On Belonging and Becoming…A Special Essay


“I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I always knew the woman I wanted to be,” Diane Von Furstenberg once said.

As I sat down to read Michelle Obama’s Becoming, I pondered that quote. As a little Black girl growing up on the South Side of Chicago, she probably never imagined becoming the first Black First Lady of the United States one day, but did she know the kind of woman that she wanted to become?  She eventually became a woman who would live in service to others, a woman who would make an impact in people’s lives, a woman who would exude strength, character, and grace even under the bigotry and bitter scrutiny of others, a woman who would never forget where she came from, and a woman who would take great care to live authentically and truthfully.  To some of us she became even more.

I think it’s safe to say that many if not most Black girls and women can see a piece of themselves in Michelle Obama.  For a group of people who rarely get to see themselves represented positively and truthfully, this is a powerful notion.  

She wrote about growing up on the South Side of Chicago.  In her descriptions, I saw my own neighborhood of Inglewood, California.  As with any area in a major city where many people of color reside, the label “ghetto” and “violent” is often ascribed and the residents are usually thought of as less intelligent.  As an undergrad at Princeton, she would challenge the thinking and break the stereotypes that many of the affluent Princeton students had of students like her.  She would state “with a touch of pride and maybe defiance, ‘the South Side’” whenever asked where she was from.  As she put it, “I belonged at Princeton, as much as anybody.  And I came from the South Side of Chicago.  It felt important to say out loud.”

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I remembered my own college days and how I had to constantly correct the misconceptions of those who wrongly labeled my own neighborhood and even me.  I was constantly asked by people if I was attending college on an athletic scholarship or solely to fill an affirmative action quota because how else could a Central American Black and Latin girl raised in Inglewood, California, by a single mother end up at UC Berkeley? Certainly not on intelligence alone, they assumed.  

Then there are assumptions about students from a lower socio-economic status. Does a lower economic status put one at a disadvantage?  Absolutely! But the last time I checked, having economic disadvantages did not automatically make people violent criminals or less intelligent.  So even today, like Mrs. Obama, whenever I’m asked where I’m from, with the same pride and defiance she described, I proclaim “Inglewood!” if for no other reason than to break the stereotypes held of what a girl from Inglewood, California must be like.

The description of her entire University experience triggered memory after memory of my own University experience.  I arrived at college completely ignorant of University living.  Other students came prepared with everything they would need to have a successful and comfortable college experience.  They came with mini refrigerators and computers.  A few of the students even came with more than one. Some came with trunks of items just to decorate their rooms.  I had no computer, no refrigerator, no trunks full of decorative items.  All I had was a suitcase full of clothes and not much else.

She stated in the book, so many of the students of color “arrived at college not even aware of what our disadvantages were.  You learn slowly that your new peers had been given SAT tutoring or college-caliber teaching in high school or had gone to boarding school and thus weren’t grappling with the difficulties of being away from home for the first time.”  I definitely found this to be true of my experience.

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When you are the only one or even just part of the minority, you have to develop self-confidence and a strong voice in order to survive and thrive amid the stereotypes and negative connotations with which you are confronted.  From high school through college and into her role as First Lady, Mrs. Obama found one thought that ran through her mind…“Am I good enough?” After observing her peers with all their advantages, she concluded that “they weren’t at all smarter than the rest of us.  They were simply emboldened, floating on an ancient tide of superiority, buoyed by the fact that history had never told them anything different.” After this realization, the answer to her question about being good enough was a resounding, “Yes I am!”

By telling her story, Mrs. Obama has told the story of many of us who share a similar upbringing and culture and in so doing, she has emboldened us, keeping us afloat on a tide of truth, buoyed by the fact that despite certain people trying to tell us different, we are in fact good enough or dare I say more than good enough.  By refusing to accept whatever stereotypes society had about her, by not allowing others define her and where she should be, by finding her own voice and finding the courage to use it, Michelle Robinson Obama became an Ivy League college graduate, a respected attorney, a devoted mother, a respected hospital administrator, and the first Black First Lady of the United States. 

In the end, she states, “There’s power in allowing yourself to be known and heard, in owning your unique story, in using your authentic voice.”  Those words are pure nourishment to the soul of a woman like me who is also on my own journey of becoming by writing my own stories and my own truth one article and one story at a time.

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We each have our own lifelong journey to navigate.  A voyage of figuring out who we are and who we want to become.  By giving us a glimpse of her path and using her strong and authentic voice to tell her story, Michelle Obama has become to many women and girls, especially to Black women and girls, a hope fulfilled, a dream realized, a barrier broken down, and a light illuminating the pathway to becoming the best versions of ourselves.  If her mission is as she states “to help create a space for other stories and other voices, to widen the pathway for who belongs and why” then I must say to her, mission accomplished and thank you, Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama.  

– Shereen Rahming

Cover Photo Credit: Tradlands via Flickr. No changes were made to the original

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