead as forward motion, a means of evolving, a way to reach continuously toward a better self. The journey doesn’t end.”
Michelle’s early years in Chicago
Born in 1968 in Chicago’s South Side, Michelle Robinson was brought up in a brick bungalow belonging to her mother’s aunt. Michelle recalls the national riots, which included in Chicago, in response to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. She barely understood what was going on in her neighborhood at the time, though, as she was so young.
Family, as it still is, was hugely important to Michelle Obama when she was growing up in Chicago. Her mother taught her how to read from a very early age and she would accompany Michelle to the public library while her father worked as a city laborer. Her father was heavily involved in her and her brothers’ educations, though, making sure that they were exposed to art and jazz. This exposure to music encouraged Michelle to learn the piano at the age of four. Music runs in the family for Michelle, so she finds it easy to play the piano. She was taught by her great aunt, Robbie. This period was one of the earliest examples of Michelle’s strong-minded nature. Her and Robbie would often clash during lessons, She even thought about becoming a musician one day, but eventually decided to pursue lawyerly opportunities. In the book, Michelle describes a memory of how accustomed she had become to her great aunt’s piano. She had perfectly practiced a song she was set to perform at Roosevelt University, but the unique thing about her great aunt’s piano is its middle C had a chip in it. When on stage, a young Michelle froze as she was unable to find middle C on this new piano; her great aunt then came on stage and pointed it out to Michelle. Michelle then performed her song as she had originally hoped. This is just one snapshot of how close Michelle was with her family.
Racial dynamics while growing up in Chicago’s South Side
One of the remarkable features of Michelle’s upbringing is that she was living in an area of Chicago that was 96% white in 1950 and then 96% black by 1981. She grew up in the middle of this transition, meaning she was surrounded by a mixture of both black and white families. However, more and more families decided to move away to the suburbs and this led to less funding and the area being deemed a “ghetto”. Michelle and her family, though, saw this area as their home. Michelle’s mother was a highly influential woman in the local community and was also highly influential in Michelle’s education as she grew up.
In the second grade, Michelle told her mother that she hated her class as it was full of chaotic children. The teachers did not have the ability to get the class under control and Michelle was missing opportunities to learn. On the back of this, Michelle’s mother made sure the school tested her abilities and she was subsequently moved up to a class with other high-performing children who wanted to learn. Michelle believes that this decision is potentially the most important decision in how her life turned out, as it put her on the right track to excel in school.
Her top performances in school led her to attend Whitney M. Young High School in Chicago. A Magnet School, the teachers were progressive and her fellow students were all high performing children. On top of this, Michelle showed lots of commitment to attend this school: it took her two buses and 90 minutes to get to school each day. Some of her fellow students lived in high-rise apartments right by the school and would wear designer purses. Michelle explains in the book how everything looked so effortless to them. Despite these things giving her doubts about whether she fit in she put her head down and received excellent grades.
Princeton University and finding a great mentor
During her time at school, Michelle excelled academically but also involved herself in the school’s societies. She was the elected class treasurer, was in the National Honor Society and she was on track to finish in the top 10% of her class. Despite this, she was told by her college counselor that she might not be “Princeton material”. Beforehand, she had been excited by the prospect of Princeton. Her brother, Craig, had attended Princeton and she thought she might join him there. This counselor could have crushed her confidence, but it instead just irritated her and made her want to apply for Princeton even more. She did and she got in.
Upon arriving at Princeton, Michelle recalls that it was potentially the first time she felt what it’s like to be one of the only non-white people. This was uncomfortable. For example, Michelle explains that less than 9% of students in her freshman class were black. Despite this, she enjoyed her time at Princeton, in part because she found a welcoming community and a fantastic mentor.
Michelle’s mentor while at Princeton was one of the leaders of the Third World Centre, which has since been renamed the Carl A. Fields Center for Equality and Cultural Understanding. Her name was Czerny Brasuell, an energetic New Yorker who was a strong black woman and a working mom. During her time at Princeton, Michelle became both Czerny’s assistant and her protege. Czerny even encouraged Michelle to start running an afterschool program for the children of black faculty and staff members.
After majoring in sociology, Michelle started to consider Harvard Law School. However, importantly, her future was influenced by Czerny, who inspired her to become a working mom in the future.
“Do we settle for the world as it is, or do we work for the world as it should be?”
Getting into Harvard Law School and meeting Barack Obama
Michelle did decide to pursue Harvard Law School and subsequently took her LSAT test. She admits that she never took time to stop and think about what she would like to be doing – she went straight from Princeton to Harvard Law School. She enjoyed her time at Harvard Law School, but it is the period after this that shaped her life even more.
After graduating from Harvard in 1988, Michelle moved back to Chicago to work for a law firm called Sidley & Austin. Here she met a young law student named Barack Obama. He immediately exuded confidence and self-reliance. Unlike Michelle, he had taken a couple of years between his undergraduate degree at Columbia and his time at Harvard Law School to decide what he wanted to be.
Michelle had heard of Barack before having even met him. He made a fantastic impression on everybody he talked to and the professors at Harvard had been calling him the most gifted student they had ever worked with. At the time, Michelle remained skeptical about this man, Barack. From her experience, professors seemed to “go bonkers” over any half-smart black man in a nice suit.
Michelle finally met Barack as her role at Sidley & Austin was to meet promising law students and try and encourage them to join the firm when they graduated. When meeting Barack, she realized she didn’t have much advice to give him. Having taken time out, Barack was more experienced and mature than students she normally advised. In fact, she recalls people at the firm asking Barack for advice on matters.
However, her friends were hugely impressed when they met him and they encouraged her to overlook the smoking and go on a date. After their first kiss, any doubts about her future husband vanished.
Michelle and Barack’s marriage and the development of their careers
Michelle and Barack’s relationship developed rapidly. Michelle’s brother was highly complimentary of Barack, especially as Barack was a decent basketball player (Michelle’s brother was a college basketball player and subsequently a basketball coach). Craig, Michelle’s brother, was a huge influence on her and this affirmation helped the relationship continue to flourish.
After having to live apart for a while, due to Barack becoming the first black editor for the Harvard Law Review, Barack was able to move to Chicago to live with Michelle. Throughout their early years in Chicago, Barack was offered many jobs. However, he remained thoughtful and considerate, instead choosing community workshops over high-paid law firms. During this time, Michelle was thinking about moving away from her work at Sidley & Austin towards something that was face-to-face. She didn’t want to work on behalf of corporations anymore, she wanted to help people.
In 1991, Michelle met Valerie Jarrett, somebody who helped her transition her career and would ultimately become a lifelong friend of Michelle. Valerie had also been an unsatisfied lawyer. Valerie also wanted to work with and help people. So, Valerie has been working for the mayor’s office; she used this opportunity to help Michelle get a job as assistant to the then-current mayor, Richard Daley, Jr.
In October of 1992, Michelle and Barack were married. The following year, Michelle worked on an initiative called Public Allies and used this experience to obtain a role working at City Hall. Then, a few years later, the job of Executive Director for a non-profit organization that connected promising young people with mentors who worked in the public sector. This was a fitting job for Michelle, as she felt she had been heavily influenced by civic-minded mentors.
Michelle wasn’t initially keen on Barack’s political pursuits
Michelle understood that Barack has the ability to win people over. She recalls him speaking in a church basement to a small audience of women who were concerned about their community. Barack encourages them to use political engagement, through voting or reaching out to local representatives. By the end, the women were shouting, “Amen!” Michelle wasn’t the only one to notice his political potential, though, as Chicago Magazine noticed Barack’s fantastic work on the Project VOTE! Campaign and suggested he should run for office. Not fussed by this at the time, Barack instead wanted to write a book entitled Dreams From My Father. This book was published in 1995 to decent reviews but little sales. It was based on Barack’s unusual life story of being brought up between Indonesia and Hawaii after his white mom separated from his Kenyan dad and married an Indonesian man.
The same year as the release of his book, Barack was teaching a class on racism and law at the University of Chicago. This year he was also approached about starting a career in politics. A new seat was about to open up in Michelle and Barack’s local areas. Michelle was not excited by this prospect, as Michelle believed Barack could have more of an impact working for a non-profit than in the state Senate. Barack listened to these ideas but decided to run with it. Barack believed he could have a positive impact on politics.
With politics came personal political attacks
As Barack’s political career developed, personal attacks were inevitable. However, Barack and Michelle differed in their ability to deal with these attacks. Barack had a remarkable ability to deal with these attacks, just letting them go. Michelle struggled. She has a self-described need to be liked and so was unable to just shrug off hurtful comments in the same way Barack could.
One example of this is when Barack was in the middle of a primary campaign, running to be the candidate for a seat in the US Congress’ House of Representatives. Michelle and Barack now had a child, Malia, who was especially precious as the couple had struggled to conceive and had to use in vitro fertilization. The personal attacks were tied to an event in which Malia got a serious ear infection while the family was on a holiday break in Hawaii. Simultaneously, the Illinois Senate announced an emergency vote on a big gun control bill, one which Barack had fought hard to pass and was the subject of huge debate. In the moment, Barack did what he thought was right. He stuck by his family to help Michelle care for Malia.
The attacks followed this decision, though. A local paper called anyone who had missed this vote “gutless sheep”. The opposition democrat accused Obama of “using his child as an excuse not to go to work” and that he was “a white man in black face”. Barack lost the primary but continued to serve in the state senate. Subsequently, their second child, another girl, Sasha was born.
“Now I think it’s one of the most useless questions an adult can ask a child—What do you want to be when you grow up? As if growing up is finite. As if at some point you become something and that’s the end.”
Michelle was also skeptical about Barack’s Senate and Presidential bids but then things changed
Already skeptical about Barack’s political career, as it meant he missed lots of family time, Michelle was even more skeptical about the prospect of Barack running for the US Senate. In fact, one of the only reasons she allowed him to do so was because she secretly doubted that he was going to win it. This doubt wasn’t because she doubted his ability but just because he had recently lost a congressional primary. On top of this, Michelle made Barack promise that if he lost his race for the US Senate he must give up on politics and find another way to have a positive impact in the world.
Luckily for Barack, the Republican opponent dropped out of the race. In the same year, 2004, the democratic presidential candidate asked Barack to make a keynote speech. His speech was highly impactful. Beforehand not many people had heard of him, afterwards, an NBC commentator, among others, were saying they had “just seen the first black President”.
In the next election, Barack did run for President. This era marked a change in heart for Michelle. Her previous skepticism was changed when she saw 15,000 people show up to the announcement event on a bitterly cold day in Illinois. She knew she had to show up for these people and support her husband, who to them was a beacon of hope.
Being First Lady and a down-to-earth mother
Michelle explains how Barack becoming president led to things that previously would have been so simple now being highly complex and requiring the help of dozens of people. This included their security. Barack Obama received a Secret Service security detail earlier than any other candidate in history, as there had been serious threats made against him and the family.
As always, security levels were high in the White House. Barack and Michelle were willing to accept a lack of privacy and autonomy in their lives for the good they were doing, but they did not want the same for their children. Hence, they tried to make things as normal as possible for the girls. They found them a nice school and ensured that Malia and Sasha knew that, despite the monumental size of the White House, it was their home. This meant that Michelle frequently told them that it was okay for them to run around and play in the hallways, and it was fine for them to rummage in the pantry for snacks.
On top of this, Michelle wanted Sasha and Malia to develop normal friendships. She made it a priority that a reliable system be set up for Sasha and Malia to be allowed friends to visit the White House. One of the facts of life in the White House was that all visitors had to have their Social Security numbers run by the authorities before they could enter. This meant that friends could come over but they couldn’t do anything spontaneous, such as popping to the local ice cream shop. Sasha and Malia took to life in the White House, though. Michelle recalled how relieved she was to see the two of them borrowing a tray from the kitchen and using it to slide down a snow-covered slope on the South Lawn. This is the normality she was hoping for her children.
Not to mention, family meals were now a staple of life as there was no longer a commuter for Barack.
Michelle used this time to continue to make a difference
As she had done throughout her life, Michelle utilized her circumstances to try and make a difference. Hillary Clinton had given her advice about the potential pitfalls of being too involved in the administration’s agenda. Hillary had her own legal background and found that using this experience to set policies around health care and other issues didn’t go well when they were issues aligned with the administration.
Henceforth, Michelle aimed to seek out her own endeavors. Firstly, she started a garden in the White House. This made the White House more like home. However, the most important part of this garden was the healthy fruits and vegetables. Healthy food was at the heart of her biggest accomplishment while First Lady, her Let’s Move! initiative. This initiative was created in order to tackle childhood obesity, which had tripled over the 30 years prior.
The Let’s Move! campaign involved four steps. Firstly, parents were given information on healthy dietary options. Secondly, the food at schools was made healthier. Thirdly, healthy foods were brought to the many rural and urban areas that lacked fresh fruit and produce. Finally, the initiative aimed to get kids more active, burning calories every day. The campaign was successful from the start. After 10 weeks, 90 pounds of produce has been harvested at the White House and it was used in the daily meals at the White House. School lunches cut down on their use of salt and sugar, while the American Beverage Association committed to creating clearer ingredient labels. Finally, Major television stations had agreed to air public service announcements on the initiative during children’s programming. Michelle had made such a huge difference in such a short space of time.
There were difficulties but Michelle is proud of their White House accomplishments
Michelle explains in her book how Barack’s second term was much easier. The family had better adjusted to the protocols and the White House felt more like home. This did not mean the security threats had gone, though. Michelle recalls the winter of 2011 when a gunman opened fire on the White House with a semiautomatic rifle. This offered as a reminder to the precariousness of being in the White House but also the safety precautions that are made. In the months before repairs could be made, there was a sizable dent in the bullet-proof window of the room where Michelle often sits to read. It served as a reminder of why all the protocols and security procedures existed.
Michelle concludes the book by stating that she is proud of what she was able to accomplish as First Lady. Throughout her time in the White House, she continued to ask herself whether she was good enough but she now believes that she was. Along with the Let’s Move! program, which brought healthier school lunches to 45 million kids and signed up 11 million kids to associated afterschool programs, there was also the Joining Forces initiative, which helped 1.5 million veterans and their spouses get jobs. Meanwhile, her Let Girls Learn initiative raised billions of dollars to help girls around the world gain access to schools, along with the empowerment that can come with an education.
The proudest moments of her and her husband’s time in office, though, are bringing up her two daughters. Malia and Sasha have both since graduated from school, with Barack and Michelle deciding to stay living in Washington after leaving Office so that she could graduate with the friends she had made over the past 8 years.