Michelle Obama’s “Becoming” Puts Black Americans in Context
Honoring Michelle Obama During Women’s History Month
Becoming is everything. We know that by now. It was 2018’s number one bestselling literary work, period. Our “Forever First Lady” has sold out stadiums on her North American book tour. She was the topic of everyone’s blog and on everyone’s talkshow. While the book-release buzz has mellowed out a bit, March is about the amazingness of women’s accomplishments. I am honored to recognize Michelle Robinson Obama as an indelible part of Women’s History Month. She, just like the former First Family, is American history.
I work with Fortune 500 corporations, organizations and small businesses who want to understand the Black consumer base in a more meaningful way. I typically open my Black Insights presentations to these big brands and community groups by setting the stage and informing the audience that my presentation will put Blacks in context. Off the bat, there is a perception among these groups that Black people, especially American born Black people, just showed up with all of our wonderment and challenges.
What do they want now? They’ve had a Black president. More Black people are going to college, getting good jobs and driving luxury cars. Some of them are even living in my neighborhood and their kids are attending school with my kids, and I’m OK with all that. We’re living in a post racial society. So what’s the problem? What’s wrong with them?
These are the thoughts, whispers, and sometimes straight out confrontations that I have endured in these corporate environments, especially during the post-Obama Administration. Sometimes the insights from my presentations get through. Sometimes they do not.
I personally love Mrs. Obama’s plain-spokenness on the Black experience in this book. We find many teachable moments that allow us all to ponder, for the first time, how life as a Black American is different, and why. She sold over 6 million books, not just to the Black community, but primarily to mainstream America. As the wife of the 44th President of the United States of America, it could be said that she was one of the most powerful women in the world. As such, her initiatives contributed to solving global issues, yet her motivations were grounded in her Black experience. She tackled hunger and health head-on, underscoring that poorer neighborhoods should have access to fresh food. She not only planned, but showed up for programs that encourage exercise and healthy lifestyles, while teaching gardening skills to inner city kids in the backyard of America’s predominantly Black neighborhoods. She writes about the struggles of working class families and communities and is also educating America, and the world, about the uniqueness of longstanding Black American experiences in a way that no one with her level of influence has ever done.
Becoming Describes Why Black American Life Is Different
The twice-elected first African-American President of the United States married a woman who was born into a working class family to parents who migrated north to Chicago, in hopes to escape the harsher realities of being Black in the deep south. Chicago proved to have its own brand of discrimination. Still, her parents sacrificed mightily for her and her brother Craig, and were present, creative and resourceful in exposing them to the stuff the American Dream is made of, as well as the tools to make it their reality. She writes about navigating stereotypes and double standards as a Black girl from her high school and college years to the workplace and The White House. Not just her, but her family and community. There were blatant and stark differences in treatment and access for them. These are the uncomfortable truths that the First Lady turned author, comfortably reflects upon, and that is what endeared me to this work.
What are the lessons and opportunities for business leaders in Becoming? Five key Black Insights come to mind:
• Angry Black Men and the Wealth Gap: Her Grandpa Dandy and other smart, savvy Black men in her family wrestled with inequalities that were designed to keep them behind. They were hard working laborers who were not allowed to join the labor unions. It was harder to buy a home; harder to send their children to college. They were well qualified, and were yet passed over for promotions afforded to lesser qualified white colleagues, whom they had to train.
This, to a great extent, helps to explain why some older Black men are angry, and why some younger men today, lack the motivation, tools, and knowledge needed to have and grow generational wealth. There exists an infringement within America’s systems of Education, Healthcare, Finance, Justice and Housing where discriminatory practices back then has caused many in the Black community to work at playing catch up today. They’re playing catch up to frontrunners who are systemically miles and miles ahead because they had more advantages and lesser obstacles.
• The Reality of Being Invisible: Mainstream systems tend to perpetuate stereotypes that render the Black American experience invisible. Experiences like a lack of healthy food options and fresh produce in predominantly Black neighborhoods, also known as food deserts. Obama has long been an advocate for healthy eating, famously launching the initiative, Let’s Move. Several small business, nonprofit and major retail partners committed to investing in neighborhoods where grocery stores were scarce. She went a step further and started The White House Garden Initiative and took on beverage-industry giants, imploring them to reduce sugar in beverages often consumed by young children. These initiatives were more than a charitable project while serving the country alongside her husband. They were deliberate undertakings of challenges that hit close to home. It’s a fact that Blacks are disproportionately overweight and suffer from diabetes at a higher rate than their white counterparts. Before her launch, who in mainstream America had heard of the term “food desert”? I would surmise, not the majority. She writes, “If there’s one thing I’ve learned in life, it’s the power of using your voice. I tried my best to speak the truth and shed light on the stories of people who are often brushed aside.”
• Historical Relevance: Relevancy is a great segue from my previous point on invisibility. There is an expectation that as Blacks (and other minorities) move up the ladder of success, they must distance themselves from their culture and embrace mainstream culture and standards. This is especially true for politicians. The former First Lady of the United States used her platform to advocate for everyday challenges specific to Black Americans that everyday Americans, otherwise, didn’t know existed. She focused her time and resources on matters relevant to her and many of us, yet commonly unnoticed. She also paid homage to historically relevant figures like Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks. They were more familiar to her than Eleanor Roosevelt and Mamie Eisenhower. She didn’t minimize the significance of the latter, nevertheless she made sure to recognize those who paved the way for her. It is my impression that, in her saying their name and discussing their legacy, she endorsed their importance as being equal and noteworthy, even in The White House.
• The Burden of First and The Power of Inclusion: The First Family was the first Black First Family and there were a barrage of unspoken expectations to which they were held. She talks about the generous advice given to her from former first ladies, as her husband took office. None of them could give her advice on how to be the first black woman in The White House. She writes, “If there was a presumed grace assigned to my white predecessors, I knew it wasn’t likely to be the same for me.” She had been the first of something several times throughout her life, ivy-league education and career, and those experiences always came with uncertainties, but uncertainty never stopped her before. Her stories of Black firsts may be a new lesson for mainstream America. For Black America, it is validation and encouraging, as we have often found ourselves in similar positions, navigating two complex worlds. In one world, we are our authentic selves. In the other, we are authentically mindful to make others feel comfortable with us. These are people with whom our children go to school; they are our coworkers and people whom we stand behind in the grocery store line. This is why Michelle Obama’s actions of “real inclusion” was not lip service. She made The White House, America’s house. Think of how she nicknamed The White House, “The People’s House”. Whether visiting 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue or embarking on the first-ever, People’s House 360 virtual tour, the Obama’s opened The White House to as many people as possible.
• The 150% Rule: The unspoken obligation of Blacks, known as the 150% Rule, says that in order to be perceived or regarded as equal, one has to work twice as hard. She writes about this being especially true for her during her college, career and White House tenure. The position of a first lady is to over deliver. As I read about her days living and raising two daughters inside the prestige of one of the most famous addresses in the world, it was clear: she had to be a responsible wife and first lady, mother, public figure and leader behind numerous initiatives. Mistakes and indiscretions were not an option, for she and her family would never live it down. While her marriage experienced a balance of ups and downs, the couple kept family matters private and presented to the public, a united front. When she felt moments of fury toward false or derogatory statements circulating about her or her family, she proclaimed, “When they go low, we go high.” One off-cuff remark, and there’s the chance of proving the naysayers right, with “angry black woman” rhetoric. The Obama’s steered clear of scandal and political roughhousing.
Are these insights, and her stories exclusive to Black Americans? Perhaps they are not exclusive, however they are insights into her American story as a Black woman. Hers are the stories of generations, living and passed on, who endured inequality and hardships for as long as America has been…America. Becoming will join volumes of great American literature that explore the complicated and compelling history of African-Americans; works that attempt to preserve and unravel the how’s, why’s, when’s and where’s of Black history.
During her husband’s eight-year presidential administration, she launched over a dozen initiatives and partnered with prominent American companies and organizations to provide access to food, healthier lifestyle choices, educational programs and forums that gave voice to the challenges many Americans face. Most admirably, Becoming has also given voice to the challenges of Black America. As one of the most admired people in the country, using her platform to tell her version of American History contextualizes being Black in a fresh, timely and critical moment in our country’s history. This memoir, penned by one of the most credible, respected and poignant voices of this generation, can and should serve as a learning tool for all of Americans to dare glimpse inside the history and current reality of what it takes to be Black in this country. Becoming is a biographical take on her life, but in a way, it is Black America’s biography too.