Former First Lady Michelle Obama took to the stage in Brooklyn on Saturday to promote her book, and dazzled the crowd with anecdotes about her life and marriage to the first African-American president.
As an upbeat playlist curated by The Roots’ Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson blasted through the speakers, dozens lined up at the merchandise booths to purchase everything from t-shirts plastered with “Work to create the world as it should be” to lily-scented candles that read “Find your flame and keep it lit.”
Obama, sporting a white pantsuit, spent the evening speaking candidly about her path from the South Side of Chicago to the White House, and the lessons learned along the way. The former first lady dazzled the audience with anecdotes about the “white flight” that changed her South Shore neighborhood in the 1960s, to the high school counselor who once told her she was not “Princeton material.”
“It’s sad that it’s so frequent, and it still happens,” she said. “When somebody sets your bar lower for you than you think.”
'It's not always enough to lean in'
She was also blunt in describing her marriage to Barack Obama, whose own ambition “forced me to think about myself and think about my path.” Balancing motherhood and a career was difficult with her husband away from home most days running for state senator, she said.
“It’s not always enough to lean in, ’cause that [expletive] doesn’t work all the time,” she remarked, referencing the book and mantra created by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. Although she promptly apologized for swearing, she electrified a crowd that seemed unaccustomed to hearing a former First Lady speak unrestrained.
Obama gave her condolences to former President George H.W. Bush, who passed away Friday, and spoke about her friendly relationship with former President George W. Bush and his wife Laura. When the Obamas first moved to the White House, the Bush family extended a warm welcome despite their ideological differences.
“The partisanship that we see doesn’t have to be the norm,” she said. “We can’t just look at each other as R’s and D’s, and the Bushes showed us that.” Though Obama didn’t mention President Donald Trump by name, she spoke pointedly about using “fear as a way to motivate or lead.”
She added: “Fear is a cycle that other people use to keep us divided.”
“I think about the kids whose lives are transformed because we gave them a little light. If they could walk into the White House and feel welcome…then they could do anything.”
As First Lady, one of Obama’s main goals was to host more programs for children at the White House. She teared up talking about a girl from the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota, who said that her visit to the White House saved her life.
“I think about the kids whose lives are transformed because we gave them a little light,” she said. “If they could walk into the White House and feel welcome…then they could do anything.”
For many eager attendees, the tour was larger than the book itself, also marking Obama’s return to the public sphere after the change in administration.
“I love Michelle Obama,” said Charifa Smith, 43, from Brooklyn, who had just finished posing with one of the many life-size posters of Obama stationed around the arena for photo-ops. “I’m excited about what she’s been speaking about. I wanted to come out and just hear her in person.”
Stephanie Paradiso, 29, of Maryland received tickets from her mother for her 29th birthday. “Michelle’s philosophy on girl power and girl empowerment is something that’s important to me,” she said.
After a speaking for a little over an hour, Obama exited the stage to roaring applause and music by Jay Z, a tribute to the Brooklyn venue.
“I’m so inspired,” said one attendee filing out of the arena.