Part II: BECOMING US
Chapters 9 & 10
Summary: Chapter 9
Michelle and Barack’s relationship quickly becomes serious. When she starts sleeping over at his summertime apartment, the nighttime noise of the street below bothers him less than it does her. One night, as a favor to a friend, he revisits his old role as a community organizer. Seated in back in a church basement, Michelle watches in awe as Barack urges the fifteen or so gathered parishioners to work toward “the world as it should be,” instead of settling for “the world as it is.”
Michelle introduces Barack to her parents. Her father laughingly tells Craig that the relationship will not last, because Michelle’s relationships have always taken a back seat to her ambitions. However, as Barack heads back to Harvard in August, he tells Michelle that he loves her and wants to stay in touch—by mail. She, coming from a family of talkers, tells him to become “a phone guy.” He does. During a Christmas visit to Honolulu, Michelle meets some of Barack’s loving and comfortingly middle-class family, including his mother Ann Dunham, his half-sister, and his American grandparents. She also sees Barack relaxing with longtime friends and, for a change, not worrying about the problems of the world.
As a member of her firm’s recruiting team, Michelle pushes for consideration of a wider range of applications than just graduates from Harvard and a few other top schools, and she advocates for use of more holistic selection criteria than just grades. Recruiting visits to Harvard bring welcome time with Barack. Michelle gushes about Barack to Suzanne, with whom she stayed in touch after Princeton. Suzanne, carefree as ever, is quitting her job to see the world with her mother, a choice Michelle disapproves of. After the trip, Suzanne calls to say that she was just diagnosed with advanced cancer. A couple of mutual friends look in on Suzanne and keep Michelle posted. Michelle is at Suzanne’s bedside when she dies.
Summary: Chapter 10
During his final summer associateship, with a different Chicago firm, Barack moves in with Michelle, in the apartment upstairs from her parents. On the basketball court, Barack passes Craig’s character test by showing the right balance of a willingness to pass and a willingness to shoot. As the newly elected first Black president of the Harvard Law Review, he could easily go into corporate law after graduation, but he is instead thinking about a less-lucrative career in civil rights law.
Michelle hates being a lawyer, and she is in love with a man whose intellect and ambition threaten to overwhelm hers. In a journal she has started keeping, she anxiously explores other career possibilities. Her mother chuckles at Michelle’s predicament and is not very sympathetic. The topic of marriage is a source of disagreement between Michelle and Barack. She believes that two people who love each other will want to merge their lives into one, the way her parents did. Barack is in much less of a hurry to get married. For him, marriage is a way for two people to bring their lives into parallel while each pursuing their own dreams. His model is his independent-minded, twice-divorced mother.
Fraser Robinson’s deterioration accelerates. His feet and neck swell, affecting his walking and his speech and breathing. He insists on continuing to work and refuses to see a doctor. Finally, he is taken to the hospital by ambulance. Tests bring a diagnosis but no hope: he has an advanced endocrine disorder. Ten days later, and hours before he dies, his last moments with Michelle are full of unspoken tender thoughts.
Analysis: Chapters 9 & 10
This section begins the second third of the book, “Becoming Us,” in which Michelle moves on from becoming herself to becoming part of a couple with Barack and eventually becoming parents to their daughters. In these chapters, Michelle is wooed by Barack’s idea of “the world how it should be.” When Michelle wakes to find Barack deep in thought as though mentally tackling a personal struggle, she discovers that he is thinking about income inequality. She watches and listens as Barack speaks to a group of women in economically-disenfranchised Roseland about the power of banding together as a community to work for positive change. She stands by as her father stoically accepts the progression of his disease and refuses to seek treatment until it is too late to save him, a tragedy that ultimately supports Barack’s insistence that the world can be made better and that people should not simply accept the way things are. Barack’s ideas help Michelle to realize that her drive for success has been narrow and that she has left her community behind in her achievements. Her endeavors to diversify her law office are evidence that she now believes that a better world is possible with hard work.
Michelle faces many changes in her life in this section, which cause her to examine how she wants to live and introduces a newly emerging theme: life is only meaningful if one feels fulfilled. Though Michelle’s new focus at work promises more positive change for people from marginalized groups entering the firm, Suzanne’s joy-driven, carefree life serves as a true example of fulfillment. Her sudden cancer diagnosis, though, shocks Michelle. Throughout Suzanne’s short illness, Michelle is consumed by work and finally makes it to her friend’s bedside only on the day she passes away. Suzanne’s death prompts a grieving and regretful Michelle to think about what’s most important in life. It is the catalyst for the realization that she hates being a lawyer and needs to make a career change. Though her mother views fulfillment as a frivolous goal and urges her to primarily focus on making money, Michelle understands that her unhappiness is permanent unless she can swerve toward a more meaningful and joyful career.
Michelle’s relationship with Barack also causes her to grapple with the delicate and often-elusive balance between career, partnership, and family. Barack’s ambitions are so large that Michelle worries about being sucked into his life to the point of losing sight of her own goals. She realizes that she can’t be the only one in the relationship to make concessions. When Barack states that they will maintain their long-distance relationship by writing letters, Michelle counters with an unshakable demand for regular phone calls. Though Barack presents himself as a man who can have a wife with separate interests and pursuits, he doesn’t crave the permanent merging the institution of marriage will bring, and Michelle worries that building a family with Barack may not be possible. Though Michelle grapples with loss and struggles to find fulfillment in her career, she understands that she is not willing to sacrifice her dreams to solely support Barack’s pursuits.