Preface and Becoming Me, Chapters 1–4

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Last Updated on July 22, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1432

Preface

As a child, Michelle told people she would be a pediatrician because she liked children; she thought that was what people wanted to hear. As an adult, she has actually had many roles—lawyer, hospital vice president, mother, daughter, and First Lady of the United States. She has been called the most powerful woman in the world and remembers fondly her eight years in the White House, where she had everything she could ever want—except the liberty that the average family experiences. She reflects that the Obamas’ time in the White House seemed to go by quickly.

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At home alone in the family’s new house, Michelle feels it’s strange to not have anyone insisting on doing things for her or asking where she is going. She enjoys the fresh air with the dogs, who are confused by the sound of a dog barking—they are not used to having neighbors. The dogs are not the only family members who have experienced a new way of life after the White House; it has been a period of transition for the entire family. In this “new place,” Michelle writes that she “has a lot [she] want[s] to say.”

Chapter 1

Young Michelle Robinson and her brother, Craig, enjoyed playing board games, boxing, listening to music, and sliding on the floor until they crashed into the wall. At four, Michelle took piano lessons from her great-aunt Robbie, who lived on the first floor of the house while Michelle, Craig, and their parents lived on the second. Michelle’s family was very musical, especially her paternal grandfather, Purnell Shields, a carpenter who built a partition so Michelle and Craig could have their own rooms. Michelle skipped ahead in the lesson book to play advanced songs, making Robbie angry and beginning their epic battles over music.

Michelle’s father, Fraser, loved his Buick Electra, a car that he cared for meticulously, and Michelle and Craig loved riding in it. At this time, in his thirties, Fraser was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. The weakness he felt in one leg was becoming noticeable, and he was already beginning to limp. Michelle reflects that it would be many years before she understood how important the car was to her father: it represented freedom.

Michelle recalls her first piano recital; the huge hall made her feel small and disoriented about so many people watching her. Robbie was supportive and encouraging so Michelle could play her song. 

Chapter 2

Michelle first learned about competition in kindergarten when quizzed on reading color names. Two students received gold star stickers, but Michelle did not, because she was unable to read the word “white.” After practicing all night, she learned the word, and asked her teacher for a second chance, this time proudly earning her gold star.

Michelle played alone with her dolls and alphabet blocks. She did not trust the other children around her toys, having seen how terribly others treated their dolls.

The neighborhood was racially mixed, and children played together without regard to skin color. Michelle recalls that her family was on the poor side of the neighborhood.

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Her second-grade teacher had poor classroom management skills, so Michelle’s mother, Marian, petitioned to remove her and other highly capable students from the class. After performing well on exams, the students were placed in a third-grade class, which Michelle considered a life-changing event.

Marian encouraged Michelle to play with the other children, hoping she would follow in her brother’s footsteps. Craig played basketball and was very social; Michelle was impressed that so many people knew him. Before she could join the community of neighborhood children who played outside nearby, Michelle faced a bully named DeeDee, who constantly made disparaging comments about her. Michelle knew that the only ways to earn DeeDee’s respect were to reason with her or fight her; she eventually chose the second option. After their fight, the children accepted Michelle. 

Michelle’s parents treated their children as adults, and they knew they could discuss any topic. Michelle, later to become a lawyer, found a love for argument early: she earned a victory by arguing that peanut butter was equivalent to eggs as a source of protein for breakfast.

Craig and Michelle began to face more mature discussions and lessons. They were introduced to racial issues and discrimination when Craig received a new bike and a police officer thought he had stolen it. 

The Robinson family engaged in many activities together, from enjoying pizza or ice cream together to going on picnics and vacations together. Fraser enjoyed playing with the kids in the pool, where the strength of his upper body was more important than the weakness in his legs.

Each fall when Michelle and Craig returned to school, there were fewer White children, as many families had moved out of the neighborhood to the suburbs. Upon invitation, they visited their friends, eager to see what the suburbs looked like. After an enjoyable day, they returned to their car at night, only to find a long scratch beginning at the driver’s door and continuing to the end of the car. They believed the scratch was an intentional act against a Black family in a White neighborhood. Mr. Robinson had the scratch removed soon after.

Chapter 3

Craig began to conduct fire drills at home, since there had been several neighborhood tragedies. The main concern was Fraser, who could not move quickly. Fraser was unused to feeling helpless, as he believed his role was to be there to support everyone else. However, he participated in the drills, allowing Craig to practice rescuing him. The family realized there were no guarantees that they would survive in an emergency, but having a plan in place was comforting.

The Robinsons visited Fraser’s family every Sunday. Michelle and Craig spent time with their father’s younger brothers, who wore leather jackets and talked about Malcolm X and “soul power”: Michelle and Craig tried to “sponge up their cool.” Michelle loved her grandparents but was bothered when Grandpa Dandy yelled at Grandma. She often confronted Dandy about this behavior, and she could not understand how Grandma was so independent, managing a Bible bookstore, but was passive at home with Dandy.

Michelle learned that Dandy had lived a hard life of disappointments, being forced to abandon his plans to attend college and become an electrician—all because of society’s discrimination. Eventually, he became a postal worker and retired with a pension, yet he could not recognize his accomplishments. He and his wife raised five successful children, but Dandy was still bitter about the dreams he had been forced to give up.

Michelle recognized that her peers saw her as different. One of her cousins questioned why she spoke “like a white girl,” making Michelle feel self-conscious for speaking as her parents and grandparents had taught her. Looking back, she recognizes that this incident represents the “universal challenge of squaring who you are with where you come from and where you want to go.” 

Chapter 4

When a newspaper claimed that Michelle’s school was a “slum” with a “ghetto mentality,” the principal defended his school and community. He began a new program grouping students by ability, and Michelle was moved into the gifted classroom, where she enjoyed independent projects, writing workshops, and field trips.

Marian was active in the lives of Michelle and her friends, chaperoning trips and making food for the children. She was quite adept at living on a budget while supplying the family’s needs. She was always supportive of her children without overpowering them. Her “Zen neutrality” prepared them to be successful adults, and she gently guided them and gave them freedom to make decisions.

When both children were teenagers, the apartment was renovated to create a bedroom for Craig, Michelle moved into her parents’ room, and they took the space that Michelle and Craig had shared as children. Michelle became aware of her changing body and of the presence of boys. She slowly gained independence, traveling by herself and always remaining watchful of her surroundings.

Michelle did not realize until years later that her mother was unhappy and thought about leaving her father. Marian never voiced those thoughts at the time, and Michelle was too wrapped up in her own thoughts to consider her mother’s desires. Michelle states that Chicago winters were harsh and lonely, but that eventually, spring arrived. She considers that perhaps her mother’s certainty returned with spring so that she decided she had made the right choice to stay.

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Next

Becoming Me, Chapters 5–8