So now Michelle Obama finally tells her truth.
There has always been about her a sense that she did, indeed, have a truth of her own and that it was, if not at odds with the one her husband expressed with high flown eloquence, more real and more rooted, as befits a girl from the South Side of Chicago. “You wait till Barack gets out of office,” some of us said, “Michelle’s going to tell it like it is.”
Now that moment arrives. Obama calls her memoir “Becoming,” and the title deserves a moment of contemplation. Not just because it’s elegant and simple, but also because it’s a tacit acknowledgment that making oneself a fully human being, forming a more perfect person, as it were, is a process with no finish line. We are all, always, becoming.
Here, then, is the former first lady’s report on where that process stands with her, 54 years after she was born to Fraser and Marian Robinson, who raised her in a cramped apartment on Euclid Avenue. It is a story of a father’s slow decline from MS and his stubborn refusal to submit, of going to Harvard, of landing the prestigious job, of meeting the brilliant law student who was always late to everything, of winding up with a backstage pass to the presidency.
And yes, it is the story of how white Republicans, unable to countenance the idea of a black family in the White House, yet unable to say that forthrightly, dubbed her “angry,” called her a man, called her a terrorist, remarked on her backside. She recalls a chyron on Fox “News” that referred to her as “Obama’s Baby Mama … implying an otherness that put me outside even my own marriage.”
It hurt, she admits. It angered and exhausted her, too. But for those who were frustrated with her husband’s willful diffidence, his refusal to fight back as Republicans unloaded upon him and her every bit of racial code in their arsenal, Michelle has a reminder. “I felt emotions that perhaps Barack couldn’t afford to feel.”
She’s probably right, though that does little to ease the frustration of having watched the man repeatedly smile and reach out to people who had just spat on him. One thinks of Jackie Robinson. Inwardly, he seethed over the “image of the patient black freak I was supposed to create.” Outwardly, he played ball.
We don’t know — probably never will — if Barack Obama did the same, seething on the inside, dutifully playing ball on the outside. So the first lady’s truth will have to suffice. Which is that, yes, she saw what they were doing. Then she did what she had to do, advocating for kids in forgotten places, pushing food makers for healthier choices, representing her country on state visits and smiling for photos “with people who call my husband horrible names on national television, but still want a framed keepsake for their mantel.”
On election night, when it began to look like America would choose hate and misogyny to replace “hope and change,” she went to bed early because she “wanted to not know that fact for as long as I possibly could.”
“Bear with me here,” she writes, as if in apology for the inability to provide a happy ending, “because this doesn’t necessarily get easier. It would be one thing if America were a simple place with a simple story. If I could narrate my part in it only through the lens of what was orderly and sweet. If there were no steps backward. And if every sadness, when it came, turned out at least to be redemptive in the end.
“But that’s not America, and it’s not me, either. I’m not going to try to bend this into any kind of perfect shape.” So we make do with the imperfect shape instead. Because it’s not just that Michelle Obama is still becoming.
America is, too.