How Michelle Obama’s Memoir Changed The Way I Tell My Story
Representation in media affects adults, too.
When we speak of the importance of African American representation in media, my mind generally goes to fictional work. I think of Tiana, the Black princess who changed the world’s perception of Disney royalty, or maybe ABC’s Black-ish family, the Johnsons, a well-educated, two-parent, upper-income family exuding both an attainable dosage of Black excellence and a relatable dollop of imperfection.
As someone trained in psychology, I know the potential impact these positive portrayals may have on identity development, but its effect seemed to be lost on me. I was already an adult with a positive sense of self, what could these depictions do for me? It was not until I read Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming, that I felt the impact. I already knew Michelle Obama and I had similar childhood experiences. It can be argued that she had similar childhood experiences to many young, driven, Black women in America. Still, as I read the pages of her story as a child and then as a young adult, it almost seemed as though Becoming were my memoir. And it was illuminating.
I grew up during the '90s in the Bronx, New York. Neither of my parents had college degrees when I was born and, for much of the first decade of my life, it was four of us in a one-bedroom apartment. This was the way I began my narrative to adults, college admissions staff and job recruiters who I knew appreciated the rags-to-riches, pull-yourself-by-your-bootstraps story. I would often repeat how my formal education began at four years old in South Bronx Head Start and ended at 24 years old with a PhD from Howard University. I made it despite not having [insert possession of the privileged here]. But after reading Becoming, I realized I had been telling my story all wrong. My narrative focused too heavily on what I lacked and the challenges I faced to achieve social upward mobility.
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Seeing my story in Michelle Obama’s memoir made me realize the importance of focusing on what I did have, not what I lacked. I, too, came from a two-parent household, with parents who never failed to put food on the table, clothes on my back, and presents under the elaborately adorned Christmas tree. Values were instilled from early on and attending college was the only option. My parents invested time, energy and money into my education and were my biggest advocates in school. Though they wanted me to have a lucrative career, I chose one that was meaningful to me regardless of the pay. Similar to Michelle Obama’s reflection, “I had nothing, or I had everything. It depends on which way you want to tell it.”
Of course I knew just how much I had. I always appreciated the life my parents were determined to give us. But this was not the story that folks wanted to hear. We are taught, whether directly or indirectly, that our value is measured by the pain we can endure and that we should demonstrate our potential by highlighting the inequities we have faced. It is so incredibly important that our youth learn to tell their stories in a way that celebrates their strengths and uplifts those who made everything possible. To be clear, this is not a call to ignore the struggles one has faced in the past; doing so only ensures those struggles will persist for generations to come. This is a call to acknowledge your struggles, but also celebrate the roots of your talents, passions and successes with the same vigor.
In reflecting on how I tell my story, I am reminded of social scientists’ urge for an asset-focused approach to youth and community development rather than a deficit-based approach. For example, in education, we want teachers to capitalize on the strengths and talents that students bring to the classroom rather than lower expectations based on students' shortcomings. This builds students’ confidence, improves performance and promotes a positive identity. Similarly, we — Blacks, women and other minorities — must approach our own narratives with this same dignity.
As I finished the final pages of the memoir, I realized the true impact of being able to see oneself in media. In Becoming, Michelle Obama does not harbor on the inequities she faced, but instead tells a story of love, empowerment and triumph. My story is also one filled with love, empowerment and triumph, and going forward, it will be from that perspective that I tell my story.