Disability and Self-Determination in Michelle Obama's 'Becoming'

Michelle Obama’s memoir Becoming set records upon release, and her ongoing book tour has been no less impressive. Throughout her time in the White House, Mrs. Obama garnered praise and harsh criticism. Yet after years of disagreements about how she occupied the role of first lady, critics and admirers alike clearly wanted to hear from the woman herself. In an expansive book covering childhood, college, and her professional life prior to the White House, readers encounter surprises as well as behind-the-scenes perspectives. Particularly striking is Michelle Obama’s respect and appreciation for people living with disabilities.

Without deigning to mention President Donald Trump more than is absolutely necessary, Becoming enacts the philosophy, When they go low, we go high. Subtly but powerfully, Becoming engages disability to assert that citizenship — or fundamental belonging — has been more than earned by military families and by Mrs. Obama’s own family.

The work ethic of her father, Fraser Robinson, lays the foundation for this perspective. Robinson provided exceptional opportunities for his family while dealing with multiple sclerosis and deteriorating mobility. He was a mainstay at the water treatment plant where he worked, even though he used a scooter to move between the boilers he operated. He “took pride in his own indispensability” and “in 26 years, he hadn’t missed a single shift,” Mrs. Obama wrote.

Because he consistently refused to see a doctor, his daughter took on “the role of tough talker.” When the day came for him to rest and for her to schedule a doctor's appointment, she awoke to find him dressed for work. “His stubbornness was packed beneath so many layers of pride that it was impossible for me to be angry,” she wrote. However, she thought he would cooperate when she saw him resting, having made it only partway down the outdoor stairs.

Convinced that he was gathering energy to come back inside, she assumed he would stop postponing a doctor’s visit. “He would need to accept some help,” she was sure. Instead, “in defiance of everything that was swollen and off-kilter in his body, [he] had willed himself down those stairs and across the icy walkway and into his van, which was now probably halfway to the filtration plant.” He was soldiering on.

If these details about her father were new, the public was aware that veterans and military families were a priority for Mrs. Obama long before Becoming. During her husband’s first presidential campaign, she had vowed to work for their welfare, later joining forces with Jill Biden to fulfill that promise. Becoming reveals that Mrs. Obama often visited patients recuperating at Walter Reed hospital, where she met with service members who had survived bomb blasts due to advances in military armor, but still had serious injuries.

Mrs. Obama visited only those who had agreed to her presence. On one visit, she encountered a poster outside a room that captured what she believes to be a fundamental truth about American veterans:

ATTENTION TO ALL THOSE WHO ENTER HERE:

If you are coming into this room with sorrow or to feel sorry for my wounds, go elsewhere. The wounds I received, I got in a job I love, doing it for people I love, supporting the freedom of a country I deeply love. I am incredibly tough and will make a full recovery.

For Mrs. Obama, this represented the resiliency, self-sufficiency, and pride she had routinely encountered among military families. For readers, this moment brings to mind her father’s refusal to give in that morning on his way to work. She had watched him without his knowing; his strong will (not her gaze) had propelled him up and out.

Even as Michelle Obama narrates, people with disabilities in Becoming determine their own representation. Before her father’s death, they shared a private moment in the hospital. When he passes away, he does so “having given us absolutely everything.” Later, while in the kitchen with her brother and mother, they feel “reduced to a true and ridiculous mess,” and they pull themselves together by recalling who they are as Robinsons. She suggests that, in their silence, they had collectively asked: “Who were we? Didn’t we know? Hadn’t he shown us?” Coming back to themselves, they enjoy “full-blown fits of laughter.” Mrs. Obama explained, “He would’ve liked it, and so we let ourselves laugh.” She suggests that she knows how her father saw himself and would like to be represented, and obliges.

Although she had advocated for veterans and their families, Mrs. Obama also emphasizes their self-possession. Determined to “fight the stigma surrounding the mental health issues that followed some of our troops home,” she and Jill Biden planned to “lobby writers and producers in Hollywood to include military stories in their movies and TV shows.” Her bestselling book (published in 24 languages) places a spotlight on people with disabilities as they live on their own terms.

Michelle Obama paints her father as a provider above all, and highlights his pride and resiliency despite declining mobility. She represents injured service members and military families the same way; they deserve more than “token thank-yous” because what they have given the country warrants respect, admiration, and so much more. As the book offers this portrait, it reminds readers of the very different approach taken by the nation’s current elected officials. And the contrast materializes without mention of Donald Trump’s mocking of John McCain or a reporter with disabilities.

Without “going low” by recounting those words and actions, Becoming takes time to emphasize that when the 2005 recording of Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women surfaced, it proved “so lewd and vulgar that it put media outlets in a quandary about how to quote it without violating the established standards of decency.” A sigh is almost audible as the passage continues, “in the end, the standards of decency were simply lowered in order to make room for the candidate’s voice.”

Michelle Obama tells her story in order to “widen the pathway for who belongs and why.” In the process, she offers a model that stands in sharp contrast to all that empowered Donald Trump to peddle birtherism as a civilian. Her example contradicts complacency as the president emboldens white nationalists. The decency with which Becoming treats people with disabilities is not what Michelle Obama would call a high standard. Nevertheless, it feels like one because it has been two years since the nation moved from Mom-in-Chief to Predator-in-Chief.


About the Author

Koritha Mitchell is a literary historian and cultural critic who teaches at Ohio State University. She is author of the award-winning book Living With Lynching: African American Lynching Plays, Performance, and Citizenship, 1890-1930. Her forthcoming book, From Slave Cabins to the White House, examines a wide array of works produced between slavery and the Age of Michelle Obama.