Chapters 7 & 8

Summary: Chapter 7

Over time, Michelle increasingly feels that she belongs at Princeton as much as anyone. Still, she makes a point of adding “South Side” when telling people she is from Chicago. Dandy’s younger sister, Aunt Sis, lives in Princeton. Occasional dinners at Aunt Sis’s place connect Michelle to older roots: Georgetown, South Carolina, where Dandy and Aunt Sis grew up, is surrounded by former plantations, like those some of Michelle’s ancestors worked on as slaves.

When Robbie, previously widowed, dies, Michelle’s parents inherit the bungalow and become first-time homeowners. Soon after, Grandfather Southside dies of lung cancer.

Michelle has a boyfriend in Craig’s graduating class who is headed for medical school but first takes a break to try out as a mascot for the Cleveland Browns. This quirky “swerve” bothers Michelle. A path-follower and box-checker, she already has her sights set on law school. In time, she graduates with a sociology degree, earns her law degree at Harvard, and lands a job with a high-end firm in Chicago. By then, however, she realizes that she has been striving for success in a career she does not enjoy. Her life will soon change, though: she has been asked to help mentor a male summer associate, a Black Harvard law student with an odd name.

Summary: Chapter 8

Michelle works on marketing and intellectual property cases. Although she makes good money, she lives with her parents in the old house, taking over the upstairs apartment and paying only nominal rent. The South Shore, while in decline, is not yet greatly affected by the crack epidemic that has already ravaged African American communities in New York and Detroit. 

The summer associate, Barack Obama, arrives late on his first day, apologizing. He is tall and thin, but handsome, and has a big smile and a pleasing baritone voice. Although habitually relaxed, he does not enjoy small talk. He soon confirms rumors of his brilliance by writing a thirty-page memo that instantly becomes legendary within the firm. He is illogical in only one thing: he smokes. Michelle’s parents both smoked and quit only late in life, years after Michelle and Craig had tried in vain to explain how deadly the habit was.

Barack’s life trajectory has been less linear than Michelle’s, which is why he is still in law school despite being three years older than she. The son of a Black Kenyan father and a white mother from Kansas, he was born and raised in Honolulu but lived in Indonesia for four years. He started college in laid-back Los Angeles before transferring to Columbia. After graduation, he spent three years in Chicago as a community organizer. He is now studying law, he says, because he has realized that societal change requires changes at the level of government.

Michelle and Barack hit it off from the start. At a firm barbecue, she is impressed by his easy grace on the basketball court. Afterward, when he suggests a stop for ice cream and then asks for a kiss, she willingly leans in.

Analysis: Chapters 7 & 8

The final chapters of “Becoming Me” highlight the motif of the contrast between orderly box-checking and laid-back swerving approaches to life. In her final years at Princeton, Michelle stays laser-focused on assessing her goals and their potential outcomes. In contrast, her impulsive and restless football player boyfriend Kevin decides to put his Princeton degree in his back pocket, defer his plans for medical school, and attempt to become a professional football mascot instead. Michelle fails to understand Kevin’s desire to pursue a job that is based purely on enjoyment rather than immediately taking the next step on the prescribed course that a Princeton degree can provide. As she graduates from Princeton and starts Harvard Law School without skipping a beat, she also realizes that the admiration she receives from others is intoxicating. It prevents her from seeing clearly in the moments of her life where she might have benefitted from a “swerve,” a change, to reassess her next steps or to recover from burnout she’s not even aware she is experiencing. As Obama describes each step toward her first job as a lawyer and the subsequent rewards, she switches to the second person. The effect is as if she is viewing the mechanical motions of her success through the removed lens of another person; perhaps, as someone who wishes she’d “swerved” more.  

The contrast between box-checker and swerver continues into Chapter 7 as Barack Obama enters Michelle’s life. Obama’s inclusion of the detail that Barack was late on his first day as a summer associate at her firm introduces Barack as a figure who will challenge and perhaps upturn Michelle’s orderly life. Because of the winding path that Barack has traveled in childhood, as a student, and as a professional, Michelle wonders at his confidence and lack of doubt. Unlike Michelle, who is already developing skepticism about politics, Barack is an optimist who believes that politics can make a difference and bring about social change. As he settles in at the firm, Michelle notes how Barack’s easy-going nature is so different from the hungry and overachieving summer associate she had been. Though they have an easy connection, Michelle is still checking professional boxes and has little interest in a romantic life. Barack makes a strong case for why dating each other makes sense, and though Michelle resists, she finds herself analyzing whether or not a romantic connection with easy-going Barack makes sense. Her concession in allowing him to kiss her over ice cream is a swerve that will ultimately change the course of Michelle’s life.