From a distance
When I caught my first glimpse of her, looking so tall and elegant in her pink silk blouse and dark skirt, I held my breath. It was my first time in the same room as her. I was enthralled but also worried that she might trip, coming down the grand staircase in high heels without holding the banister as she waved. In this moment, I realized that I’d been holding these twin emotions – admiration and concern for her – from the very beginning.
‘Four more years!’ someone cried, as the President announced this would be their last Christmas in the White House. ‘But we will still celebrate Christmas,’ the President laughed, ‘and maybe, next time, we’ll come to your house.’ Unappeased, people turned to the subject of their hopes and started chanting her name: Michelle! Michelle! We stood on tiptoe, hoping for a clearer view above the sea of hands raised high with phones.
We’d seen Michelle Obama on the front covers of magazines, we’d heard her give speeches, we’d watched her dance, and we’d counted all those push-ups on the Ellen DeGeneres Show. The ‘we’ that was in awe seemed to include everyone I talked to, from Lagos to London, from Rome to Bangalore. Even in conversation with complete strangers, we would talk about her – about our favorite images, a cherished moment, her poise, and how she made us feel, seeing her in ‘that role’, in ‘that place’ – the White House, the People’s House, the nickname embraced by the Obamas. We did not know her personally other than what was presented to us, yet we spoke of her with a first-name familiarity as though she were one of us.
We’d also heard and felt annoyed by the many who mocked her, in the never-ending diatribe of sexist and racist jabs. This ‘daily diminishment’ as the poet Claudia Rankine has aptly named it, ranged from digs at her physique and her clothing (how dare she wear sleeveless dresses!) to taking her words out of context so as to make her sound unpatriotic. Through her embrace of technology @FLOTUS (the first First Lady with a Twitter presence) and her many initiatives, including well-being and healthy eating, there was plenty from which to guess at what she was like. But she was also famously guarded. We knew that as a black woman in America she faced more scrutiny than any other previous First Lady. There was little no room for her to make mistakes.
I’ve thought about Michelle Obama more than any previous First Lady, perhaps because I felt a greater sense of kinship with her than with her predecessors. We were both black, close in age, had children at the same time, and, despite our own achievements, were known as ‘the wife of’ – with all the baggage that notion carried. I admired her and marveled at how she’d survived eight years with such grace. That alone felt like a feat. I’ve often looked at pictures of her and wondered: When you walked out on stage that night, in November 2008, and saw the thousands cheering and crying at the news of your husband’s election, was it electrifying or terrifying to watch behind bulletproof glass – arms outstretched to you and your family? When you stepped into the White House and greeted many of the black staff in that historically white, White House, what was that like, really? Did the White House feel like a home, a fortress, or a prison? Your glam shots, the dancing shots – were they as effortless as they looked? Hair? Oh the questions we could ask about hair!
Now I was seeing the First Lady, for the first time, unmediated by cameras or other people editing or packaging her. We were physically close, yet she remained an enigma. I’d hoped she might speak but, on this occasion, she chose not to. As I looked around the room, I wondered what everyone else was thinking. That year, I’d been reading essay submissions for an anthology of writings by women of color, many of whom referenced the Obama family as a source of hope and inspiration. The essays came from women of all ages and backgrounds just like those around me now. As we stood looking at her together, I found myself joined by characters that had followed me to the People’s House from my bookshelves back home. These included Toni Morrison’s characters – Pecola, Golden, Sethe, Beloved, Cee, Sweetness and Bride – all dotted around the room in a house once built by slaves, a house they could never have imagined being invited to as guests let alone standing as equals with those who were white.
Sethe, Beloved, and friends had arrived with me earlier, through the East Gate, to stand with my husband and I in a slow-moving line with other guests, bracing the cold between checkpoints. We were a diverse group – black, white, brown, young and old – that looked like America. Arriving at the East Wing, we checked in coats and wandered through brightly lit corridors, past giant nutcrackers and heavily decorated Christmas trees. A Marine Corps band played holiday music while uniformed staff carried silver trays and platters, replenishing food-laden tables. Now, here we were in the presence of a First Couple that looked like us. And not only were they black, but the First Lady was dark skinned – the skin tone that has historically borne the brunt of racial discrimination (just ask Pecola and Bride) – yet here she stood, a woman of irrefutable beauty and grace in a room chanting her name.
As my husband and I left, along with America and history’s characters, we stopped to look back at the White House from the side gate. ‘Take a good long look,’ said someone, ‘because we may never be back. We’ll never see this many people like us in the White House again.’
In the summer of 2017, racial tension was again running high in America and culminated in the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville which left one person dead and many injured. At the time, we were on a family vacation in Martha’s Vineyard where just a few days after Charlottesville, we attended the annual Hutchins Forum hosted by Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., and moderated by Charlayne Hunter-Gault, a warrior for racial and gender equity in America and abroad. The theme for that year’s public forum was, ‘Race and Racism in the Age of Trump’. The debate had been heated, and I felt despondent and fearful for the safety of my teenage son who sat with us through the debate that afternoon. What would it take for people to understand just how bad things were? When would people really start to care about black lives? All this with my son next to me brought back the heaviness that had led me several years earlier to write an essay on my fears for young black men in America.
As always with these things, I tried not to burden my son with my concerns for his safety, and especially not on an evening when he was invited to a send-off for some kids his age starting college in the fall. It was an indoor bowling party that looked and sounded like thousands of other parties that might have taken place across the country that summer, but because it was being hosted by the former first family, there was no way our son could affect an attitude of cool indifference. He was excited, and we were excited for him.
Later that evening, when we drove to join our son in Oak Bluffs, known historically as the black haven on the island, a group of young people with a sprinkling of parents were still bowling and enjoying themselves. Hip hop’s summer hits (Kendrick, The Weeknd, Migos) were playing, heads were bopping and bodies swaying, food was still laid out, and people were laughing and talking while those bowling were teasing and trash-talking. Most were everyday people and mainly African Americans. I could not help but be lifted and thrilled by the bright, beautiful, college-bound students.
My husband, who had been appointed to a White House advisory council by President Obama, introduced me to him. We exchanged greetings and spoke briefly before he was off – intent, it seemed, on winning his game, which had noticeably improved since his early campaign days when he’d been mocked for ‘dainty’ bowling. While I watched the children bowling and having fun, I spoke with the poet, Elizabeth Alexander, whose recent memoir on life with her late husband, an artist born in Eritrea – The Light of the World – had greatly moved me. I was so consumed with our conversation that I didn’t notice Mrs Obama sitting behind us. When my husband interrupted us to introduce me to her, I was startled.
As we shook hands I started to stammer, trying to explain that I was even more excited to meet her than her husband. In my attempt to be deferential, I could hear myself coming across as awkward and gushing. She smiled kindly-politely, at what I felt were my flubbed up first few minutes of meeting. There she was, tall, goddess-like, with hair tumbling down her shoulders. She had big eyes and long eyelashes. She wore clear lip gloss and a wrist full of colorful bangles. She was even more striking in person than in her pictures. I was seeing Mrs Obama for the first time in her self-described role as ‘mom-in-chief’ among her close friends, many from Chicago with children the same age as hers. They danced, laughed together, and occasionally bowled, all the while watching over the fine young ones they’d raised. It made me happy to see Mrs Obama and her family looking relaxed and at home, doing things that people do with ordinary friends.
Soon we were interrupted by a parade of young people that came to hug Mrs Obama and thank her as they said their goodbyes. I noted the reverence with which young people approached her and the ease of their interactions, the kind that one has with a favorite, cool aunt who knows exactly how to connect. She looked at them, as she’d looked at me, straight in the eye, holding their gaze. These were the lucky ones, many of whom were young men like my son. But even for the lucky ones, outside of these cocooned walls lay the real world with all its special complications waiting for them. For now, celebrating with our children before sending them out into the world, I tried to keep these anxious thoughts to myself, but wondered what she would have thought had I shared them. I did later learn what she thought about these issues in her book.
My second meeting with Mrs Obama took place one year later, at another late summer bowling party. Michelle greeted me with a hug, and this time I felt comfortable enough to call her by her first name. As we spoke, one of the women serving food brought a specially prepared plate of spicy shrimp for Michelle to sample. I don’t know if Michelle had requested this or if it was just something the woman knew she liked. Either way, Michelle was attentive and appreciative. Acknowledging those working behind the scenes – from chefs to aides and secret service – is, as I would later notice in her book, something she always does.
I felt at ease talking with her and comfortable enough to be myself and ask about her forthcoming book. I felt a sense of kinship around our shared interest in the importance of women’s stories. I also sensed that when I spoke about my own experience as a writer, she listened with genuine interest. Her genuineness was something that even those who’d never met her could feel. I was reminded of this recently when my twelve-year-old goddaughter, Tenjiwe, who lives in Johannesburg, described Michelle Obama as ‘a person who means what she says, unlike other famous people who will not do what they say.’ I told Michelle that I expected her book would do well in America and also internationally. She nodded, seeming appreciative of my enthusiasm, but not flattered by it. I wondered if she was wary of setting her expectations too high – perhaps like any writer awaiting the release of a first book, she felt a mix of excitement and trepidation.
I met Michelle again at a Family and Friends book reception which I’d been invited to by our mutual friend, Michele Norris. The two Michelles would later be in conversation together on stage. The reception was small – no more than two dozen of us, including a five-year old princess in white tutu ready to twirl and play. By then, I’d read Becoming and enjoyed it so much that I’d also listened to the audiobook read by Michelle. When Michelle made her way to where I stood with my husband and our friends, we were eager to congratulate her and talk about the book.
We asked about everything from what it was like to have recorded the book for audio (she’d used a pillow to muffle any stomach sounds) to her writing process (collaborative, working with a small team) to what she might write next. She didn’t say what might come next, but nodded to one of her team when I suggested writing for young people.
I asked her if there had been a point in the writing when she’d made a long list of all the nasty things people had said about her, just as a way of getting it off her chest. I was struck by how little mention there is of the nastiness in her book. She smiled, in what I took to be an acknowledging that she had revisited all of it. But as she didn’t dwell on it, I got the feeling that retaliation and keeping score wasn’t her style, and I admired this.
We carried on, all of us, talking as writers do, and possibly for too long. Soon her assistant was pulling her away to meet others, but before she left she urged us to continue giving feedback and suggestions. In being so open to feedback and new ideas, it struck me that she was continuing to embody the title of her book. ‘Becoming’ means that one is never done – that there is room for personal growth, with the implication that one can always do better. In this respect Michelle reminded me of my friend and neighbor, Mrs Harris, who at ninety-nine continues to remind me that even she, who recently started piano lessons, is still learning and becoming.
‘If you wanna know Michelle Obama, you’ve got to know that little girl Michelle Robinson in all her contexts,’ said Michelle, on stage at a book tour stop. ‘You can’t judge me unless you know all of that. You can’t revere me unless you know all of my bumps and bruises.’ And so it is that the first third of Becoming covers Michelle’s childhood starting in the South Side of Chicago where she lived in a tiny apartment with mom, dad and brother.
While Becoming is a moving family memoir, it is also a story of race and inheritance. Michelle’s family flight from Jim Crow South to Chicago could easily have been one of the stories chronicled in Isabel Wilkerson’s historical opus, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. Not only is Michelle’s family story (on both sides of the family) one of black migration from the South to the North but it’s also the story of racial discrimination in the segregated North. Sometimes, no amount of striving can overcome the odds stacked against one. Michelle writes about her grandfather, Dandy, a scholarly man, who had to abandon his dreams of attending college as well as lesser dreams in the face of discriminatory work practices on account of his skin color. He eventually became a postal worker who lived, as Michelle describes it, ‘with the bitter residue of his own dashed dreams’. Racial discrimination was pervasive in Michelle’s family past and its present. ‘The color of our skin made us vulnerable,’ she writes. Whether it was her family car being keyed when they visited a white neighborhood, or the police officer who assumed her brother had stolen his brand new bike, or Michelle’s white dorm mate whose family moved her out so she wouldn’t have to room with black people, race, as Michelle writes, ‘was a thing we’d always have to navigate.’ Her college experience at the elite, majority-white institution of Princeton – where the burden of assimilation was placed on black students – was also a part of this story of race.
Had I been reading about Michelle’s childhood from my childhood home in Jos, Nigeria, I might have been surprised to hear of the persistence of racial profiling and discrimination in America. Nigeria had its own challenges, but has no history of apartheid and no established tradition of societies structured along racial lines, so in contrast to Michelle, I didn’t experience race as a defining element of my upbringing or identity. And as a child, much of what I gleaned about America from its music and TV, was positive. In 1978, I wrote to President Jimmy Carter’s daughter, Amy, curious to know what life was like in the White House. She was the same age as me and, at the time, her father’s name was frequently mentioned in adult conversation, as Nigeria was transitioning from the Westminster style of government to an American-style Presidential system. As a girl, I didn’t think twice about wanting to be pen pals with Amy. I wonder now, had I been a young black girl from Chicago’s South Side, would I have been as enamored? Indeed, would a letter from Chicago’s South Side have been answered as quickly as mine was, coming as it did from a foreign country?
I found myself pondering Michelle’s school photographs which showed the shift from an ethnically diverse kindergarten classroom to one that became predominantly black by fifth grade – the result of white flight. This change in classroom demographics mirrored mine except that at the American missionary school that I attended in Nigeria, where previously few black students had once been accepted, the shift signaled progress rather than decline.
I was surprised by the degree to which I saw aspects of my childhood in Michelle’s story. Perhaps this is the power of her story, in that it allows us to see aspects of ourselves in it. Listening to the responses of many who have read her book, I know that I am not alone. While others may see different things, for me, thousands of miles away from Chicago’s South Side, and only five years younger than Michelle, I too grew up ‘to the sound of striving’ from where we lived in a tiny two-bedroom apartment (the size of the two-car garage over which it sat) on Naraguta Avenue in Jos, Nigeria. Like Mr Robinson, my father (a vicar) worked at the same job for many years and my mother stayed at home with the children.
I saw myself in her personality traits and in particular, the extent to which she worried about being good enough. ‘Are you good enough?’ runs like a refrain throughout her book. This is a sentiment that many young girls and women have experienced – many of us with accompanying stories of the low expectations placed upon us based on gender and/or race. Michelle writes about her guidance counselor, who doubted whether she was ‘Princeton material’, noting that ‘failure is a feeling long before it’s an actual result.’ I too experienced something similar when I’d moved to England and was attending a sixth form college. I was not encouraged to apply to Oxford and Cambridge. Instead, I was directed by the school’s careers office to one of the ‘caring professions’ – not a doctor as I’d once dreamt of being, but a nurse or teacher. Michelle’s story, while deeply rooted in the American story, speaks to experiences that are universal. It speaks to the universal challenges that women and young girls continue to face around the world, as well as to those of less privileged backgrounds where one encounters, to use Michelle’s words, the ‘universal challenge of squaring who you are with where you come from’.
As I read, I found additional connections to my own life. In 1991, Michelle visited Kenya with her then boyfriend, Barack Obama the ‘strange mix-of-everything man’. Because I’d lived in Kenya several years earlier and because I’d read Dreams from My Father, in which Barack writes of his first visits to his father’s home country, I was curious to know how Michelle had found Kenya. I’d hoped she might feel some sort of connection to the country and the continent. But, as she writes, ‘It’s a curious thing to realize, the in-betweenness one feels being African American in Africa. It gave me a hard-to-explain feeling of sadness, a sense of being unrooted in both lands.’ Her response reminded me of James Baldwin’s writings, in particular his essay ‘Encounter on the Seine’, in which he describes the sense of ‘alienation’ between African Americans and Africans ‘over a gulf of three hundred years’. Baldwin, who understood Africa and America well, offers in his writing bridges across this gulf. As Michelle’s memoir travels around the world, I believe it too has the potential to bridge this gulf.
After living in Kenya, I moved as a teenager to Islington in London. As such, Michelle’s visit to Islington’s Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School, a mile from where I once lived, was of particular interest to me. The school includes many working class students and recent immigrants. And because I could see my teenage self among these students it was easy for me to understand the positive impact of a First Lady’s visit. Back in the 1980s and 90s, I used to look to America for everything from black role models to black hair products. The only professional black woman that I saw on TV at that time was Moira Stuart – the first female black British TV newsreader. While there were other professional black British women of note, few enjoyed the visibility of their white counterparts. Looking back, it’s probably no coincidence that I dreamt of being a newscaster and that the first job I applied for after leaving college was with the BBC. The First Lady’s visit must have had a similarly empowering effect on those she met for, as she notes, the school saw a marked improvement in test scores following her visit.
Inspirer-in-Chief and Rockstar
We came in our hundreds to San Jose’s SAP arena, fondly known as ‘The Shark Tank’ for the San Jose Sharks hockey team that plays there. Ushers in white shirts and ties with royal blue blazers directed us to our seats while uniformed and stone-faced plain clothes security personnel hovered, ever watchful and alert. The twelve thousand plus tickets had apparently sold out within minutes of going on sale and the excitement in the arena was palpable. There were more women than men and roughly an equal mix of black, white and brown. Some were dancing to the music, others watching and applauding to the video show and photographs being beamed around the room from many giant screens. Some in the audience clutched hardback books with pale blue and white covers, the way one might clutch a Bible or a banner, were this a religious revival or convention. Many had come with friends or family and the looks on people’s faces conveyed excitement and anticipation. Music pulsated through the arena – well-loved tunes from the Jackson Five and Aretha Franklin to more contemporary hits from Beyoncé and Ellie Goulding. When Whitney Houston’s I Wanna Dance With Somebody came on, I was transported to my student days at the NEC Birmingham, England, thirty years earlier at concerts with crowds of equal size for performers like Whitney Houston and Sade at the height of their careers.
Ten minutes before start time, the already loud music was raised a notch as a countdown began. At zero, the lights went out and the words hey san jose flashed across the screens. From backstage came a familiar-sounding woman’s voice announcing: ‘I’m so happy to be here! I have one question for all of you tonight.’ Then, one by one, with strobe lights and high-beam stage lights sweeping across the crowd, came the words who / are / you / becoming heralding the pre-show. Then came Michele Norris who, in her signature warm radio voice introduced the woman we’d all been waiting for. The stadium erupted with applause and we rose to our feet in our thousands as Michelle Obama strode on stage in a flowing, pink silk pant suit and high heels to the tune of Alicia Keyes’ ‘Girl on Fire’.
Listening to Michelle, I realized just how good she’d become at connecting with her audience. Gone was her once shy nervousness as well as her tendency of earlier years to speak with the same ponderous ‘uh’s’ her husband was so fond of using. She drew on her sense of humor with playfulness – impersonating others and code-switching. To recall Zadie Smith’s poignant essay, ‘Speaking in Tongues’, Barack is not the only Obama that can speak in tongues. Michelle did all sorts of voices – from that of her husband to her mother, to her children and even George W. Bush, as illustrated by the story she began with. ‘George,’ she recounted, offered her a mint at their most recent encounter at his father’s funeral. The mint, she noticed, was an old White House Altoid. How long have you had these? she asked him, to which he’d answered: ‘We took a bunch of them before we left.’ The audience roared with laughter. Michelle is fond of saying she’s ‘never been a fan of politics’ but this doesn’t mean that what she says has no connection to politics. Some of the greatest applause that night came when she gestured to the political, including the way she ended her opening story about Bush: ‘We can disagree as people in our politics without demonizing each other. We don’t agree on everything, but that doesn’t make him any less of a person than me.’
Norris asked about how Michelle first met and fell in love with Barack. Michelle playfully referred to Barack as ‘flavorful’ and as a ‘swervy dude’, in contrast to herself. When they first met, she was Barack’s advisor at a Chicago law firm and she didn’t want to date her advisee: ‘I was like, no, no, that’ll be too tacky and that’s when the white folks will be like, “see, they all love each other.”’ Michelle kept poking fun at herself when speaking about her and Barack’s decision to seek marriage counseling, ‘We were going to counseling to fix him,’ she said, referring to Barack. ‘And then the doctor had the nerve to look over at me, and I’m like, “What are you looking at? I’m fine. I do everything perfectly!”’
She was open about the more difficult times in her life – from the loss of a parent to the loss of her best friend, as well as her own personal struggles around self-worth. ‘Find the people that believe in you,’ she said, ‘and stop paying attention to the few who don’t know you and don’t care about you and aren’t thinking about you.’ And to women in particular, a lesson that I found helpful and have already quoted to girlfriends, she urged us to prioritize ourselves more than we might ordinarily do – to learn how to put ourselves on our calendars first rather than allowing everything else and everyone else to get there first.
Michelle didn’t shy away from acknowledging the challenges that young people face, especially those without people to advocate for them as her mother had done for her. ‘One turn of fate, particularly for kids of color, can make the difference from sitting here or sitting in jail,’ she said. ‘Life is that precarious for so many kids in this country.’ Rather than allowing overwhelming systemic failure to lead her to despair, she remained focused on what can and must be done. This, I realized, was important for me to remember when confronting racism in America as well, as when receiving requests for help and mentorship from high school students in my home country of Nigeria. And then the conversation ended, as it had begun, with a nod to the political. ‘Don’t let fear be your guide,’ she urged. ‘That’s one of the things that is most frustrating about these times, that that is how leaders are leading now. They’re leading with fear.’
Before she left the stage, she stood up to thank the audience for their love and support. ‘Let’s take care of our babies!’ she called out before exiting to her signature song, ‘Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours’. Buoyed by Michelle’s message and her call to action, we turned to smile at friends and strangers alike as we inched our way towards the exits. Some were already engaged in animated chatter, revisiting favorite parts of the night’s conversation; many of us seemed to be standing taller.
As I looked around at the vast crowds, I wondered if the entrancement that I’d witnessed in this arena would be the same in arenas around the world. While traveling in Europe earlier that month, I’d seen stacks of Becoming at airports in a number of translations. In France, Becoming had the same title in French: ‘Devenir’, but in Danish and German the translations were slightly different. ‘Min Historie’ and ‘Meine Geschichte’ translated back to English as ‘My Story’. In America, Michelle’s story had transcended that of former First Lady. I wondered if ‘her story’ would do the same elsewhere.
As we all streamed out of the arena on a high, I saw a man outside with a makeshift stall. He was selling T-shirts featuring Michelle’s off-the-shoulder book cover image. T-shirts were $20 each. I wanted a Small but he only had XXL, XL, L and M. ‘Here,’ he said, offering me a Medium. He looked my age, African American, and from the smell of the T-shirt tossed in my direction, a heavy smoker. He had one eye out for customers and the other eye out for the police. Life is that precarious, I was thinking before he turned to me and said, ‘It’ll shrink to fit.’ It struck me, looking at her likeness that, in becoming, Michelle had not shrunk to fit. But the seller had no time to linger. He had shirts to sell and a living to make.
Photograph © Mike Baird