Like every black woman in the United States, I sprinted to buy Michelle Obama’s Becoming when it was released in late 2018. For a quick second, I thought about buying an electronic copy, but as soon as I saw my forever first lady’s beautiful smile and flowy hair in front of an angelic blue background, I knew I needed my very own hard copy. In 2016, I wrote a piece titled “Once Upon a Time, Our FLOTUS was Black” which paid homage to Michele Obama and all she represented as the first black First Lady of the United States, so when I began reading “Becoming” I felt overwhelming excitement that I was being brought into her world and getting to get to know her on a more personal level (because of course, she’s my best friend in my head!).
Nothing surprised me about the way the book was written or Michelle’s honesty about her life because even throughout her family’s presidency, she always had a vibe of authenticity and connectedness that made her so relatable.
As an urban planner, one of the things I appreciated most about Becoming was Michelle’s description of black spaces through her life – in her childhood home in Chicago, at Princeton where she reflected on finding her tribe, and even in the White House where her family worked hard to create and be in community with other people of color despite navigating their predominately white environment. I decided to go back to the text and pull out the accounts that stood out to me the most so here are a few.
1. Aunt Robbie’s House – Michelle grew up in a house in Southside, Chicago where she lived with her mother, father, brother, great aunt, Terry, and Terry’s husband. She and her family rented the second floor of the house, while Terry and her husband lived on the first. As Michelle describes her multigenerational upbringing, I am reminded of how common this story is within the black community. Historically, we have opened the doors of our homes to those outside of our nuclear family, carving out small rooms and even floors for our relatives, and sometimes outsiders, to reside. I think back to my own experience in New York City, where my mom, brother and I lived with my aunt Mildred who had migrated from the South in her 20s to live in New York City. As Michelle talks about great aunt Terry, we get the sense that she was a stern and curt woman, but we also learn how growing up during Jim Crow impacted her life, how she “carried around an unseen history” (p.7). The beauty of great aunt Terry’s home is that it reminds us of the complex memories and lived experiences of black folk living under one roof.
2. Princeton’s Third World Center (TWC). Renamed the Carl A. Fields Center for Equality and Cultural Understanding in 2002, TWC was homeplace for many of Princeton’s students of color, including Michelle Obama. During a time where black students represented only 9% of Michelle’s freshman class, she found community with other students of color in this space. These types of spaces matter, especially at historically white institutions where students of color are often expected and sometimes even required to adjust to and navigate spaces that were created to exclude them. Recently, Dr. Eric Grollman, a sociology professor at The University of Richmond wrote a piece about the toxic culture of cisgender, heteronormative white supremacy at the University of Richmond (I know. Heavy stuff, but a good one). In it he writes, “campus buildings are overwhelmingly named in honor of white men donors and former university presidents. Worse, some of these men are known for their active resistance to equality”(The Collegian). Even growing up in Southside Chicago, Michelle was used to way more diversity than Princeton offered. Like many people of color who endure TWI’s, our survival literally depends on having access to spaces where we feel a sense of belonging. Unfortunately, some universities don’t even offer full lodging for students of color to access this, but Michelle describes how this space became a safe haven for students.
3. South Side Chicago. Michelle has always claimed her Southside roots. She describes how during her time at Princeton when asked where she was from, she’d always say Chicago, and add South Side with great pride. She recognized that this probably evoked images of crime, destitution, and poverty in the minds of her wealthy Princeton peers, but she didn’t feel ashamed of where she was from. “Southside,” she writes, “was something entirely different from what got shown on tv…home was my past, connected by gossamer threads to where I am now” (p. 85). Even today, whenever someone asks me where I am from, I say Manhattan and am always sure to add Harlem, “the upper Westside,” to be exact. These urban spaces, although portrayed as poverty stricken neighborhoods in the media, are home to extraordinarily black folks. They represent our roots, our pride, and places that reflect our identity and resilience. No matter how far removed we are from them, when we claim our spaces, we remind people that, “yes, even the First Lady can come from the Southside of Chicago.”
I’d share more, but I don’t want to tell you everything. If you are interested in learning about how Michelle Obama pays homage to black space in her text, I definitely recommend reading Becoming. And if you didn’t pay attention to the ways she reminds us of exactly who she is and where she’s from, read it again. It’s worth it.