'Progress isn't made through fear'
Posted November 13, 2018 1:30 p.m. EST
Wherever Michelle Obama is headed, she hasn't quite arrived. Whatever she's becoming, she isn't yet complete. No one is. That's how life works.
"A question that adults ask kids _ I think it's the worst question in the world _ is, 'What do you want to be when you grow up?' As if growing is finite. As if you become something and that is all there is," said the former first lady, chatting with Oprah Winfrey at a Hearst Tower event in Manhattan in early September.
The reason for the interview: "Becoming," Obama's new memoir, released today by the Crown Publishing Group. The topics covered: her reflections on life, on striving and swerving, on marriage to Barack Obama, on parenting Malia and Sasha, on eight years in the White House, on Donald Trump, and on the sense _ no, the conviction _ that she's a work in progress.
"I don't know what the next step will be," she said. "I tell young people that all the time. You know, all young women probably have some magic number of what age you'll be when you feel like a grown-up. Generally, when you think your mother will stop telling you what to do." She laughed. "But the truth is, for me, each decade has offered something amazing that I would have never imagined. And if I had stopped looking, I would have missed out on so much. So I'm still becoming."
The interview was flecked with moments of levity, gravity and introspection, all of it rolling along with the easy rhythm of two old friends in conversation. "I have known Michelle Obama now for 14 years. ... I have to tell you, she is everything you think she is," Winfrey told the audience at the outset, after exhorting all packed on the 44th floor to keep mum for the next two months. ("If somebody asks what happened today, you're gonna say, 'I don't know what you're talking about.'")
Due to air on the Oprah Winfrey Network at 8 p.m. Thursday and on Winfrey's Facebook page on Sunday (see information below), the roughly hour-long Q&A was attended by groups of schoolgirls from New York City academies. Obama told her own stories of school and girlhood, drawing lessons from her modest Chicago upbringing and the little apartment above her great-aunt's home that she shared with her parents and brother.
Growing up, she realized "that achievement mattered ... particularly as a black kid on the South Side from a working-class background," she said. "Then people were already ready to put you in a box of underachievement." So the young Michelle Robinson became "a box-checker," a student hyper-focused on hitting all the markers of success. "Get good grades: check. Apply to the best schools, get into Princeton: check. Get there, what's your major? Uh, something that's going to get me good grades so I can get into law school, I guess? Check. Get through law school: check."
Then two things happened. She realized she hated working in law _ "oh God, yeah. Sorry, lawyers." And she met Barack Obama _ "the opposite of a box-checker. He was swerving all over the place." When he swerved into politics as an Illinois state senator, then as a U.S. senator, then as president, the process of "becoming" moved all the way to Pennsylvania Avenue.
With Winfrey in September, Obama talked about learning to swerve. She talked about being a role model. She talked about family dinners in the White House. ("Yes, you're president, but you can bring your butt from the Oval Office and sit down and talk to your children.") She talked about marriage _ and the work they've had to do as a couple, counseling included. "I know that people look to me and Barack as the ideal relationship. ... But whoa, people, slow down _ marriage is hard!"
At one point, Winfrey asked her to tell "the toast story," and Obama complied. It was post-presidency. "The kids were out," she said. "Malia was on her gap year, I think Barack was traveling, and I was alone for the first time. As first lady, you're not alone much." With only her two dogs for company, she opened a kitchen cabinet _ "which you don't do in the White House because there's always somebody there going, 'Let me get that'" _ and made herself some cheese toast.
"And then I took my toast and I walked out into my back yard. I sat on the stoop and there were dogs barking in the distance" _ and she realized her own dogs had never heard the random yelps of neighboring canines. "They're like, 'What's that?' And I'm like, 'Yep, we're in the real world now, fellas.'"
Near the close of the conversation, Winfrey quoted a passage from "Becoming" concerning Trump's "loud and reckless innuendos" that Barack Obama was born in Kenya. The "birther" smear "was putting my family's safety at risk," Obama writes in 'Becoming.' "And for this I'd never forgive him."
Why, Winfrey asked, did she feel compelled to express this now? "Because I don't think he knew what he was doing. For him it was a game," Obama replied. But not for the commander in chief, his wife and kids.
"In order for my children to have a normal life, even though they had security, they were in the world in a way that we weren't," she said. "And to think that some crazed person might be ginned up to think my husband was a threat to the country's security _ and to know that my children, every day, had to go to a school that was guarded, but not secure, that they had to go to soccer games and parties, and travel. ... That's something that I want the country to understand. I want the country to take this in, in a way I didn't say out loud, but I am saying now."
Still, she hasn't given up on hope _ for the kids' sake, she said. "We're setting the table for them, and we can't hand them crap. We have to hand them hope. Progress isn't made through fear." When Winfrey asked if she feels optimistic for the nation, Obama choked up in reply. "We have to be."
The interview over, she slipped out of her chair and headed toward the schoolgirls at the front, embracing them, chatting with them.
"She hugged me! I was the first to be hugged. ... I was like, whoa!" said Nicole Tenempaguay, 16, a junior at the Young Women's Leadership School of Astoria. The former first lady's remarks inspired her, she said. "It was really amazing. I personally think that she's my role model."
Added Janeal Edwards, 14, a first-year student at the same school: "I could relate to a lot of things she has to say." For one: "That we shouldn't judge each other." For another: "As long as you have faith in yourself, that you can do it. ... That you don't have to stop just because you have a dream of doing something."
And finally: "That learning," she said, "is the best part of life."
abiancolli(at)timesunion.com - 518-454-5439 - Twitter: (at)AmyBiancolli
"Oprah Winfrey Presents: Becoming Michelle Obama"
Primetime broadcast: 8 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 15, on OWN (Oprah Winfrey Network)
Extended, unedited podcast version: part one available Thursday on "Oprah's SuperSoul Conversation"; part two on Monday, Nov. 19
Facebook streaming: 11 a.m. Sunday, Nov.18, on facebook.com/oprahwinfrey