Few in politics have enjoyed their lives more than Michelle Obama. Even as her husband’s approval ratings went south, her popularity soared. Kay S. Hymowitz reviews “Becoming” by Michelle Obama.
Like all VIP memoirs, “Becoming,” Michelle Robinson Obama’s foreordained best seller, has many subtexts. Record-straightening, reputation-cleansing, friend-thanking and foe-bashing: It’s all there and already warming the hearts of the former first lady’s millions of devotees, among them the international press. But “Becoming” has considerable value for more skeptical readers, not so much for its depictions of familiar headline events but for its narrative vividness and its insight, some of it unwitting, into recent racial and cultural history.
Mrs. Obama was raised on the South Side of Chicago in the mid-1960s into a bygone world of black, working-class aspiration. “I spent much of my childhood listening to the sound of striving,” she begins, referring to the struggling piano students taught by her exacting great aunt in the apartment below the one occupied by her father (a boiler attendant at a water-treatment plant), her homemaker mother, her older brother and her small self. The family, descended from South Carolina slaves, had come to Chicago as part of the Great Migration in the 1930s, though political and union leaders continued to deny black men entry to the city’s well-paid industrial jobs. Her aging great uncle, a former Pullman porter, insisted on his dignity, wearing suspenders, dress shirts and a fedora even when mowing the lawn.
Kay S. Hymowitz is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and contributing editor at City Journal. She is the author of the books Manning Up and most recently The New Brooklyn: What It Takes to Bring a City Back.