Am I good enough?
Michelle Obama asks herself this question several times in her memoir Becoming. Admittedly the question is simple. Comprised of four words, it has one subject and one metric to consider.
Yet, we all know that the simplicity of this question belies tremendous forces, both inner and outer, psychological and sociological that shape our eventual answer.
Am I good enough?
By whose standards? Yours? Or mine? When is enough enough? And how good is good?
Becoming is a memoir about many things. It’s a coming of age story, a love story, a story of how a young woman finds her voice, her passion, her power. Becoming is a story about the fortitude of family and the promise of education. It’s a lens into America’s failures. It's an ode to the American Dream.
Plot wise, Becoming chronicles how a young girl from the South Side of Chicago, daughter to working class parents becomes the first African American First Lady of the United States. Thematically, Becoming shows us how that same girl came to answer the seemingly simple question “am I good enough?” with a potent and revolutionary answer:
First Things First, She’s the Realest.
And the baddest. We all know this about Michelle Obama and if you felt compelled to buy her memoir, you not only know this, I would venture to say a part of you is trying to siphon that 'first black FLOTUS magic’ for yourself. Don’t worry, I am too.
The truth is, in the 10+ years Michelle Obama has been in the public eye, she became not only our fav, but also your fav’s fav, and your fav’s fav’s fav. She’s also Melania Trump’s fav, who I bet is working on her memoir right now titled Unbecoming. A fitting title, tbqh.
During her eight years as First Lady, Michelle Obama embodied intelligence, style, grace, beauty, approachability, basically perfection. At the same time, Michelle Obama does not wake up flawless (sorry Yoncé). She is human like the rest of us and reiterates this point in Becoming.
She writes: “I’m an ordinary person who found herself on an extraordinary journey.”
Michelle Obama's magnetism as an icon and role model does not diminish upon this admission. It's only heightened. For the power of Michelle lies in her complete comfort and ownership of her story. Herein lies the gravity of Becoming, its central message -
"Your story is what you have. It is something to own.”
I loved Becoming for many reasons. It’s emotionally honest, filled with crystal clear reflections and engaging behind the scenes stories that not only bring the reader closer to Michelle Obama, but also to America itself. I also loved how the memoir made me feel about my own journey.
Our stories are still being written, we are still becoming. I continue to ask myself, am I good enough? And admittedly I sometimes struggle with my answer. Nevertheless, after Becoming I felt emboldened to use my voice and empowered to own my story. No one can take our story away from us. And no one else will have it either.
In reading Becoming, three major themes arose. And because music is life, I summarize these themes with three lyrics from black female artists and trailblazers in their own right. It’s only apt!
Shall we begin?
1. Work Harder! You’re almost there now
Michelle Obama’s Becoming is split into three acts, 'Becoming Me', 'Becoming Us’, 'Becoming More'. The subject of these three acts are self-explanatory since the basic outline of Michelle’s life story is known by anyone who’s taken a breath in America this decade. Here is the quickest of summaries for any Obama-hating MAGA folks who've somehow found their way onto my page and haven’t turned into a pillars of salt yet. And for international readers who may not be as familiar:
In the South Side of Chicago, born and raised,
In the classroom was how Michelle spent most of her days.
Studying, achieving, relaxing all cool,
Attending Princeton and Harvard, two really good schools.
And along came one guy, who was up to all good,
Said I’d like to marry you and change the world too.
They had two little daughters, and though she was scared,
Barack ran for President, and Michelle slayed for years.
When written like this, Michelle's story seems like a Fresh Prince meets the Princess Diaries mini-series we don’t deserve. Her story is fairy-tale like and a sure-fire Oscar award winning biopic. Just give Viola Davis as Marian Robinson (Michelle’s mother) her Oscar already!
At first glance, it may seem like the dominoes of Michelle's incredible life journey were laid out in front of her, and all she had to do was make one fateful push to set her course. After reading Becoming, you see that her journey was anything but inevitable. She did have two starting materials however that propelled her early success: her family and her drive.
Michelle came from a large family in Chicago that deeply loved and cared for her. They provided the space that nourished her ambition and encouraged her to achieve. She describes her nuclear family as a square, and credits their stable foundation for her success. Throughout the memoir Michelle regularly comes back to the importance of family, and it was beautiful to see Michelle wearing all the hats- an exemplary daughter, reverent sister, committed mother, and supportive spouse.
Michelle was a curious, smart, and hardworking child. When she couldn’t spell the word “white” in kindergarten and thus was disqualified from getting a sticker, she went home and made sure she knew how to spell that damn word. The next day she demanded a redo. She got one, spelled white correctly, earned a sticker and a spot in the elite kindergarten clique. Yes, it was that serious for young Michelle.
This theme of defying expectations would come up again and again. When Michelle was one of the few students from the South Side at a new magnet school, she made sure to prove to herself and her peers she belonged. When Michelle’s college guidance counselor said she wasn’t Princeton material, she worked doubly hard to prove her wrong. At Princeton, Michelle went beast mode with her academics as a means to prevent the largely white and male dominated student body from discrediting her reason to be there. And after graduation, she went on to study at Harvard Law School (HLS).
At Sidley Austin, the prestigious corporate law firm she joined after HLS, she worked long hours as one of the few African-American attorneys and was on partner track. After years of hard work and with the support winds of her family underneath her wings, Michelle was working on the 47th floor of a skyscraper, overlooking Chicago and her native Southside. She made it! She literally had worked her way to the top.
Here comes an important reflection from Becoming. The question “am I good enough?” was a potent motivator of Michelle’s work ethic. With every new setting and challenge, self-doubt threatened to cripple her forward progress. Michelle did not yield to those forces however nor did she allow other people cue white men give her permission to take up space. Instead, she worked hard and let her output, her good grades (high school Salutatorian, cum laude graduate from Princeton) be her passport and stamp of approval in the privileged places she found herself in. I identify with this grind; I know many of my friends do too.
The question “Am I good enough?” is our vibranium and our kryptonite. For in our quest to answer yes - we can lose sight of a parallel and equally important question - is this enough?
Swerving on that, swerv-swerving on that
Michelle Obama accidentally became an attorney.
She had no particular desire of becoming an attorney. She did not dream about litigation or torts. Her role models weren’t lawyers nor did she find the law particularly interesting. Nevertheless, at the age of 25, Michelle was a junior associate at Sidley Austin and hating it.
Throughout Becoming, Michelle Obama describes herself as a box-checker. Someone who diligently and without fail completed the tasks set out in front of her. Boxchecking symbolized her aversion to risk and her lack of introspection about her passions. She fell into Harvard Law School because that’s where smart kids from Princeton fell into. She worked at a prestigious corporate law firm because that’s where smart students from Harvard Law School applied to. By checking boxes, she kept herself on a conveyer belt that took in smart, ambitious students and spit out foot soldiers for corporate America.
While Michelle was traveling down conveyer belt, she was friends with people who deliberately got off the belt, tempted by unknown and exciting paths. She called these friends “swervers.” Her late best friend from college, Suzanne, was one of them. She forwent attending a prestigious business school so she could have more fun and travel the world. Her college ex-boyfriend, Kevin would forgo medical school in order to become a professional sports mascot. For both friends, Michelle did not agree with their choices, herself “a box-checker - marching to the resolute beat of effort/result, effort/result - a devoted follower of the path.”
And in many ways I get it. No one in her family had ever been on the path. Furthermore, said path lead to financial stability, the kind families in the South Side would relish. During her time at Sidley Austin, Michelle Obama would meet another swerver, Barack Obama. He pushed her to answer the parallel question - is this enough? Namely, was her work at Sidley how she wanted to make an impact? Did being a lawyer make her happy?
The answer was self-evident, and with Barack's encouragement, Michelle left her well-paying corporate law job and entered a series of positions she loved, engaging her passion for community service and mentorship. She eventually became the Vice President for Community Affairs at the University of Chicago Hospital and was content professionally.
I identified hard with this portion of her story. As someone in the middle of an 8+ year MD-PhD degree, I’ve had time to think about the impact I want to make. For so long, I’ve checked boxes, not because I was explicitly told to, but because like Michelle, I took pride in beating my own expectations, and by extension the expectation of others. I was an immigrant boy from the Bronx with a mission - to become a physician-scientist. And so, with tactical precision, I took the courses, studied for the exams, and filled out the applications that would eventually lead me to Harvard Medical School.
Sometimes you work hard to arrive at an end goal, to prove to yourself that you can make it.
And then you make it. Congratulations, you’re enough! But the parallel question remains unanswered: is this enough?
Michelle Obama, the self-described box-checker, showed us in Becoming that it’s okay to serve, that swerving can sometimes be an act of self-preservation. Swerving took enormous courage and faith, it took the support of a future President. Michelle chose to let her passion fuel her work, stepping off the conveyer belt towards an uncharted path with happiness and a sense of purpose guiding her forward. I don’t yet know what my path looks like, but if and when I encounter an opportunity to swerve, I’ll feel a little more solace knowing that I’d have Michelle Obama’s stamp of approval.
3. You see me, I be work, work, work, work, work, work
Michelle Obama is a role model unlike America has ever seen. And this isn’t hyperbole. As the first African American First Lady, she occupies a role held by 42 white women before her. Her mere existence challenged centuries of popular imagination of what First Ladies look like, and sound like, and dress like.
Simply put, Michelle Obama forever reshaped the office of the First Lady. She knew she would do this going in. And she knew it would be hard af.
“I was humbled and excited to be First Lady, but not for one second did I think I’d be sliding into some easy, glamorous role. Nobody who has the words “first” and “black” attached to them ever would. I stood at the foot of the foot of a mountain, knowing I’d need to climb by way into favor.”
It’s safe to say Michelle succeeded. She climbed to the very top of the mountain and then leaped into the sky. She went high and soared above her haters down on Earth, so low and bogged down by their hate and Russian misinformation. Truth be told, Michelle Obama was one of the most popular public figures in America. By the time she left the White House, her approval rating was 68% and rarely dipped below 65% during Barack’s 8 years. Michelle was loved, but this adoration did not come easy.
“If there was a presumed grace assigned to my white predecessors, I knew it wasn’t likely to be the same for me. I learned through the campaign stumbles that I had to be better, faster, smarter, and stronger then ever”
In short, Michelle Obama had to operate under the adage POC are too familiar with. “You have to be twice as good to go half as far.” That is to say, working hard gets you into the room. Working even harder, get’s you noticed, working your hardest get’s you liked…maybe. Throughout Becoming Michelle discusses striving for excellence in order to buttresses herself from the criticism and doubt that would be heaped onto her because of the color of her skin. This acknowledgement and really, extra work imposes an emotional and physic tax on POC. Yet many of us live with it, become comfortable with it. We wake up every morning, and put in that work, work, work, work, work, work.
After reading Becoming, I see that the image of Michelle, graceful, intelligent, relatable, etc was by no means an accident. Yes at baseline she is all of those things, but she had to work doubly hard for the American people to see that. Michelle held herself to an astronomically high standard, almost sacrificially so, in order to be the First Lady America was expecting her not to be. This is why I’m sometimes bothered by Michelle's famous line, whey they go low, we go high. It’s a good line, but also, what choice did the Obamas have? They had to be exemplars of a moral high ground. They walked on ice, and never fall. As the first Black Family, they couldn’t afford to. They carried this enormous pressure with smiles. They disarmed a society expecting a fall.
Striving for excellence as a method of self-defense is a theme for Michelle in ‘Becoming More’. Her slayage as the first Black First Lady was possible because she looked herself in the mirror and answered: am I enough? with the confidence required of her iconic position:
To Michelle Obama,
Thank you for pushing our country’s cultural needle and imagination forward.
Thank you for carrying the weight and historic nature of your role with elegance and finesse.
Thank you for showing us how to own our stories, especially those of us who don’t normally see our stories celebrated.
You have inspired a million Becomings.
America isn’t ready.
PS: We appreciate you not intentionally smiling during the inauguration of 45. Low key the best reveal of the memoir.
Featured Wahala Jr. Posts
Follow my Instagram! https://www.instagram.com/wahalajr/ aka @WahalaJr