A review of Michelle Obama's "Becoming" from inside prison
Photo by Teresa Tauchi

I just finished reading Michelle Obama’s “Becoming.” What an absolute pleasure! I was eager to read about what I thought would be a book chronicling Black excellence. I was not disappointed. It was the first time in a long time I read a book that made me laugh out loud and kept me smiling. 

The book also caused me to juxtapose my own upbringing, attitudes and perspectives against what Michelle, and to some degree, the former president experienced. It provided insight into the benefits of having a mother and father fully invested in one’s future and also being surrounded by others who nurtured them and expected the best. It’s an origin story of Black excellence.

Michelle’s dad, Fraser Robinson, was a civil engineer in Chicago. He was fully present in Michelle’s and her older brother’s lives, balancing his roles as a husband, father and breadwinner in a way that put his children at the top of his priorities. 

Marian Robinson was a stay-at-home mom who strove to ensure her children would have better opportunities than she did. Isn’t that the hope of every parent?

Marian was ever vigilant, ensuring her children received rich educational and extracurricular opportunities, guarding against forces that would deem the Robinson children too poor or too Black to succeed.

The Robinson parents reinforced their values by showing up for their kids in school and being super supportive of their pursuits. The Robinsons lived a life reminiscent of a 1960s TV family that was nowhere near my own life experience. 

As a child, I always felt that the idealized family narrative was not really possible, especially for Blacks, but Michelle had grandparents, uncles and aunts and other extended family members who provided a milieu for the Robinson children that was atypical of urban families.

Throughout their formative years, they were not just the children of the Robinsons, but individual human beings with opinions, strengths and weaknesses, distinct personalities and potentials that knew no limits. The Robinsons’ take on parenting was ahead of the curve, during a time when it was thought good children, especially Black children, were seen and not heard. The Robinsons had eye-level conversations with their children and met them where they were at, which propelled them forward.

The book showed how children, especially poor children and children of color, need a mother and a father who are present and invested if they are to have a fair shot at life. These things are immutable prerequisites in the nurturing of children. My reading here was often wistful.

The Obamas’ Ivy League achievements speak to the dividends of determination, perseverance and hard work in getting a seat at the proverbial table. But even with a seat at the table, and no matter how accomplished, the otherness of Black skin is still a struggle. The Obamas not only illustrated those struggles but demonstrated how they overcame them without hiding their vulnerability and humanity.

One of the things that stood out for me in the book and reinforced my respect for women is the culturally rigid patriarchal expectations of gender and how Michelle was tasked with balancing career and family. Those responsibilities came sharply into focus in the book as Barack’s political ambitions scaled up and reduced his time in the home. 

Being a wife and mother in the spotlight greatly informed how Michelle carried out her responsibilities as first lady, so much so that she was able to scale up her opportunities, influencing policy and legislation in campaigns against childhood obesity and advocacy for greater employment opportunities for the spouses of those enlisted in the military. These are undeniable accomplishments of a mother, wife and first lady — who just happened to be Black.

The Obamas’ time in the White House saw them withstand the ever-present and slanted intrusion of the media and harsh criticisms from detractors, all while debunking theories that race informs ability. 

Michelle Obama’s book is a highly polished account of the extraordinary journey of the Obamas to their place in U.S. history, but it’s also a down-to-earth, illuminating take on everyday life that has informed my own perspectives about race, personhood and the responsibilities of both. 

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

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Reginald Stephen

Reginald Stephen is a writer incarcerated in New York.