In the opening pages of Michelle Obama’s memoir “Becoming,” she says something that might have sounded pretty provocative when she started writing the book in the days after she and her husband, former President Barack Obama, moved out of the White House.
“When you’re first lady, America shows itself to you in its extremes.”
Even after eight years as one of the most galvanizing and strangely polarizing people in the country — a period that gave us our first African-American first family, but that also laid bare the oddball dynamics of a country that never seems eager to confront issues of race or gender until it’s forced to — she couldn’t have imagined what we’d all soon bear witness to.
America showed Obama its extremes, its openness to new faces of leadership on one hand, as evidenced by the most diverse incoming Congressional freshman class ever, and a stubborn allegiance to the racist tropes of the old days, as Charlottesville and Pittsburgh and vile references to her blackness and womanhood showed us, on the other.
But one reason she’s been so effective at going high when the crudest and most retrograde among us decide to go low is that she’s so gifted at not surrendering to her own extremes.
That she was able to draw some 18,000 people from so many backgrounds to the Tacoma Dome on Sunday night during a stop on her international book tour is testament to her status as a powerful cultural figure.
Literary events tend to be cheery but tame, intimate affairs. The atmosphere in the arena, however, was more like that of a concert, full of booming music, biographical videos and high-beam lights, with cameos by Ciara and Eddie Vedder, and Jimmy Kimmel as host and interviewer.
And there was another presence in the arena — the total adoration of the audience itself, at a moment in our political life that seems so lacking in leaders who merit that level of affection.
“We have no reason to fear each other,” Obama told the audience. She shouldn’t have to say that, but this is where we are.
As a nation, we seem split into a thousand pieces, all of us grappling, in our own way, for the right to define what it means to be an American.
But there is probably no one else in America whose story so perfectly embodies the paradoxes of a nation that built its presidential residence on the backs of African slaves, then turned around and made the great-great-granddaughter of slaves its first lady.
An Ivy League-educated lawyer who grew up in a working class household on the South Side of Chicago, Obama lives in the heartland of America’s contradictions.
While we lose our minds over the topsy-turvy state of the union, she seems effortlessly, confidently, centered in the storm.
Maybe that’s why she’s now the most admired woman in the country, according to a recent Gallup poll, beating out even Oprah.
It took a lot of twists and turns for Obama, 55, to become an icon of such historic significance and to feel comfortable in that role, it’s true.
She told the audience that in her early years at a prestigious Chicago law firm, she was more focused on a shallower kind of status, in the form of her Princeton and Harvard degrees, her fancy job, her nice car and clothes.
“As we’re learning now, those degrees can be bought and sold,” the feisty and funny Obama said in one of a couple of references to the current college-admissions cheating scandal. The crowd loved her rawness and humility.
Dating a young, bookish, almost painfully socially conscious Barack Obama (in her hilarious telling), whom she was asked to mentor at that law firm, Obama started to see there was more to life. She wanted to work and live with purpose.
“How do you give back?” That’s what she had to figure out.
It may have taken Obama some time to find her voice as an influential African-American woman, but it took all of American history to prepare us for her unlikely rise.
She and her husband realized from the start of his presidency that they carried the expectations of an entire race on their shoulders as they dealt with the mostly white Republican opposition.
“For eight years I don’t think I took a full breath — everything mattered,” Obama told the crowd. “We couldn’t slip up. … We would be setting the tone for anyone who was not male and white coming into the White House.”
The former first lady’s book is about how she’s come to be the woman she is today.
But you can’t read it, or witness its author in action, and not feel just a little bit hopeful about how far we all can go.
Obama has always been good at delivering tough love.
“We have to be brave enough to find our story — and own it,” she said. “We have to practice, everyday, who we want to be.”
“We are the answer — we have to fix it ourselves,” she said of our present, bitter politics.
She was talking about what individuals can do in their own lives but her advice applies to what America as a whole can do to create a better social and political atmosphere for the next generation.
“We have to be the world that we want them to live in.”
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