WASHINGTON – Michelle Obama spent a hefty portion of her eight years in the White House weighing how the public would perceive her.
As the first Black first lady, Obama knew her every move, word and fashion choice would be fodder for negative, hateful comments. “I didn’t wear braids,” Obama reflected to a sold-out crowd Tuesday night in Washington, D.C.
“I was like, ‘They’re just getting adjusted (to the first Black first family). It would be easier. But they’re not ready for it.’ It would have been ‘remember when she wore braids? Those are terrorist braids. Those are revolutionary braids.’ So let me just keep my hair straight, let’s get healthcare passed.”
The former first lady kicked off a six-city tour Tuesday for her new book, “The Light We Carry: Overcoming in Uncertain Times” (Crown, 336 pp., out now). She was joined by moderator Ellen DeGeneres who made her first major appearance since ending her longtime talk show nearly six months ago.
Other tour moderators include Oprah Winfrey, Gayle King, Tracee Ellis Ross and David Letterman.
DeGeneres warned the sold-out audience Tuesday she might be a little rusty.
“I stopped filming my show in May and I haven’t really spoken to anyone or done anything for however many months that’s been,” DeGeneres said. “It’s been a while since I’ve spoken to anyone – Portia every once in a while – I’m talking to my dogs all day long, so this could get weird.”
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Obama elaborated on several of the stories and self-help concepts mentioned in her book over the course of their more than two-hour discussion. While reflecting on how she dealt with hateful comments and criticisms of her appearance, the former first lady also asked DeGeneres about her own experiences.
“In show business, they say you have to have thick skin because there’s so much critique and people have opinions,” said the former talk show host, who apologized in 2020 after a controversy over claims of a “toxic workplace” at “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.”
DeGeneres added: “I don’t have thick skin. I never did develop it. I don’t want to have thick skin. It gives me compassion. I know what it feels like to be attacked and I never want anyone to feel that way.”
Obama credited her ability to overcome hateful comments to her upbringing and the mantra that her parents instilled in her: she was enough just as she was.
“That helped me create a protective layer around my life,” Obama said. “I understood that I and I alone could protect my light. I had to protect it with how I reacted to what people said to me. I had to practice that time and again and tell myself, ‘this is where empathy comes in.’ Empathy is an important tool, especially in the White House. I had to ask myself, ‘for the people throwing the arrows, what is going on in your world? Because this isn’t about me – you clearly don’t even know me.’ ”
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“The Light We Carry” is a follow-up to Obama’s memoir “Becoming,” which was named USA TODAY’s No. 1 bestselling book of 2018. Her new book is more of a self-help guide compared with the narrative reflection of “Becoming.”
But there are still plenty of interesting personal anecdotes, both from the time periods covered in “Becoming” and since. Obama provides a glimpse into what quarantine life was like for her family of four living in D.C., as well as daughters Sasha and Malia moving into a Los Angeles apartment together last year.
“Sasha attempted to fix us a couple of weak martinis – Wait, you know how to make martinis? – and served them in water glasses, first laying down a couple of newly purchased coasters so that we wouldn’t mark up their brand-new coffee table with our drinks,” Obama writes of her and Barack’s first visit to their daughters’ new place, lovingly roasting her 20-something kids for learning about taking care of their home for the first time.
Anecdotes like these serve a broader purpose in “Light”: To offer wisdom about big life topics, the processes “of finding strength and light within yourself,” building “relationships with others and our notions of home” and “how we may better own, protect and strengthen our light, especially during challenging times,” she writes. Though Obama makes it clear she still struggles with plenty of self-doubt and doesn’t have all the answers, she provides a pretty thorough road map to living a fuller, kinder, better life.
The Obamas have been open about their experiences with couples counseling, but in her book, Obama now goes into greater detail about how they’ve been able to mend and strengthen their relationship through difficult times.
“We’ve had to learn our way through it,” she writes. “We’ve had to practice responding to each other in ways that take into account both of our histories, our different needs and ways of being. Barack has figured out how to give me more space and time to cool off and process my emotions slowly, knowing that I was raised with that sort of space and time. I have likewise learned to become more efficient and less hurtful while doing that processing. And I try not to let a problem sit too long, knowing that he was raised not to let things fester.”
What was initially meant to be a more generalized self-help book born out of conversations from her “Becoming” tour became an even more timely concept during the pandemic and political unrest of the last few years. Obama writes of hoping the book can serve as a remedy to the paralyzing realization that many have had after these tumultuous years: Life is fragile and nothing is guaranteed.
“It may be a while before we find our footing again,” she writes. “The losses will reverberate for years to come. We will get shaken and shaken again. The world will remain both beautiful and broken. The uncertainties aren’t going away.”
Through speaking to fans and readers on her “Becoming” tour, Obama has seen firsthand how much vocalizing her stories can heal someone who needs to know their experiences are not uncommon.
“When I looked into those audiences, I saw something that confirmed what I knew to be true about my country and about the world more generally,” she writes. “I saw a colorful crowd, full of differences and better for it. … I sincerely believe that many of those people had turned up for reasons that stretched well past me or my book. My feeling was they’d shown up at least in part to feel less alone in the world, to locate some lost sense of belonging.”
Over the course of several chapters, Obama highlights times when she did feel alone in the world in the hopes others would see their own struggles in her experiences and realize there is hope for a better future. She writes of the pressures of being a major “first” and “only” for the country; the frustration of being labeled an “angry Black woman”; the isolation of being the only person who looked like her in so many rooms; and why all of that makes her famous “when they go low, we go high” slogan all the more pertinent.
“A motto stays hollow if we only repeat it and put it on products we can sell on Etsy,” she writes. “We need to embody it, pour ourselves into it – pour our frustration and hurt into it, even. When we lift the barbell, we get our results.”