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Thursday, Feb. 14, 2019 12:08 am

Michelle O’s inspiring journey

From Illinois to Princeton to the White House

Becoming, by Michelle Obama. Illustrated. 426 pp. Crown. $32.50.

Looking for a good book to read? One that is so well-written that the words make you believe you are there? A page-turner that is hard to put down? One that is both inspiring and reflective? Provides insights to politics and world events? And, one that makes you feel the author is telling part of your own story? If so, read Becoming by Michelle Obama. References to Springfield, the legislative process at the State Capitol and life growing up in Chicago make this especially intriguing to those of us from Illinois.

Whether you like or dislike the policies and politics of Barack Obama, this is a book worth reading. It provides insights to the politics of our times and the challenges, opportunities and circumstances surrounding the election and presidency of our first African-American president. It is also a story of love, family, friendships, perseverance, determination, overcoming obstacles, influencing world affairs and inspiring individuals to reach higher to achieve their own ideals.

Women will especially connect with the many messages in the book, regardless of one’s ethnicity. Many will relate to the first-person account of the challenges of being a professional woman while raising a family, from “work-life balance” to busy schedules and doing one’s best to raise happy, healthy and well-adjusted children. Others will see themselves in the despair, determination and euphoria of going through in-vitro fertilization. The influence of a strong family bond and a devoted mother and father will resonate with others. Still others may see nothing in their education, family structure or support system that matches the life of Michelle Obama, but will be inspired by her stories to overcome obstacles and succeed in life.

Becoming is a well-chosen title for this book, showing the evolution of Michelle Obama from a smart African-American girl growing up on the south side of Chicago, to a successful student who went to Princeton, to a rising star who became the first African-American FLOTUS. An unlikely journey, but her story demonstrates that through the evolution, transformation and “becoming,” it was the core values she developed as a child growing up in a loving, middle-class working family on the south side of Chicago that followed her all the way to the White House.

She explains how the University of Chicago, a short distance from the home where she grew up, was less accessible to her than Princeton. And, the importance of the power of family – her mother, father, brother and extended family. Her mother, who also followed her to the White House, was and is her rock.

Michelle was totally driven to succeed and exceed expectations. She articulates how challenging this can be for a woman, and a black woman in particular, in what is typically a man’s world and especially a white man’s world. She loathed the ugliness of politics, but early in her campaigning discovered that she shared the power of family and middle-class values with rural, white farm families in Iowa.

Her stories are heartwarming. Knowing nothing about military families, she visited military hospitals, met soldiers and their loved ones who were dealing with the aftermath of being injured while serving our country. She became a champion for military personnel and their families. She was also a champion for children, most notably for children’s health and education.

It’s fascinating to hear her side of so many stories we can remember reading about in the news… putting her hand on the shoulder of the queen, looking too intense on the campaign trail, saying something interpreted by pundits as being angry towards America, being judged by every gesture, expression and even her bare arms.

She writes about Donald Trump reviving the birthers’ conspiracy theory that Barack Obama wasn’t born in America. “The whole thing was crazy and mean-spirited,” she writes, “of course, its underlying bigotry and xenophobia hardly concealed. But it was also dangerous, deliberately meant to stir up the wingnuts and kooks…. Donald Trump, with his loud and reckless innuendos, was putting my family’s safety at risk. And for this, I’d never forgive him.”

Yet, in spite of the anguish she felt when the presidency was turned over from Barack Obama to Donald Trump, she says she and Barack were determined to make the transition with grace and dignity. She ends the book on a note of optimism, citing the “dignity and decency” of people she’s seen throughout her life and the many obstacles they have overcome. She stresses the power of voting and that optimism is an antidote to fear. And, that we owe our kids “to stay strong and keep working to create a more fair and humane world.” The book is inspiring, and it challenges all of us to be our better selves.  

Karen Ackerman Witter retired from a 35-year career in Illinois state government and now is a freelance writer who enjoys writing about an eclectic range of topics. Her goal is to connect people, organizations and ideas to achieve greater results.

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