Tag Archives: Michelle Obama

“When I Was White – A Memoir” by Sarah Valentine

 

Another lucky grab from the “New Arrivals” shelf at my local library. Sarah Valentine was a mixed race child born into an otherwise white American family.

Ms. Valentine’s childhood was in most respects idyllic – suburbia, good schools, friends, family (including two younger brothers). Her parents were devoted to their children. She was athletic as well as academically talented.

Her parents kept from her the fact that she had a different father from her two younger brothers. She was told that her skin tone (darker than her brothers) and relatively curly hair came from her father’s Greek and Italian ancestors. There’s too much for me to summarize here. Ms. Valentine still identified as white when she finished college, but considered herself African American or multiracial when she finished her PhD (in Russian literature) at Princeton University.

One thread running though is book is the power of secrets. The choice to keep a secret, to withhold important information from another person, is weighty. Secrecy distorted Ms. Valentine’s relationship with her mother and greatly troubled her brothers.

Ms. Valentine was a very high achieving child and continued to earn academic honors during college and graduate school. In this respect, she reminds me of Michelle Obama, whose memoir I reviewed on December 14, 2018. I wonder if the two ever met? Each is a very accomplished woman, but Ms. Obama has never had to wonder who she was or where she came from. Her identity was secure, though she occasionally encountered criticism for being “too white”. Ms. Obama, who has spent at least 15 years in the public eye, may envy Ms. Valentine’s “private citizen” status.

“When I Was White” is a wonderful, energetic autobiography and a valuable contribution to the ongoing discussion of race in our country.

“Becoming” by Michelle Obama

I wanted to write about this book BEFORE checking out reviews and other feedback, but it’s becoming more difficult every day! I just got a Facebook message from the man himself (Barack Obama) recommending the book, and offering a few other comments. He did not yet release his annual list of favorite books.

One of the first questions I was asked (by a friend) was whether Mrs. Obama had a co-author. There’s none on the title page. She mentions many people in her acknowledgements (which run to three pages and end, unpredictably, with a gratitude towards “every young person I ever encountered during my time as First Lady… Thank you for giving me a reason to be hopeful”). So, the answer is “no”. There was no co-author.

Michelle Obama emphasized one thing over and over. Each of us has a story to tell. Each of us matters. Much of her public speaking has involved telling her story – that of growing up on Chicago’s side, seeing her neighborhood change from diverse to decidedly minority dominated, wanting SO MUCH to achieve, to be approved of, to get high grades!

Once, when she was in high school, Michelle was asked (by a relative near her own age) why she talked “like a white person”. Surprised, she didn’t really answer. Her parents and other adult relatives had emphasized diction and standard usage. My guess is that Michelle Obama is functionally bilingual (in two forms of English).

So much of Michelle Obama’s life was spent “juggling”. Between being “too black” and “too white”, and everything else. Too tall. Too earnest. Too “pushy”. She found her path, but became, in many understandable ways, cautious. She was always aware of the balance she needed and/or wanted to strike.

I was interested in the First Family’s life in the White House. Michelle wanted her mother to join them, but Mrs. Marian Robinson was reluctant. She had lived all her life in Chicago. Michelle enlisted her brother Craig to help change her mind. Mrs. Robinson was able to occasionally evade the constant Secret Service presence. She slipped out of the White House to run errands. If someone said “You look like Michelle Obama’s mother”, she smiled politely and said “Yes, people say that…”

I get the impression that Michelle and the President didn’t play any games AT ALL with the Secret Service. They accepted the fact that the stakes were way too high for that.

We all wonder what’s ahead for the Obama family. Leadership is so urgently needed, but they deserve a break, at the very least a long vacation, and I wish them all the best in the future.