Where It Began: Michelle Obama’s “Becoming”
By Christina Yoon
As the lights dim one by one, a hush falls over the vast crowd gathered at the United Center. The energy of the arena is bubbling as the host, Oprah Winfrey, says the words the crowd has been waiting for this whole night: “Let’s welcome Michelle Obama.” The silence from moments ago shatters as the United Center is filled with the roars of applause, whistles, and shouts.
On Tuesday, Nov. 13 2018, Michelle Obama kicked off her book tour for her new autobiography “Becoming” in her hometown, Chicago. Despite the frigid weather, lines wrapped around the United Center as people eagerly awaited to see the iconic former First Lady. The event was organized in a loose Q&A fashion and was filled with humorous memories of Obama’s life and moments from her new book.
The first question focused on life at the White House. Obama compared it to living in the fanciest hotel with an elevator that led to your room and staff that provided constant assistance. In an effort to ensure that her children obtain a proper childhood even in such a formal place as the White House, Obama explained how she chose to get rid of the tuxedo uniform for the staff and loosened the structure. She also focused on attitude and how she genuinely wanted to make the White House her home. “What you bring to the home, makes it a home,” said Obama.
This topic led to a discussion of the Obama family’s transition into life as private citizens after leaving the White House. Obama delved deeper into how the shift was instantaneous and left the family feeling as if their lives were changing drastically once again. She explained the hardships of keeping up the perfect image of the presidential family and how when she stepped into the helicopter, she could not stop crying. For Obama, those 30 minutes were her first moments of freedom from eight years of trying to do everything perfectly.
Despite the serious ambience of the arena, Obama once again showed her smooth public speaking skills as she lightened the mood with various jokes. In between her explanations of her struggles, she talked about how she wanted to say “Bye, Felicia” when looking at the White House from the helicopter which led the crowd to erupt with laughter. Obama then transitioned to a discussion of broader themes about women and their public image. She talked about how there was confusion regarding the expectations of the first lady because there is ambiguity regarding the expectations of women in general. She addressed the ambivalence of a woman’s role in today’s world and how that causes her struggles and pain. However, she encourages young people to not be identified by their “hurts” but to recognize them and use them to think about what their true goals are. Referring back to her iconic quote, “When they go low, we go high,” Obama explained that going “high” doesn’t mean not hurting; it means going beyond your selfish thoughts and thinking about the big picture.
Once the applause had subsided from these impactful words, Oprah asked “How do you go high when you know the game has been set up to make you go low?” Obama didn’t stop for a second as she explained that the best solution was to just do your work and let your work speak for itself. She advised that having a lot to do distracts you from the pettiness and keeps you from acting “low.”
Obama spent the two hours covering various topics from women to romance to parenting. However, one topic that really stuck with me was when she explained her time in high school and her transition into college. She explained that Whitney Young was her haven where it was “safe to be smart.” Growing up in the South Side in an impoverished neighborhood, Obama explained how she had to learn to become a code switcher -- someone who could shift between an educated way of speaking and a more causal dialogue -- because it was not always safe to flaunt her intelligence in every setting. However, in high school, she did not have to think about “switching codes.” That being said, high school still proved to be a time of difficulty for Obama. She read an excerpt from her book in which she told the story of the school counselor who told her that Princeton was an inadequate choice. “People will try to lower your standards,” said Obama. But she focused on proving to herself that she could achieve her goals.
Obama’s talk was filled with countless motivational anecdotes and quotes. The two hour talk could be summarized with her one iconic phrase, “When they go low, we go high.”