Michelle Obama's "Becoming" Is Black Women’s History

Photo by Lawrence Jackson

With a media blitz befitting an international celebrity, Michelle Obama’s memoir Becoming, was released on November 13th. Even before the book’s release, Barnes and Noble announced that pre-orders of the memoir had already surpassed any other adult book published since 2015 and that the demand would likely continue to grow. Oprah Winfrey has selected Becoming for her famed book club and tickets for Michelle Obama’s multi-city book tour disappeared within hours.

Obama’s book will be attractive to many different readers. For some, this intimate and candid entrance into the life of America’s most famous and well-respected First Lady will rekindle memories of the hope and optimism attached to Barack Obama’s campaign. For others, this memoir allows Americans, women in particular, to connect to universal themes of motherhood, marriage, women in the work place, and community work.

Becoming will be many things to many people, but first and foremost, it is Black women’s history.

Several weeks before the release of the memoir, a small group of Black women writers, scholars, and legal experts arrived in Washington, D.C. for a round table discussion with Obama. All of us had read an advance copy of Becoming, and we looked forward to what promised to be an intimate conversation. But the news of the day was particularly difficult. Word spread about the interception of bombs that were to be delivered to the Obamas, the Clintons and other high-ranking democrats across the country. All of us seated at the roundtable felt anger, a heaviness, and deep concern. However the camaraderie that swept the room reminded us of the importance of this meeting. This was a space in which Black women could talk to one another about a monumental first. We came to discuss Becoming.

With humility and grace, Michelle Obama began this meeting with a reading from her memoir, stepping into her new role as a writer and storyteller, a space she appeared born to inhabit. All of us understood the importance of Becoming for it would end a silence in the archives of history. This text differs from all other First Lady memoirs in one important way; It is centered upon a Black woman’s experience. It is a memoir that lays bare the stories that many African Americans know so well; from enslaved ancestors who worked the land in Georgia to the millions of Black men and women who headed North and West looking for opportunity and relief from the entrenched violence of the South.

Becoming tells the story of the Great Migration through Michelle Obama’s relatives, reminding readers that her close family members faced stiff racism once they reached the city of Chicago. Through residential segregation and low paying employment, the First Lady’s family, just like many other Black families on the South side of Chicago, found a way to make a dollar out of fifteen cents. Michelle Obama would become a part of the migration story that began in Georgia, but hers was a journey that tied migration to education, taking her to Princeton University for her undergraduate education and to Harvard University for a law degree.

All of the women at the roundtable felt a deep connection to this memoir. Obama’s reminiscing about long bus rides to a magnet school far from her home is relatable to many Black men and women who were in elementary and high school during the 1970s and 80s. Her words remind the reader of the history behind segregated education and the stubborn barriers placed in front of African American children who attempted to make a way through poverty’s deep and racialized roots. These stories are likely unfamiliar, but we gain entrance to this history through the lens of a Black woman writer who takes readers from the South Side of Chicago to the White House.

While Becoming reminds us of the stinging injustice of racism it highlights the beauty and importance of family, community, and survival. During our roundtable discussion, Obama reflected upon the significance of family and how her support system was ever-present. “You live right around the corner from your cousin? That’s how I grew up,” she said. “Yes, that’s how most working-class people grow up, in a five block radius with cousins, and uncles, and meal times, and birthday parties, and celebrations, and a whole lot of ordinariness.”

At its heart, Becoming is a celebration of ordinary Black womanhood through an extraordinary story.

This memoir follows in the tradition of other groundbreaking work that tells the stories of Black women. From Phillis Wheatley’s poetry, to Harriet Jacobs’s narrative that highlighted the moral bankruptcy of slavery, to more modern memoirs and biographies of women such as Ida B. Wells, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Ella Baker, Becoming contributes to a growing field of Black women’s history, a history that is still riddled with gaps and holes that need to be filled.

For extremely public figures such as Michelle Obama, there is always a tendency to shy away from hard topics and to limit the most personal of information in the telling of their stories. We are fortunate that Obama did not feel the need to hide her truths or to refrain from the controversial. She offers us a candor that is refreshing by discussing love and loss and the responsibilities that black women almost always shoulder for their families. But perhaps most important is that Michelle Obama shares these stories on her terms, controlling the narrative in a way that is often impossible for most Black women.

“I also know that, as I’ve experienced, that people can take your story and twist it, and turn it, and ball it up and spit it back out at you in a way that looks nothing like what you intended. I am very cautious of how my story is told,” she said.

Every one of us at the roundtable understood the importance of this new book and  Obama’s words reminded us of what we already knew, “ We don’t have enough stories out there…Not everybody’s going to be First Lady. But those stories need to permeate our culture.”

We are grateful that parts of our collective story have been inserted into the American narrative. We are grateful that the archive of Black women’s history has welcomed a new testimony.  We are grateful for Becoming.

 

Erica Armstrong Dunbar is the author of Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge