Michelle Obama: There is hope for future but 'change is not a straight line', says former first lady

'We mistakenly thought that Barack Obama was going to erase hundreds of years of history in eight years'

Kuba Shand-Baptiste
Tuesday 04 December 2018 00:12
Michelle Obama launches memoir in London: 'My opinions were meaningful, and my anger and frustrations were real'

There is hope for the future yet, Michelle Obama urged at the London stop on her highly anticipated Becoming tour at the Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall.

Borrowing from Martin Luther King Jr’s often appropriated phrase, she reminded the audience of nearly 3,000 people that, in reference to the current presidential administration, “change is not a straight line”.

As monumental as her role as first lady as part of America’s first black presidency was, Ms Obama was quick to highlight the naivety of the boundless optimism that came along with her and her family’s arrival at the White House.

“We mistakenly thought that Barack Obama was going to erase hundreds of years of history in eight years – that’s ridiculous to think that that could happen,” the former first lady said. “So we’re putting down marbles, and going backwards doesn’t mean the progress wasn’t real.”

Interviewed by revered author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Ms Obama wove through the main themes of her life: education, poverty, racism, miscarriage, the death of her father – which brought her to tears on stage – and the act of “becoming” with the same measured openness as her memoir.

She delved into the significance of optics in her career: how she looked, what impression the world had of her family, and the ways in which to avoid negative press.

But there were other bones of contention too, including how frustrating it was to have been reduced to what she wore by female journalists during her first trips to London:

“All the reports would start with what I was wearing, and we were doing substantive things ... it’s incredibly irritating when actually you’re trying to get some stuff done,” Ms Obama admitted.

There were worries about her hair, whether herself and her family came off as too happy, or “whether there was too much golf, go figure”, she said, in a veiled reference to incumbent Donald Trump.

Yet she was acutely aware of what it meant as “a dark black woman” whose appearance and identity “made the stakes so much higher”, as Ms Ngozi Adichie reminded her, to be as poised and diligent as she was in the public eye.

“If you look over the history of America, the voting rights act is not as old as I am, so we are still overcoming,” Ms Obama said, “My grandparents – their lives were affected by Jim Crow [laws].”

Barack Obama Makes Surprise Appearance at Michelle’s Book Tour

Which is why the former-first lady – a title Ms Obama concedes is quite difficult to navigate if, unlike her, you don’t already have a plan for yourself and future generations in place – is so dedicated to helping those she spent so much time championing during her family’s two terms in the White House: young people, working class communities, and girls especially.

“We’re all laying the foundation for the next generation,” she noted, addressing the 300 schoolchildren in the audience from Lambeth and all over the country.

“You young people here, you do the work not because you think you’re going to get an immediate return right away, you do it for your grandchildren ... that’s how we make progress,” she said, to uproarious applause.

Far from being over, the next chapter in Ms Obama’s legacy is yet to come. Her book tour is as powerful a reminder as any that even in these politically trying times, the world, as well as Michelle Obama herself, is in a constant state of becoming.

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