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‘Becoming,’ by Michelle Obama: A pioneering and important work by Allyson Hobbs

“Becoming,” by Michelle Obama.

Photo: Crown

Reading Michelle Obama’s memoir, “Becoming,” feels like catching up with an old friend over a lazy afternoon. Parts of her story are familiar, but still, you lean in, eager to hear them again. Other parts are new and come as a surprise. Sometimes her story makes you laugh out loud and shake your head with a gentle knowingness. Some parts are painful to hear. You wince and wish that you could have protected her from an unkind world.

Obama has sworn to tell her readers everything, and she delivers on that promise. From the silly to the surreal, from the momentous to the mundane, from the tragic to the transformative, she tells it all. As she shares her story, you are struck that every word is honest, brave and real.

 

“Becoming” explains how Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama, “girl of the South Side,” came to be. It is a story that is as much about becoming as it is about belonging.

Obama invites us into the upstairs apartment of the red brick bungalow to experience the camaraderie and closeness that she shared with her parents, Marian and Fraser, and her older brother, Craig. She details her drive, her pursuit of achievement, her desire to check the right boxes and to prove that she was, in fact, “Princeton material,” despite the wrongheaded assessment of her high school college counselor. She would wrestle with the stubborn question — Am I good enough? — that lodged itself in her mind for years to come.

 

As first lady, Obama shattered the mold. Americans had never seen a life like Obama’s. She did not fit the dominant cultural frame that has been mounted around African American women.

“Becoming” shatters the mold, too. Not only because Obama writes in her signature tell-it-like-it-is style, but because she steeps her story in the richness and complexity of African American history that seldom reaches national audiences.

She is the descendant of enslaved people, a grandchild of the Great Migration, and the product of the storied black community on Chicago’s South Side. She is an observer of segregated housing, restrictive covenants and the exodus of white families to Chicago’s northern and western suburbs. She bears witness to the dashed dreams of her great uncle and grandfather who wished for greater educational and employment opportunities at a time when few if any existed for black men.

Through humor and poignant storytelling, Obama captures the joys of growing up in the neighborhood that writers have called “the capital of black America”: the sound of jazz blasting from her grandfather’s house around the corner, the barbecues where countless cousins gathered, and the feeling that, as Obama writes, “everyone was kin.”

There is a universality in the themes that “Becoming” addresses that many readers will recognize and appreciate, but at its heart, this is a story about the complexity of black women’s lives told firsthand by a black woman. This is a pioneering and important work that helps fill a gap in the literature on African American women’s lives.