WHEN MICHELLE Obama’s only UK Becoming book tour date sold out in minutes last year, fans stuck in a virtual queuing system with thousands of prospective ticket buyers in front of them lamented the size of the venue. Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall, which has a capacity of 2,740, was far too small a space to house a talk for the first ever black US first lady, an arena was the only kind of venue large enough to come close to accommodating those who wanted to hear her words of wisdom.
And their calls were answered. An additional date was added and this time at London’s O2 Arena, a venue usually reserved for megastars of the music world. Those who thought Royal Festival Hall would be sufficient, made the mistake of underestimating Obama’s reach and power, something she’s proved time and time again exceeds expectations.
On her return to London last Sunday night, Obama spoke candidly about her life, love, choosing hope in difficult times and discussed parts of her memoir during an interview with The Late Show host Stephen Colbert.
The pair covered a considerable amount of ground, including breaking protocol, life after the White House, relationships, today’s political climate and the current state of the US. While Obama did not mention the current president’s name, she compared the US to a teenager “living with a divorced dad” and said the role of president does not “change who you are, it reveals who you are”.
How political figures are treated in the media is also revelatory. Images displayed on a screen behind Obama and Colbert charted her life from childhood, through to her relationship with Barack prior to politics and their time as the first family. The pictures showcased the happy times and served as a reminder of the progress that was made and of the opportunity that exists – but they didn’t gloss over the hurt.
Racist caricatures of the Obamas also featured in the display and were addressed in the video that was shown before Obama hit the stage. Revisiting those personal attacks was one of the hardest parts about writing Becoming, the 55-year-old said. But they were important to include, she added, for her to personally reflect on them and for readers to remember what she – and her family – endured.
Through her memoir and the subsequent book tour, which has taken her around the world and seen her in conversation with a range of high profile women including Oprah Winfrey and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Obama has opened up to the world in a way that she never could during her time in the White House.
We had to be specific and clear with the words we uttered otherwise we’d be demolished, she said, reflecting on life at the height of politics. Now, free from the limitations that come with the role of the first lady but bolstered by the incomparable platform it offers, Obama is making sure her voice is heard on her terms and it’s something that’s benefiting not just her, but countless black women around the world.
“If you don’t take control of your message and your image and your voice, someone will do that,” she told the audience as she emphasised the need for us to tell our own stories.
The phrase, “When they go low we go high”, which Obama first used during a speech in 2016, comes to mind. But it’s more than a catchy slogan, it’s an attitude this extremely accomplished woman embodies, an example she sets.
While Obama may be affectionately known as “Forever First Lady”, she’s proving that she’s so much more than that. Her book is on track to become the best-selling autobiography of all time; she’s left a lasting impact by championing on honourable causes through her campaign against childhood obesity, Let’s Move, and her education initiative, Let Girls Learn, which was inspired by a trip to London; and the world is on the edge of its seat to see what she does next. It’s no surprise that Barack, a man she says has nothing left to prove, has introduced himself as Michelle’s husband.
Reminiscing about her childhood and lessons learned from her parents, Obama spoke affectionately about her late father and how she was “included as a relevant voice” in his world. Her time as first lady may have come to an end two years ago, but she continues to be a relevant voice in our world. And that’s unlikely to end any time soon.