Table of Contents
Introduction: Tracing Autobiographical Genres and Intersectional Identities
Chapter One: ‘Am I Good Enough?’: Selling the American Dream in Michelle Obama’s Autobiography Becoming
Chapter Two: Reinventing The Role of First Lady: A Quest for Self-Definition Through Intersectionality
Fusing Autobiographical Genres and Intersectional Identities
In 1940, Mary Church Terrell wrote in the introduction of her autobiography, A Colored Woman Living In A White World: This is the story of a colored woman living in a white world. It cannot possibly be like a story written by a white woman. A white woman has only one handicap to overcome—that of sex. I have two—both sex and race. I belong to the only group in this country, which has two such huge obstacles to surmount. Colored men have only one—that of race.1
African American women autobiographers constructs a self that has, as Terrell puts it, two central handicaps-gender and race. This statement from the 20th century captures the intersectionality of African American women’s identities. In her autobiography Becoming, Michelle Obama shows her awareness of her intersectional identity as she writes ‘I’ve been the only woman, the only African American, in all sorts of rooms’.2 Thus, the tradition of African American women’s autobiographies requires a suitable theoretical framework when examining their texts. Scholar Carole Boyce Davies argues that ‘the African woman’s autobiography, as African autobiography and as woman’s autobiography has to be read against the theoretical discussions specific to these two’.3 The tradition by African American women autobiographers is, as Francoise Lionnet claims in her book Autobiographical Voices: Race, Gender, SelfPortraiture, ‘To read a narrative that depicts the journey of a female self striving to become the subject of her won discourse, the narrator of her own story, is to witness the unfolding of an autobiographical subject’.4
In this thesis I will examine the autobiography of an African American woman from the twenty-first century: Michelle Obama’s Becoming. Michelle Obama, a former First Lady of the United States of America, approaches the act of autobiographical writing by embedding the self in personal relationships to her family and friends as well as in public political events. As such, Obama’s autobiography can be understood as fusing her personal story with her public story. Clearly, Obama’s autobiography, as the very title itself suggests, refers to the self who is perpetually changing and always evolving. Obama writes on the first page of her preface: Now I think it’s one of the most useless questions an adult can ask a child- What do you want to be when you grow up?-As if growing up is finite. As if at some point you become something and that’s the end. (Obama, p. ix)
Obama expose the fluidity of her identity as she presents herself as ‘working-class black student’, a ‘lawyer’, ‘First Lady’. (Obama, p. ix) Her autobiography provides space for her to articulate these various identities and express how they shape her life. Furthermore, the title can be understood in a different way in that Obama attempts to claim her own story, or in other words she seeks to become the ‘subject of her own discourse’. (Lionnet, p. 91)
Becoming permits Obama to tell her own story in order to set the record straight. As Mary Burgers puts it, ‘If any form of literature is capable of aiding in the Black woman’s attempts to correct the record, it is autobiography, for nowhere does one find literature as a celebration of life more than here’.5 Writing an autobiography gives Obama the opportunity to rewrite her own story and define her own identity for herself. Writing as a former political figure-the First Lady of the United States of America, Obama does not refrain from incorporating her personal life as well as a personal message. As a former First Lady, Becoming can be understood as being part of the genre of the First Lady memoir. As such, Obama’s autobiography can be defined as an intersection between African American women’s autobiographies and the genre of First Lady memoir which have both been largely excluded from the literary canon. Thus, Obama constitutes a minority within a minority as she is not only a First Lady, but she is the nation’s only African American First Lady. Moreover, Obama constitutes a political observer and having written one of the most valuable autobiographies of the twenty-first century, she illustrates how despite the fact that African Americans have largely been excluded from American politics, her autobiography demonstrates the progress America has made by electing its first African American president. In this thesis, it is my contention that Obama’s autobiography Becoming constructs an amalgamation between African American women’s life writing and the autobiographical sub-genre of the First Lady memoir.
In this thesis, I focus on identity construction of African American women in their autobiographies and their use of self-determination and self-definition. The first source which helps provide a theocratical framework is Patricia Collins’ book Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment. Collins describes self-definition as part of a collective black female consciousness. Self-definition permits women of colour to resist being subordinated and defined as Other by others. These practices allow black women to negotiate the perceptions of themselves and the misrepresentation of their identity caused by negative stereotypes and controlling images and tropes. This leads black women to forge their own path to independent definitions of their own identities. Collins writes about self-definition: By insisting on self-definition, Black women question not only what has been said about African-American women but the credibility and the intentions of those possessing the power to define. When Black women define ourselves, we clearly reject the assumption that those in positions granting them the authority to interpret our reality are entitled to do so. Regardless of the actual content of Black women’s self-definitions, the act of insisting on Black female self definitions validates Black women’s power as human subjects.6
Collins posits that self-definition is not solely about an individual defining himself or herself. Rather, it is to be understood as questioning authoritative power and the authorities who construct these misrepresentations who are neither black nor female. Jezebel, Sapphire and the angry black woman are controlling images which have perpetuated throughout history and continue to prevail within contemporary society as being a genuine portrayal. In this light, selfdefinition is crucial for black women in order to expose these authorities influence over their public perceptions, and establishes black women as being the authorities and more credible sources for naming and (re)defining their own personhood.
The concept of self-definition is an essential component for my analysis of Michelle Obama’s autobiography Becoming. Being defined as Other and having stereotypical images imposed onto her, Obama attempts to shape her identity out of her own self-definition. Selfdefinition is especially important in the second chapter of my thesis as Obama becomes a public figure, perhaps the most important public female figure in America. Controlling images, both sexist and racist in nature, are presented in her autobiography. Presenting these images to her readers, allow the first person narrator to expose her strategy of resisting and overcoming them and lastly construct her own identity as First Lady.
A further concept I draw upon in my analysis is intersectionality. This term was coined by Kimberle Crenshaw in her essay ‘Demarginalization the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics’, written in 1989. While the notion of intersectionality is not new, her approach addresses problems related specifically to Black women’s identities. Crenshaw defines intersectionality: Black women are sometimes excluded from feminist theory and antiracist policy discourse because both are predicated on a discrete set of experiences that often does not accurately reflect the interaction of race and gender.7
Crenshaw shows that the experiences of black women are unique and therefore cannot simply be categorized as ‘the women’s experience’ nor as ‘the Black experience’. (Crenshaw, p. 140) The experiences are part of an intersectional paradigm of race and gender. The concept of intersectionality highlights these differences between and within different groups.
In Reading Autobiography, Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson elaborate on the concept of intersecting identities. These literary scholars establish a conclusion on identity difference and commonality, stating ‘identities, or subject positionings, materialize within collectivities and out of the culturally marked differences that permeate symbolic interactions within and between collectivities’.8 In Becoming, race, gender, social class and nationality exist as a recurring subject that cause Obama to identity as an African American, as a women and as an American. Smith and Watson touch on intersectionality, in which they discuss the multiple identities found within a given individual and explain the advantages and disadvantages associated with these different identities. They argue: The effects of this multiplicity of identities are not additive but intersectional. That is, we cannot just add the effects of one identity to the effects of another to understand the position from which someone speaks. To speak autobiographically as a black woman is not to speak as a “woman” and as a “black.” It is to speak as blackwoman. (Reading, p. 36)
Smith and Watson’s discussion on intersectionality is a necessary component of this thesis. Evidently, Obama’s identities intersect and thereby, she speaks not as an African American and nor a First Lady. Instead, she speaks as an African American First Lady of America.
In her book Where I am Bound: Patterns of Slavery and Freedom in Black American Autobiography, Sidonie Smith discusses the prevalent patterns in African American autobiographies. Smith focuses on ten Black slave narratives and examines the patterns of what she terms a ‘break into a community’ and the subsequent ‘break away from the enslaving community’.9 In this thesis, this pattern can be identified in Obama’s autobiography. These patterns are situated in various life-transitions Obama presents in her autobiography. Essentially, I adopt Smith’s pattern to demonstrate Obama entering so-called white spaces and fleeing from black spaces. In the first chapter, Obama seeks self-advancement through education and thereby, moves towards gradually whiter spaces and leaves her coloured spaces behind in order to pursue the American Dream. In the second chapter, I examining Obama break into the White House as a result of her husband becoming the 44th president of the United States. This is a type of ‘break into a community’ which has been documented only by a small number of any African Americans.
Moreover, Obama overcomes various obstacles during her educational journey and White House journey and in doing so she utilizes resistance in the form of backtalk. In her article ‘Talking Back’, bell hooks argues that ‘“back talk” and “talking back” meant speaking as an equal to an authority figure. It meant daring to disagree and sometimes it just meant having an opinion’.10 In his book Rhetoric and Resistance in Black Women’s Autobiography, Johnnie Stover defines backtalk as ‘flagrant resistance’.11 ‘Flagrant resistance’ is a necessary component for this thesis in that Obama exposes incidents in which she uses backtalk in order to convey her resistance and self-believe.
In this study, I will be conducting a close reading of one primary source; Michelle Obama’s autobiography Becoming. I will use black feminist theories as well as theories surrounding political memoirs to frame my analysis. I will focus on the patterns of self-representation that shift as Obama moves from a private sphere to a public one. In the first chapter, I investigate how Obama utilizes the personal autobiography to narrate her own success story of the selfmade woman. In this light, I focus on self-advancement and self-determination as Obama’s narrates her journey of climbing the social ladder through education. In the second chapter, I examine how Obama achieves self-definition throughout the second half of her autobiography through analysing the strategies she adopts in order to successfully attain this objective. Finally, I approach Obama’s autobiography taking into consideration it’s amalgamation of autobiographical genres in order to construct a critical understanding of how Obama formed her autobiographical text. I focus on scholars who have explored and identified key themes in African American autobiographies, shifting my focus mainly on African American women’s autobiographies. Moreover, I focus on scholars who examine political memoirs, but also those who identify the political aspect in African American writing. While these scholars focus on sub-genres of autobiographical writings, I am concerned with the notion of fusing genres in Becoming and how Obama establishes a new amalgamation within the genre of autobiography.
‘Am I Good Enough?’: Selling the American Dream in Michelle Obama’s Autobiography
Michelle Obama begins her autobiography by tracing her personal experience from childhood to early adulthood before meeting her husband, Barack Obama. In the first section of her autobiography, ‘Becoming Me’, Obama puts a strong emphasis on her educational journey in order to present herself as a self-made woman. In this chapter, it is my contention that selling the narrative of the American Dream to the public is the ‘primary function’ in the first section of Obama’s autobiography titled ‘Becoming Me’, as it emphasizes how she ascends the social ladder by transcending the confines of intersecting oppressions through education.12 ‘Becoming Me’ tells a success story of a self-made African American woman by taking up, as J.A. Leo Lemay postulates, the ‘rise from rages to riches’ theme. (Lemay, p. 23) While Obama’s economic rise is important in demonstrating her self-advancement, Obama’s journey constitutes a metaphor for self-determination. This journey stresses Obama’s strategy of recognizing and overcoming various intersecting challenges as she work towards the American Dream. Obama reproduces her young working-class black student identity in order to demonstrate her self-determination in deciding her own destiny.
In The Souls Of Black Folk, Du Bois contends that the universal challenge for African Americans has been ‘to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face’.13 However, for Obama this challenge is more complex because her race, gender and class interconnect and thereby affect her endeavour to be become an educated American citizen. In 1989, legal scholar Kimberle Crenshaw coined the term ‘intersectionality’ in her ground-breaking essay ‘Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics’. In her essay, Crenshaw claims: Black women can experience discrimination in ways that are both similar to and different from those experienced by white women and Black men. Black women sometimes experience discrimination in ways similar to white women’s experiences; sometimes they share very similar experiences with Black men. Yet often they experience double-discrimination-the combined effects of practices which discriminate on the basis of race, and on the basis of sex. And sometimes, they experiences discrimination as Black women-not the sum of race and sex discrimination.14
Obama reveals specific incidents in which her race, gender, social class and nationality intersect and produce a system of oppression, but she also includes incidents where she is discriminated or self-minimizes based solely on her race, sex or social class. As such, Obama presents her autobiographical persona as one who is in need of learning to navigate through these obstacles, and as Eva Lennox Birch suggests, ‘view each set-back as an opportunity for growth and victory’.15 Thus, Obama presents feelings of self-doubt caused by ‘set-backs’ which occurred during her childhood and highlights how she overcame them. As an autobiographer, she presents her young self as someone who sought autonomous self-determination.
Obama adopts the literary theme of resistance found commonly in black women’s autobiographies. Therefore, Becoming can also be read as a form of resistance narrative as Obama refuses to give up, despite the backlash she receives throughout her academic journey. The resistance of the narrator can be associated with what Johnnie Stover defines as ‘the mother tongue technique of “talking back” or “backtalk”’.16 This concept of ‘talking back’ was originally defined by bell hooks in her article ‘Talking Back’. According to hooks, ‘“talking back” meant speaking as an equal to an authority figure. It meant daring to disagree and sometimes it just meant having an opinion’.17 18 Obama’s autobiography employs the mother tongue technique of ‘backtalk’. Employing this device, Obama would insert a rhetorical question with each new challenge she encounters; ‘Am I Good Enough?' 1 This rhetorical question can be understood a means of ‘flagrant resistance’ which Johnnie Stover defines as ‘“back talk”, impertinence, imprudence, insolence, invective, irony, lying, rage and sass’. (Stover, p. 101) In essence, ‘back talk’ is a literary device Obama adopts as she lives in a society that did not foster her with much support. Furthermore, Obama makes use of ‘back talk’ because she often disagrees with the opinions others have of herself and even challenges these views by proving them wrong. For the autobiographer, ‘back talk’ is crucial in demonstrating to her readers that she was in fact smart enough, driven enough and good enough to be part of predominately white American educational institutions.
1 Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, ‘Disconnected Black Feminist: Prelude and Postscript to the Passage of the Nineteenth Amendment’, in The Black Studies Reader, ed. by Jacqueline Bobo, Cynthia Hudley and Claudine Michel (New York: Routledge, 2004), pp. 65-78 (p. 76).
2 Michelle Obama, Becoming (New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2018), p. ix-x.
3 Carole B. Davies, ‘Private Selves And Public Spaces: Autobiography And The African Woman Writer’, CLA Journal, 34.3 (1991), 267-289 (p. 268) <https://www-jstor- org.proxy.bnl.lu/stable/44322400?seq=1#metadata info tab contents> [accessed 7 May 2020].
4 Francoise Lionnet, Autobiographical Voices: Race, Gender, Self-Portraiture (New York: Cornell University Press, 1989), p. 91.
5 Mary Burgher, ‘Images of Self and Race in the Autobiographies of Black Women’, in Sturdy Black Bridges: Visions of Black Women in Literature, ed. by Roseann P. Bettye J. Parker and Beverly Guy- Sheftall (New York: Anchor Books, 1979), pp. 107-122 (p. 107).
6 Patricia Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment, 2nd edn (New York: Routledge, 2000), p. 114.
7 Kimberle Crenshaw, ‘Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics’, University of Chicago Legal Forum (1989), 139-167 (p. 140) < https://chicagounbound.uchicago.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1052&context=uclf> [accessed 8 May 2020]
8 Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson, Reading Autobiography: A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), p. 32-33. ProQuest ebook.
9 Sidonie Smith, Where I'm Bound: Patterns of Slavery and Freedom in Black American Autobiography (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1974), p. ix.
10 bell hooks, ‘Talking Back’, Discourse, 8 (1986), 123-128 (p. 123) https://www-jstor- org.proxy.bnl.lu/stable/pdf/44000276.pdf?refreqid=excelsior%3A2767b026cb7d0f012e8104f37f33e12 > [accessed 3 April 2020].
11 Johnnie Stover, Rhetoric and Resistance in Black Women’s Autobiography (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2003), p. 107.
12 J.A. Leo Lemay, ‘Franklin’s Autobiography and the American Dream’, in The American Dream, ed. Harold Bloom and Blake Hobby (New York: Infobase Publishing, 2009), p. 25.
13 Patricia Hinchey, The Souls of Black Folk by W. E. B. du Bois: With a Critical Introduction by Patricia H. Hinchey (Gorham: Myers Education Press, 2018), p. 9. ProQuest ebook.
14 Kimberle Crenshaw, ‘Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics’, University of Chicago Legal Forum (1989), 139-167 (p. 149) <https://chicagounbound.uchicago.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1052&context=uclf> [accessed 8 May 2020].
15 Eva Lennox Birch, ‘Maya Angelou (b. 1924) Autobiography: The Creation of a Positive Black Female Self’, in Black American Women’s Writing, ed. by Eva Lennox Birch (New York: Routledge, 2014), p. 127.
16 Johnnie Stover, Rhetoric and Resistance in Black Women’s Autobiography (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2003), p. 156.
17 bell hooks, ‘Talking Back’, Discourse, 8 (1986), 123-128 (p. 123) <https://www-jstor- org.proxy.bnl.lu/stable/pdf/44000276.pdf?refreqid=excelsior%3A2767b026cb7d0f012e8104f37f33e12 5> [accessed 3 April 2020].
18 Michelle Obama, Becoming (New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2018), p. 55.
- Quote paper
- Dianne Petrov (Author), 2020, Race, Gender and Politics in Michelle Obama’s Autobiography "Becoming". An African American Women's Autobiography and First Lady Memoir, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/932089