What reading Michelle Obama’s story taught me

‘When you’ve worked hard and done well and walked through that doorway of opportunity, you don’t slam it shut behind you. No. You reach back, and you give other folks the same chances that helped you succeed.’ – Michelle Obama

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This past January I went to New York for the first time. Though the sum of experiences is another story for another day, one has to be mentioned in the context of what I am about to explore.

I fell in love with Harlem. I mean really. On my first day in NYC I walked all the way form Port Authority to Harlem and it was only when I arrived there that I realised why I had always felt drawn to this city.

Don’t get me wrong, the sky scrapers were impressive, Central Park an experience (it’s not every day you run into Susan Sarandon whilst listening to a saxophone player play some of the sweetest sounds) – but Harlem was where I felt at home. From that day I spent as much time as I could in that part of town.

One of those days I spent a couple of hours at The Studio Museum. A museum celebrating African American art and artists with a little shop of goodness attached to it.

It was in that shop that I saw Michelle’s biography. Torn between many things I wanted to buy and knowing I was on a budget I bought the book and a ‘Black is Beautiful’ mug (listen…).

My experiences in NYC opened my heart to questions and thoughts I had moved under the surface of my day to day life for a while and I knew reading Michelle’s story was going to be another piece in the puzzle.

Having finished the book, I am bubbling over with thoughts and felt it only right to try and summarise and share them – for that’s the whole point of this Framemakers journey right?

So here are the three things I’ve learnt from MO.

1) Knowing where we’re from and who has come before us matters – History matters

You will hear me cite this quote many more times as I think I’m only just scratching the surface of what it really means, but for now in this context:

‘Why must we remember? Is this but a counsel of vengeance and hate? God forbid! We must remember because if once the world forgets evil, evil is reborn.’ -The Crisis, 1991

Now of course this quote references the context of evil. And there is a place for that. But like I said, since coming across it in the NMAAHC in D.C (which can I just say, if you ever get the chance, GO!), I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it and peeling back the layers of its meaning.

What role does remembering correctly play in my individual present? Does it matter to our collective future?

Reading this book has yet again helped me uncover the depth of this quote and approach it from even another angle.

Michelle Obama comes from a lower class black family in the South Side of Chicago. Her Father worked in a blue collar job until his death, defying his ever increasing sickness and pushing through suffering many others would’ve cracked under much sooner. His name was Frasier Robinson. His grandfather was a slave in Georgetown. That’s Michelle’s great grandfather. That’s only three generations.

Like for countless others, the odds were not necessarily in Michelle’s favor.

And yet there was something instilled in her from an early age that said: If my dad can fight the way he fights, if my granddad was able to survive in what he’s survived, if my mother, grand-mother and great grandmother were able to make a living for their children and raise them into incredibly strong people who would contribute to making the world a better place though alive in a world that was entirely set against them – if they could do all that, there was NO excuse for her not to.

I am more convinced than ever after reading her story, that knowing where we’re from and who has come before us matters. That it can have a significant impact on the way we approach difficulties and challenges in our lives.

That it can influence the way we overcome obstacles and move forward despite any odds that may be put in our way.

It can help us know what not to do, what to look out for in ourselves and avoid making the same mistakes again and again (to be fair, we’ve not nailed this as humanity in general…all the more reason to get on it!)

Now I know some people don’t have the luxury of knowing exactly where they’re from – I’m right there with you. Though I know my mom’s side of the family quite well (eastern European migrants, lots of defying odds over the years) I don’t know anything about my dad’s side (African American heritage). I don’t know if my ancestors were actually slaves or not. I can assume as much, but I don’t know. I don’t know if they tried to escape slavery or focused on survival, if they were part of the civil rights movement in a proactive way or just tried to make it, hoped and prayed with many others.

I’ve come to believe that it doesn’t matter whether I know any of this for certain (though watch this space as I attempt to find out more…).

I can do my own research, broaden my own horizon in this context and – god willing – one day teach my children.

Since I have started this process, I can actually see the fruit in my own life. Things I used to struggle with in areas of discipline etc, and would always find excuses for, suddenly become real easy to manage – because I’ve learnt about the slaves who fled plantations and had to survive days, weeks – sometimes months! – without a roof over their head, no idea where they’d get their next meal from, no shoes or appropriate clothing – you name it. Yet they defied the odds and somehow the fact that I am alive today is proof that no matter how much in this world is out to get you, you CAN make it, you CAN overcome it and you CAN move forward.

In that sense I am their legacy. So what will I do with that? How will I live my life honouring their sacrifice?

My struggle with eating well suddenly seems like a joke…Managing my finances with my eyes set on the next generation suddenly seems much simpler and more straight forward than ever..

See what I’m saying?

2) You will be misunderstood

The interesting thing about Michelle Obama is – if this book is to be believed – that her intentions were good all along. Not only were her intentions good, but she actively tried to persuade her husband to forgo a career in politics (even before she knew the presidential race was even a thing to be considered) – she didn’t believe in politics, didn’t believe one could actually make a real difference in that world. Because that’s what she truly desired to do – make a difference. ‘Reach back’ as she says in the quote I cited above. Once her husband had decided to go into politics after all, she was however committed to support him in any which way she could – not without analysing, over thinking and considering any and every possible consequence of course – but she was in it for the long haul.

So there’s no surprise that, when they entered into the presidential race, she did it with her whole heart. Whether it was giving speeches on his behalf on the campaign trail, launching campaigns to fight the ever increasing obesity among american children (Let’s Move!), care for military families and veterans (Joining Forces), and urging a generation of young Americans to Rise Up and pursue higher education (Rise up!) – she did what she could whilst still being the mother and wife she had vowed to be.

It is absolutely mind-boggling to me, how nasty humans can be in general, but seeing some of the criticism Michelle received over the years, caused me to at times having to stop, put the book down and breathe in, so I wouldn’t let out a loud scream of frustration (as the London tube is the place I read in the most, I didn’t think that was quite appropriate). Now don’t get me wrong – I’m sure there was some legitimate criticism in terms of the detail of some of her initiatives, policies etc. – we all disagree at times.

However (and maybe this is just me) I cannot for the life of me understand, how degrading comments about her physique, race and womanhood have any place in that discussion!

Not only that, but it seemed that over the 8 years her husband held the highest (dare I say elected) office in the United States, she couldn’t do things right by anyone. For the left she wasn’t left enough, for the feminists she wasn’t outspoken enough, for the right she wasn’t conservative enough. For some she partied to much, for others she did too little…whichever area of her (mostly private) life as first lady you look at, it seemed like there was nothing she could get right.

And my lord did that frustrate me!

Over the course of reading this book I got reminded of another hero of mine. My ultimate hero actually.

Jesus was treated exactly the same way. And he even said something to that end:

“John came fasting and they called him crazy. I came feasting and they called me a lush, a friend of the riffraff. Opinion polls don’t count for much, do they? The proof of the pudding is in the eating.” Matthew 11:18+19

Even the one some of us believe to be the Son of God was misunderstood and knew that it was impossible to please everybody…

I guess as I had come to the end of the book and look around at anyone who’s ever achieved anything, I have to come to terms with the fact, that unless you stay quiet in a corner and never try to change anything, do anything great, impact the world for the better you WILL BE MISUNDERSTOOD. It’s predestined. It’s part of the deal. I don’t like it, because I very much like being liked by people, but I’ve come to realise there is no way around it.

And the only way to deal with it, lies in this last conclusion I drew from reading her book:

3) Your identity has to be rooted in something bigger than your current position

With all the misunderstanding, the to and fro of the crowd that one day roots for you and the next day wants to see you crucified, how do you stay sane, keep going and don’t eventually shrink back into hiding, giving up on humanity?

(Michelle may have never asked herself that, but I promise you I have…and I haven’t even achieved half of the things I want to do in my life)

The book doesn’t tell us too much of Michelle’s spiritual or faith life if you will, but it does tell us how much her identity was rooted in things bigger than the position she held for 8 years. She is a mother, a wife, a beloved daughter, a sister, a close friend, a woman, a believer, a lawyer, an activist – what jumps from every page of her story, is that in every season all those meant more than a temporary position she may have held. Whether it was being a student at Princeton, a young lawyer at Sidley & Austin, her job at City Hall in Chicago, creating and running mentor and intern programs for a non profit, to being the First Lady of the United States, amongst all of that she always knew there was a bigger purpose attached to her life and her identity was rooted in things less material, less temporal than a position.

I’ve been on the wrong side of this so many times. Trying to find identity in what I do rather than who I am. Thinking my worth and value were in how hard I worked or how well I did what I did. I know today that that isn’t true.

It’s incredibly comforting though to see that even the woman who was the first african american first lady struggled with this – and even more inspiring that she overcame it and found who she was in much more than that.

In summary, this book has affirmed some basic truths I had held in my heart for a while. It has encouraged me not to give up, believe it’s never too late and have the courage to always be my authentic self – for it’s only in that, that I can truly contribute to making a difference in this world.

I know Mrs. Obama is about to release her own biography that she herself has written and I am certain I will read that too.

(BECOMING Michelle Obama, November 2018)

In the mean time, if you’re the kind of person that reads, I’d encourage you to get your hands on this one.

I for one, am only just at the beginning of digging deeper into these truths and living them out more fully. I hope that – whether someone might one day feel the need to write a book about me (help me Jesus) or not, the narrative found around my life would encourage someone in the way this one has encouraged me. So regardless of whether that will ever happen or not, I shall do my best to live a life that does that.

So long!

Jess

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