“I was determined to be someone who told the truth, using my voice to lift up the voiceless when I could, and to not disappear on people in need,” Michelle Obama writes in her memoir, "Becoming."
“I understood that when I showed up somewhere, it appeared dramatic from the outside—a sudden and swift-descending storm kicked up by the motorcade, the agents, the aides, and the media, with me at the center. We were there and then gone. I didn’t like what this did to my interactions, the way my presence sometimes caused people to stammer or go silent, unsure of how to be themselves. It’s why I often tried to introduce myself with a hug, to slow down the moment and shuck some of the pretense, landing us all in the flesh.”
Exuding warmth without any pretense, Obama spoke to an admiring crowd at Rogers Place on Friday night, March 22, making the second of four Canadian stops on her best-selling book tour.
Long before she showed up on stage, Obama’s presence could be felt in the building. A diverse crowd of young and old included several groups of women that arrived together, in a manner far different than recent Dierks Bentley or Justin Timberlake concerts — mothers and daughters, sisters, aunts, mentors and teachers — on a night when the bathroom lines far outstretched the beer lines.
Two life-sized photos on the concourse provided a photo-op for attendees, along with the quotes “Find your flame and keep it lit,” and “Heaven, if I envisioned it, had to be a place full of jazz.” Books, water bottles, hats and mugs were available for purchase, as well as T-shirts emblazoned with the message “Work to create the world as it should be,” or her signature catchphrase “When they go low, we go high.”
Inside the arena, social media posts under the hashtag #IAmBecoming scrolled across three video screens, interspersed with quotes from the book, such as “If you don’t go out there and define yourself, you’ll be quickly and accurately defined by others,” or “Becoming is never giving up on the idea that there’s more growing to be done.”
But the words became more prescient when Obama arrived on stage, joining Good Morning America’s Robin Roberts in a wide-ranging conversation. It began, as the book does, with a discussion about her childhood, growing up as Michelle Robinson on Chicago’s south side, where she excelled in school and was given an early foundation for growth by her parents, Fraser and Marian.
“You treat kids like the adults you want them to become." - Michelle Obama
“You treat kids like the adults you want them to become,” she said. “You give them a voice at the dinner table and listen to their questions, and my parents did that. They weren’t the type of people that thought children should be seen and not heard.”
She touched on the importance of having positive male influences from an early age, including her father, who provided for his family despite suffering from multiple sclerosis, and brother Craig, who preceded her at Princeton and starred on the school’s basketball team.
“Craig and my father showed me how men should show up in my life. The way men show up in a young girl’s life can make a huge difference,” she said, relating how when their father was teaching Craig how to throw a ball or throw a punch Michelle was there with them, as part of the action rather than watching from the sidelines. “When there are men in your life who show you respect from a young age it sets a high bar.”
She stressed the need to surround oneself — whether male or female — with friends who can help support and elevate, noting that she has maintained a “posse” of supportive friends that has evolved from high school, through college, and up to the present day.
Facing challenges along the way, she relayed the story of a high school guidance counsellor who said that she wasn’t cut out for Princeton. Rather than resigning herself to someone else’s opinion, she used the doubt as a motivating force.
“I’ll show you,” she said, of her internal response and the drive it gave her to prove the doubters wrong. “Many kids don’t have that extra something, so they fold up their dreams and pack them away. Don’t let someone else’s expectations guide you.”
The event was billed as an intimate conversation, and it featured a level of honesty that has helped Obama’s popularity continue to grow. She is a political figure without even a whiff of impropriety, but discussed the reality of self-doubt, something she openly admitted to feeling and combatting over time.
“The beauty of aging is that with each decade you know more. But self-doubt still exists, and you have to drum as many positive messages into you as the negative ones — taking that doubt, that criticism, and saying I’ll show you.
“It’s important that our children see that we’re flawed, that it’s not a straight shot to success. I want our kids to know that this is life, and you recover. If we don’t show folks our falls then we set them up for failure. We cannot edit our stories.”
She then transitioned into the issue of white flight, demonstrating how much it impacted her community by showing side-by-side pictures of her kindergarten and eighth-grade class photos, showing how the diversity had drained away as white families moved out and black families moved in.
“People were leaving because they thought families like ours were bringing the place down. All they saw was the colour of our skin, and all they heard were the whispers of others.”
The Obamas’ relationship has become an example for others to look to. What other celebrity couple expresses such admiration for and pride in one another? But marriage counselling was another avenue of conversation, shedding light on the challenges of not only maintaining but strengthening a relationship.
“That’s a part of the journey. That’s a part of the journey of marriage,” she said, noting that while being a mother is the most rewarding, fulfilling thing she’s ever done, introducing children into the Obamas’ marriage caused problems they hadn’t anticipated. And when the time for counselling came “I had the impression we were going to fix him. Please talk to him,” she said, eliciting laughter from the crowd.
Toward the end of the evening the conversation shifted into tales from the campaign trail and the swarm of activity that accompanied the Obamas on election night, as well as the challenges presented by those who chose to label her as a disruptive force inside the White House. But the night ended with a reminder to cherish the journey and take time to reflect.
“I have a final message that I want to leave people with in the state that we’re in,” she said, without elaborating or mentioning the current President’s — or Prime Minister’s — name. “Hope still matters, it’s there and present. We can’t afford to despair, we don’t have the right to sit in our upset and stay frustrated. People don’t want to be led by fear, it doesn’t feel good.
“Reflect on your journey. Take the stories, the ones that helped you get here, and share them. Believe in your story and have the courage to share it.”
By Ryan Garner
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019