Michelle Obama: ‘Change is not a straight line’
04 December 2018 17:44
Michelle Obama strode out in front of a buzzed and happy audience at the Royal Festival Hall on Monday 3rd December, receiving a standing ovation even before she said anything. Part of an international book tour, this was her only public event in the UK. In the crowd were specially invited school children, punters who beat an online ballot that at one point had a queue of more than forty thousand people in it and a cohort of specially invited members of the great and the good, the fabulous and the talented, including actor and writer Michaela Coel, novelist Malorie Blackman, Sadiq Khan, broadcaster John Simpson, model Adwoa Aboah and actor Riz Ahmed. Full disclosure: and me.
Ostensibly there to promote her memoir, Becoming, Obama was interviewed with mellifluous worship by the great Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Both were intensely relaxed, humorous, charismatic and assured, with Adichie’s softball questions getting funny, inspiring responses – in a very mainstream, accessible kind of way. In a cool flowing white jumpsuit, appearing as a cross between a saint and a superhero, Obama seemed visibly liberated from the constraints of decorously smiling First-Ladyhood. But anyone looking for a hardcore read on contemporary politics or political trends would have been disappointed: Trump, Brexit, populism and increasing nationalism were barely alluded to, let alone addressed directly. Instead Obama stressed uncontroversial social initiatives: girls’ education, youth leadership and healthy living, commenting that she was most inspired by ‘the experience of watching girls striving in the way that I did. Talent is spread equally amongst humanity. It’s not governed by skin colour, political party or gender. When I was growing up I knew when I was being talked down to, taught down to, when people made assumptions about me and set the bar low for me.’
The evening amounted to an impressive and sympathetic character portrait, a lightning-quick walk through an impressive personality of integrity and intelligence, interrupted by murmurs of agreement and spontaneous applause from the audience. In between witty anecdotes about meeting the queen, who picked her up from a plane in her own car and casually said, ‘Get in!’, the deeper picture that emerged was of a clever girl from a supportive, loving and hardworking family. Obama noted, ‘My father was a working class, blue collar guy. He didn’t go to college. But that doesn’t mean my parents weren’t highly intelligent and gifted. That’s the mistake people often make. My mother encouraged us to speak up and be heard. My parents believed my voice was relevant, my opinions were valuable, my anger and frustration was real. They saw the flame in me and instead of putting out the flame because it’s not ladylike, they kept the flame lit.’
Obama was moving and – I think – unrehearsed when talking about her father’s death from MS, her voice tightening and her usual flow halting as she found the right words: ‘It’s a debilitating and devastating disease. It just gets worse and worse. I grew up watching my father decline. I saw him in a weakened state, even when he was [emotionally] strong and patient and loving. His death was sudden, but it was always looming. It’s an emptiness I still haven’t gotten over because of all he gave us, all he missed and didn’t get to see. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about my father hearing my words, and wondering what he would think of it. Would he be proud?’
It was irritating to hear Obama repeatedly stressing the importance for women to know and respect and love themselves, to counter low self-esteem, impostor syndrome and self-doubt. For women with healthy self-respect, who were fully supported during their formative years, this constant message is patronising, even risible. However there were many in the audience for whom it clearly struck a chord. And Obama’s own frankness was remarkable, especially when describing the inspiration and terror of falling in love with her husband. ‘When I met Barack Obama, Mr ‘We’re gonna save the world’, I thought, okay, I’d better get my act together, this guy has plans. I knew the force of Barack’s mind. He was very focused, very driven, very self-directed. I knew I needed to anchor myself to who I needed to be, not just following in his jet stream, so I wouldn’t get lost in his dream, so that I could stake my claim in this relationship. When I knew that this [relationship] was real, I began doing a lot of work on myself. Meeting Barack pushed me to think more broadly about my life and my journey. But then I had this question: was I changing for a man, or for myself?’
It was a profound and universal reflection: how not to lose yourself, despite your passion for someone else; how not to get eaten up and squeezed out by someone else’s worldly intentions; how to develop a strong sense of identity so that you are not menaced by the overwhelming ambition of another. How to adjust when they do indeed achieve that ambition, they get everything they want and your life changes forever.
Nobody has yet drilled down into how demeaning and annihilating it is for an intelligent, well-educated, experienced and avid woman to quit her entire career and, as she put it, resign herself to being ‘the spouse of’. Obama didn’t reflect on this at the event. What is indisputable however is that the challenges experienced by any First Lady of character were multiplied because of her skin colour, such as ‘some of what I was called and how I was depicted – as an ape. We [black women] become a caricature. They will take from us what they like – our style, our swag, the size of our hips – but we ourselves are demonised. We’re [represented as] angry, too loud, too everything. How dare I have a voice and power? It became such a threat, not only to men but also some women, that people can literally take our words and co-opt them as their own.’
In the split second following this apparently off-the-cuff remark there was a delighted recognition that this was a glancing reference to current First Lady Melania Trump’s infamous plagiarism of Obama’s first speech for her own first speech. However, as soon as contact was made, we were back to lighter, more loving territory, with Obama saying that what she likes about her husband is, ‘He doesn’t play games, fellas. That’s a very attractive quality. Love doesn’t have to be painful. A true partnership requires two whole people. You have to be fully formed. Love doesn’t form people.’
Again, this honest wisdom hit home for me and for others. It struck me that Obama’s great talent is to weave the homespun in with some grit, to take her unique life experience and at once boil it down and raise it up into a broad, civilising message. Yes, there was a little too much of the self-empowerment drum being banged, both in the exhortation to ‘slay that dragon [of self-limitation] in your own mind’ and in the cheesy opening video’s assertion that ‘with a lotta hard work and a good education anything is possible, including being president’. But Obama was brilliant on the disillusioning reality of political life and of powerful players on the world stage, which she observed up close for well over a decade as Barack Obama steered his path to power and (initially) she forged her own career. ‘I’ve been at every high table, on boards, been at the UN, non-profits, corporate boards, foundations. They’re not that smart.’
She didn’t say it with nasty zeal, more with bafflement and equivocation – and with reassurance that the highest levels of society are not some special place populated by special people. Indeed, she said there was still a lot of ‘brokenness’ in the personalities she encountered at the top. Her analysis was powerful and true – and pertinent to now. ‘There’s a lot that people are doing to keep their seats, so they don’t have to share their power. The way they do it is to make you feel you don’t belong. People will try to hold you back in so many ways. It’ll crush you if you’re not ready for it emotionally, intellectually, physically. When you have all these arrows thrown at you, all you have is your preparedness. My attitude was, ‘I will show you.’ I was gonna work so hard, I will have an impact.’
Obama’s opening video had reminded us of that impact: she and her family are only the 11th Presidential family to serve a full two terms at the White House, and of course the first black family to do so in American history. Obama put the historic Presidential win down to white voters as well as black mobilising for Barack Obama, which she claimed proved that ‘People are open. We just don’t know each other. We don’t let each other in.’
That’s a nice sentiment, but extremely difficult to square with the current global slide towards nationalism, philistinism, machismo and xenophobia. Pressed to provide a bit of salt with her sugar, Obama offered this: ‘Okay – so – let me say something hopeful. Change is not a straight line. We mistakenly thought Barack Obama was going to erase hundreds of years of history in eight years. Going backwards doesn’t mean that our progress wasn’t real. We’re trying to erase hundreds of years of racism and injustice and we’re all laying the foundation for the next generation.’
Adichie, reiterated, ‘People. Michelle Obama says we must be hopeful.’ The circumspect silence that followed said it all – even when the conversation was quickly steered back to warmer waters and the night ended with loud whoops and another ovation for the charismatic former First Lady turned author who, as she had joked throughout the night, is still in the process of becoming.