“Have I felt angry?” Michelle Obama asks herself at the beginning of her new book, “The Light We Carry.”
Has she felt angry at the ongoing police killings of Black people? Angry at the rise of authoritarianism at home and abroad? Angry at having to watch her husband’s successor incite a mob that believed they were “making our country great by kicking down doors and pissing on Nancy Pelosi’s carpet”?
“Yes, I have,” she writes. There’s something so measured and deliberate, so Obaman, about those three words, — Yes, I have — telegraphing calm even while expressing its opposite.
I’m certain Obama deployed the word “angry” carefully: when she was first lady, right wing media consistently characterized her as “some angry black woman,” as she said in 2012. (The New York Post responded with the headline “Mad as hell Michelle” — a provocation, and a trap.)
Ten years later, Obama is allowing herself a touch of anger — as long as it is safely in the past, conscripted into a narrative of personal progress. “The Light We Carry” is a guide for alchemizing base metals of anger, hurt, and fear, “elevating those rawer feelings into something that would become harder for others to write off.”
As president, Barack Obama loved to invoke Martin Luther King Jr: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” And in 2008, the Obamas themselves seemed like proof: He would be the first Black president, she would be the first Black first lady, modeling Black womanhood for a generation. Progress.
Michelle Obama’s worldview, like her husband’s, is one of determined, progressive optimism, as the title of her first book, “Becoming,” implies. With work, we become ever better, stronger, and more assured. In her writing, the imagery of ascent is everywhere: winding paths and steep mountains, seeds and shoots.
But for progressives who came of age in the Obama era, and who had been trained to see that upward arc of history, Donald Trump’s victory in 2016 raised the specter of something else: not an arc but a pendulum. What if things didn’t just get better and better? Trump, climate change, the pandemic, election denialism, and war: “Uncertainty continues to soak itself into nearly every corner of life, manifesting in ways that are as broad as the threat of nuclear war and as intimate as the sound of your own child beginning to cough,” Obama writes.
In “The Light We Carry,” Obama describes her “toolbox” for overcoming hardship, “the levers and hydraulics of how I get myself through.” She dedicates chapters to the power of friendship, of attitude adjustments, of overcoming fear, and finding a partner. Her voice is warm and knowing, full of sisterly disclosures that veer into platitude. (“It’s okay to pace yourself, get a little rest, and speak of your struggles out loud.”)
As with “Becoming,” the most interesting and candid sections revolve around her family and early life: her father’s dignity and determination in the face of multiple sclerosis, her mother’s lasting insistence that her children, though she loved them, were nothing special: “The South Side is filled with kids like that,” she’d say.
While Obama is eager to rib her husband about his lateness or other foibles, she doesn’t engage with his choices as president: This is not the place to find out her thoughts about his treatment of whistleblowers or his deadly drone program. Throughout this book, it’s taken for granted that the Obamas are an unalloyed force for good — the book’s moral struggle is about goodness coming up against foes like self-doubt or fear, rather than real wrestling with what goodness means.
There is one flicker of moral discomfort in “Becoming” that stood out to me, only because it was so rare. In one of his signature first-term accomplishments, Barack Obama ordered the killing of Osama bin Laden. Celebrations swept D.C., and she writes, “I’m not sure anyone’s death is reason to celebrate, ever.” But then she quickly returns to message: “[W]hat America got that night was a moment of release, a chance to feel its own resilience.”
Because “The Light We Carry” is broadly about doing good in the world, I wanted to know more about that unease, and get more of a sense of her own moral calculations and struggles. Instead, the book has an odd way of repelling questions, of wrapping the reader up in fuzzy language of fulfillment and progress without quite defining what those mean. We have sections on knitting (“the power of small”), the value of being prepared, and other reasonable and kindly, if not groundbreaking, advice. “Teach your kids to wake themselves up.” “Don’t do life alone.” “Know what’s truly precious.”
Something often goes unsaid in reviews of memoirs by politicians or celebrities: These books are usually ghostwritten. Michelle Obama’s name appears on the cover, but in the acknowledgments she thanks the writer Sara Corbett, who “willingly inhabited both my brain and my life with a discerning and compassionate ear,” which suggests that at minimum, Obama had a coauthor.
To me, this speaks to something deeper about a life like Michelle Obama’s, in which public image is often shaped by committee. In “Becoming,” she describes the three-person team dedicated to her appearance — clothes, hair, makeup. When Obama was contemplating getting bangs, her staff first ran it past the West Wing. What must it be like to be the real person at the center of all of that image-making? I’m still not sure I know.
THE LIGHT WE CARRY: Overcoming in Uncertain Times
By Michelle Obama
Crown, 336 pp., $32.50
Annalisa Quinn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @annalisa_quinn.