Reading Michelle Obama’s “Becoming” as a Motherhood Memoir

Emily Lordi in The New Yorker:

“I don’t want to make somebody else,” Toni Morrison’s character Sula declares, when urged to get married and have kids, “I want to make myself.” Morrison herself might have understood this to be a false dichotomy—she was a single mother of two by the time she published “Sula,” her second novel, in 1973—but, in her fiction, she split the individualist impulse to make an artful life and the domestic drive to make a home between two characters: Sula and her best friend, Nel. The tensions between these two desires animate the body of fiction and nonfiction about the private lives of women and mothers. It’s a canon that has been dominated by the accounts of white, straight writers, but it now includes Michelle Obama’s blockbuster memoir, “Becoming.”

What Obama brings to this genre is, first, a powerful sense of self, which precedes and exceeds her domestic relationships—the book’s three sections are titled “Becoming Me,” “Becoming Us,” “Becoming More”—and, second, a conviction that the roles of wife and mother are themselves undefined. She makes and remakes her relationship to both throughout her adult life. In this, she draws on the literature of black women’s self-making that “Sula” represents. The modern matron saint of that tradition is Zora Neale Hurston, who, in a 1928 essay, describes “How It Feels to Be Colored Me”: a prismatic, mutable experience of being a loner, a spectacle, an ordinary woman, a goddess (“the eternal feminine with its string of beads”). Lucille Clifton shares Hurston’s sense of the need to invent oneself in a world without reliable mirrors or maps; as she writes in a poem, from 1992, “i had no model. / born in babylon / both nonwhite and woman / what did I see to be except myself? / i made it up…” Like these writers, Obama exposes the particular pressures and thrills of black women’s self-creation. But she also details the rather more modest creation of a stable domestic life. By bringing motherhood, marriage, and self-making together in “Becoming,” she combines the possibilities that Sula and Nel represent.

More here. (Note: Throughout February, we will publish at least one post dedicated to Black History Month)