Tag Archives: women of colour

Becoming by Michelle Obama

Michelle Obama became the First Lady of the United States in 2009. She came from humble Chicago beginnings and through hard work and determination took the first steps on a successful career in law. Is this a story of the American Dream? 

Her autobiography brings into question the whole idea of the American Dream for African Americans, and especially for African American women. Is she unique, or is she leading the way?

Origins

She was born in January 1964 into a family who lived on Chicago’s South Side. They were not well off, her father maintaining his job at the local water plant despite advancing MS, her mother was a stay-at-home mom. She had an elder brother Craig. The family was tight knit, and surrounded by a large community of relatives and friends. The South Side was increasingly suffering from White Flight, but it was a good place to grow up. Michelle worked hard at school and followed her brother to Princeton. On graduating she was accepted into the prestigious Harvard Law School and returned home to take up a post in a high status law firm in Chicago. 

Up to this point she had approached her career by working very hard at her studies and by volunteering with various community groups. She was a woman with a mission, successfully managing by working long hours and planning every detail of her life.

Marriage

Barack Obama came to her as an intern, to some extent following her career path. But his background was very different, with mixed parents and a childhood spent in Hawaii and Indonesia. He also had a very different attitude to life.

I found this part of her memoir the most fascinating. As she reflects, she was succeeding in the life she had envisaged for herself: a well-paid job, with prospects in a law firm, and yet a dissatisfaction with her life. She took what she calls a ‘swerve’. Not only did she marry Obama, but she decided to leave behind the private law firm to go into work that supported the public good in Chicago, community projects in Health Care and the University. 

When the children were born she continued to work, finding support from other working mothers and from her own mother, who deserves her own biography. Pretty soon Obama was launching himself into his political career, having cut his teeth in community projects, writing and editing the Harvard Law Journal. 

Now she had to decide how to be married to this ambitious man, raise her two children and manage her own professional life. Again, this required some swerves in her attitude, to what it meant to live and work in such a marriage, alongside all the other issues women meet, while also encountering prejudice against Black women (and occasionally against tall women too).

The ‘swerves’ are not presented as sacrifices, more that she accepted the role to maintain their family. They both worked at it. He was more driven than her, having a great ability to manage huge amounts of information and to keep his eyes on the higher ambitions and ideals and to work for them.

The White House and FLOTUS

The section of her memoir about her time in the White House reveals the ambiguity of the position of First Lady. She had no constitutional power at all, but very high visibility and some influence. She decided to use the power she had in three main areas: children’s health, military families and promoting the aspirations and the prospects of young women. 

But the costs were very high. The Obamas were committed to bringing up their girls in as normal way as possible, in the face of extreme secret service security measures and extreme fame and exposure. They were also set up to be criticised by anyone who cared to, on any grounds. And it became increasingly obvious that much of their legacy would be lost after the 2016 election.

“When they go low …”

I often find that I have provoked a negative reaction in people through my opposition to the accepted norms, to political assumptions, especially about feminism and women. So, I try to keep in mind her exhortation given high publicity in her speech at the Democratic Convention in 2016 in the face of some brutal events in the Presidential campaign:

Dignity had always gotten us through. It was a choice, and not always an easy one, but the people I respected most in life made it again and again, every single day. There was a motto Barack and I tried to live by, and I offered it that night from the stage: When they go low, we go high. (407)

I did feel sorry for the enclosed, bubble life, of the White House, and the trappings of fame and security. Her own actions to support better child health through healthier eating (garden in the White House), the military families (with Mrs Biden) and the promotion of girls is all laudable. And all a terrible contrast to the administration that followed.

Making a difference

Having read the book, I watched the film (Becoming on Netflix), which focused on the tour to promote the book, interspersed with illustrated extracts, with additional photos and comments from her family and staff. Huge numbers turned out to hear her speak, and she also made time for small groups: young people from reservations, young Black women, all young people, and my favourite section was the group of older Black women who told Michelle Obama how proud they were to see a strong Black independent and intelligent woman in the White House. The film made it clear that she has given courage and inspiration to many people in the US and beyond. 

And now, with Kamala Harris gaining the position of Vice-President elect, it seems that the American public learning to embrace these inspiring women.

Remember Ann Petry’s novel The Street, published in 1946 (Virago reissue 2019).

Becoming by Michelle Obama (2018) published by Viking. 428pp. Thanks to Anna for the loan of her copy.

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Just Us by Claudia Rankine

The pandemic is denying us so much that we value: travel, spending time with friends and family, being part of an interest group, drinking in pubs after 10 … But from time to time we can find things that have opened up new experiences. Many arts organisations have worked very hard to bring people experiences that they would otherwise miss. Some of these are not new, like transmitting performances from before Covid-19. Others are new: on-line courses, workshops and seminars. And also lectures and Q&A sessions.

I miss living in London for the distance it put between me and experiences such as readers’ talks, courses at City Lit as well as lectures and special viewings and my friends. So I bought a ticket to the South Bank Centre session featuring Claudia Rankin, talking about her newly published book Just Us: an American conversation about racism in the US.

Claudia Rankine, 2016 MacArthur Fellow, New York, New York, September 7, 2016

Claudia Rankine on-line

After technical difficulties – where would we be without those? – I enjoyed the conversation she had with Gary Younge. There he was, spot-lit in the darkened Festival Hall, and she was at home on the East Coast somewhere and I was looking in at my kitchen table in Devon. This is so civilised, and unlikely to have happened without the current restrictions.

I had read a little of the book in advance and already had my interest alerted by its unusual layout. The main text of the book is printed on the right hand page. On the left-hand side are notes, fact checks, illustrations, references to points in the text, indicated with a red spot – side notes. In response to a question she made it clear that this was part of an attempt to be conversational, not put off readers with footnotes or notes at the end of the book. Some are included without either comment or correspondence indicted to the main text. Others show up precisely what she is referring to. In the current speak it allows for intersectionality and makes more personal, more individual the experience of living with racism and how racism operates.

Claudia Rankine also made clear that she is not providing solutions to the problems of racism in America (or the rest of the world). But she has produced a book to counter the divisiveness of current discourses on racism, many of which force people into opposing positions. She suggests that demanding defensiveness or justification does not move us forward. Let’s understand together and see how it works, is the invitation to the reader.

She reminded us that racism serves a purpose for some people and they have an interest in promoting the ideas and structure that keep it operational within society. Sadly, education cannot, therefore, be the whole answer. But conversations are essential, and hence the title of the book, which looks at conversations the writer has witnessed or had reported, and invites us into a conversation about it.

The title is, of course, a riff on justice, possibly also just US?

Just Us: an American conversation

Since the evening of the on-line conversation with Gary Younge I have returned to the book, Just Us, several time. Engaging with a book is such a privilege, feeling myself being challenged, and enlightened. It reminds me of studying for an MA some years ago, stimulating and opening my mind.

The book invited such interactions, as I have suggested, through its structure, placing sources and other material alongside the text. The style of the writing is also invitational: poetry, many questions, doubts and inner thoughts, accounts and reflections on events and interactions. 

Color blind?

I have returned to two of these in particular. One concerns white male privilege and how white men understand it, and sometimes defend it, and sometimes defend it aggressively. She explores several incidents in airports when white men, and occasionally women, push in the line for first class boarding. And she decides to ask men about the experience of privilege, trying not to be confrontational. One man tells her about diversity training at work and adds, “I don’t see color.”

All I could think to say was “Ain’t I a black woman?” I asked the question slowly, as if testing the air quality. Did he get the riff on Sojourner Truth? Or did he think the ungrammatical construction was a sign of blackness? Or did he think I was mocking white people’s understanding of black intelligence? “Aren’t you a white man,” I then asked. “Can’t you see that? Because if you can’t see race, you can’t see racism.” I repeated that sentence, which I read not long before in Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility. (51)

It seems we are about to enter the debate about privilege and race and possibly gender in the UK as a result of the government’s ludicrous claim that teaching pupils in schools that ‘white privilege’ is an uncontested fact is breaking the law. There needs to be a balanced and impartial treatment of opposing views, according to  Kemi Badenoch, the women and equalities minister, herself a woman of colour. See Guardian report on Tuesday 20thOctober.

to name the problem is to become the problem

The other episode in About Us to which I return concerns a social situation, the dinner party. Claudia Rankine has suggested to the other guests that, rather than an unpredictable electorate, racism played a large part in the 2016 Presidential Election, sometimes under cover of other issues, such as Obamacare, immigration and ‘the Wall’. But the discussion is diverted when another guest tries to move the conversation away from the issues raised by the author, with a reference to beautiful brownies. And she questions whether she should have created this social awkwardness through her challenge or followed the path as invited and thereby colluded by staying silent or accepting a brownie. She reminds us of what Sara Ahmed says: 

to name the problem is to become the problem. [introduction to The Cultural Politics of Emotion]

‘Am I being silenced?’ wonders Claudia Rankine. ‘I understand inadvertently causing someone to feel shame isn’t cool,’ but she concludes this section with these observations.

Moments like these make me understand that the noncomprehension of what is known on the part of whiteness is an active investment in not wanting to know if that involves taking into account the lives of people of colour. And the perceived tiresome insistence on presenting one’s knowledge on the part of blackness might be a fruitless and childish exercise. Do I believe either of these positions enough to change my ways? Might as well stop the weather from coming. (156-7) 

I also especially enjoyed the section on women with dyed blonde hair and what people see when they look at blonde women. (complicit freedoms)

I found Just Us compelling and erudite while not offending or challenging aggressively my white privilege. I was invited.

Just Us: an American conversation by Claudia Rankine, published in 2020 by Allen Lane. 342pp

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