On a misty Wednesday afternoon, four women walked into Ike’s Food and Cocktails in Minneapolis with a large cardboard cutout of former First Lady Michelle Obama. They carefully picked their way past waiters and tables full of diners, some of whom glanced in amusement and others who yelped supportive cheer.
They were nearly settled in – including cardboard Michelle – when Sheletta Brundidge of Cottage Grove leaped from her seat, yelled at her phone, and turned to her tablemates, shouting, “Michelle Obama responded to my tweet.”
The next five minutes were consumed by this news.
Since the holidays, these women have been reading Obama’s 2018 memoir, "Becoming." They’ve been texting, bouncing thoughts off one another, talking about parts that resonated. And that day, after treating themselves to the salon, lunch, and massages, they were going to attend Obama’s appearance at the Xcel Energy Center.
“She typed my name,” Brundidge breathed, staring at her phone. “I got to call my mama.”
If the women have one thing in common, it’s probably Brundidge. Fanchon Pendleton, an investment manager, met her when they were sixth-graders growing up in Houston. Heather Belair was an old colleague from her days at KSTP. Charlotte Larson is the social media manager for her podcast, Two Haute Mamas. Besides that, they’re all very different people.
“People would say to me, ‘So, the ladies from your book club, do they all go to your church?’ Or ‘Are they all black?’” Brundidge says. (She's black, and so is Pendleton, but the others aren’t.) “Like, why would you assume that? …We’re all diverse. We’re all from different backgrounds and faiths. Charlotte’s a millennial.”
The table shares a quick laugh.
“People just assume that we’re all the same,” Brundidge continues. “They assume that diverse women can’t come together.”
Obama’s memoir tells the story of her life, starting with her youth in a small Chicago apartment. When she was in middle school, an opinion piece in the Chicago Defender described her school as a “run-down slum” governed by a “ghetto mentality.” Her journey to becoming the first black First Lady of the United States, raising her children, and struggling to remain relatable and human while also being elevated as a national symbol of perfection are all included.
Her continued relevance can be measured in the 16,000 fans who paid for the privilege of seeing her in St. Paul, some up to $1,000 for a ticket.
Even if Obama wasn’t sitting at the table in anything but cardboard cutout form, her presence was felt. Everyone in the book club had gotten something personal out of "Becoming." Brundidge was inspired by Obama’s relationship with Barack. Larson sees Obama as a role model for herself and other aspiring young women. Belair admired her ability to guide and strengthen youth – especially underprivileged youth. Pendleton felt that some of the elements of Obama’s life story hit pretty close to home.
“It made me reflect on what I’m dealing with and what I’ve gone through,” she says – like growing up in a tiny house with her grandparents, or the time, in middle school, when a boy reared his head and spat on her. She thought about the way her fear quieted and replaced itself with righteous anger the minute that spit hit her as she was reading.
The title of Obama’s memoir references her journey to finding her identity, her legacy, her impact on the world. It is present tense, because even now, after serving two terms as First Lady, she is still “becoming.” The message these women have taken away is one of inspiration, and the realization of their own potential.
“The whole thing just spoke to me,” Pendleton says. “You have a story. Make it your own story, and tell it.”