It was not the easiest week to attract the spotlight of political information in Washington: the Democrats took the Senate, the Republicans had to make do with Congress, Donald Trump launched his third candidacy for the White House and Nancy Pelosi fired as Speaker of the House of Representatives. And in the midst of so much historic bustle, Michelle Obama, first lady between 2009 and 2017, presented on Tuesday at a theater in the center of the city The Light We Carry. Overcoming in Uncertain Time, his second book, published simultaneously in Spain by the Plaza & Janés editorial under the title of With its own light Win in uncertain times. And the fact is that he managed to attract the spotlight. To be more precise, he got it from his hair.
When her husband, Barack Obama, became the country’s first black president, she decided to straighten it because she felt the American people were “not ready” for their natural curls, she told a dedicated audience, which packed the elegant Warner Theater despite the rainy night and although part of the act overlapped with Trump’s televised announcement. For her, it would have been easier 14 years ago to continue with her braids, but she concluded that it was better not to do so, lest her appearance become politicized and end up distracting public opinion from what is important: the agenda of the Obama Administration. I’d better leave it straight, she recalled thinking. “Let’s get the improvement in healthcare approved first.”
To refresh the theater audience’s memory of the kind of aesthetic scrutiny the couple was subjected to, Michelle turned to that day in 2014 when Barack wore a beige suit to appear before the media and sparked Republican criticism for the “little seriousness” of his image; criticism that Ronald Reagan or Dwight Eisenhower did not receive when they opted for that color in their clothing. “[En el caso de Obama fue] the great indignity, the scandal of the Administration,” said Michelle, who had just spoken about the obstacles that African-American women must overcome in work environments where Afro hair or braids (or dreadlocks) are perceived as “unprofessional”.
The comment has revived this week in the United States an interesting discussion about the stereotypes that minorities carry because of their mere physical appearance. Last March, the House of Representatives approved a regulation in this regard. They named it CROWN, which means crown, but it actually hides an acronym (Washington legislators love to name laws): Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair Act (Creating an open and respectful world for natural hair). It is paradoxical that one of the most symbolic images of Obama’s presidency was the one in which a black child touched the president’s head, as if to make sure that someone like him could really occupy the Oval Office.
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Michelle Obama did not only discuss hair issues Tuesday in her conversation with Ellen DeGeneres, famous television presenter and “personal friend”, as both made clear at the beginning. Obama explained that this book—which might be sent to the self-help news table if it weren’t for the fact that the “tools” that its author shares, and that serve her “in times of great anxiety and stress,” are the result of the teachings of an extraordinarily interesting life― is born from the success cut short of the previous one.
My story (2018, also in Plaza & Janés) was the account of how a poor girl from the South of Chicago became a prestigious lawyer and ended up in the White House. And it was a phenomenal triumph: it sold more than 10 million copies, which, according to her publisher, makes it the best-selling volume of memoirs in history (also above those of her husband, a promised land). Readers clamored for her, and she embarked on a tour of presentations, first across the states and then around the world. In the act of Tuesday, whose waiting she enlivened the DJ D-Nice, rapper from the legendary Boogie Down Productions, who will accompany her on the new tour, Michelle Obama projected images of full stadiums to listen to her, followed by photos of those same states closed tightly due to confinement. “Us [el matrimonio y sus dos hijas] we had it easier than most to lock ourselves in. After all, we spent eight years in the White House; to get out on the balcony, the Secret Service had to make eight phone calls, ”he joked.
At the dawn of the pandemic, she got involved in buying board games online to entertain her family, and also a sewing kit. “The women of our generation saw our mothers and grandmothers sew out of necessity. At home, since the money did not arrive, when you wanted them to buy you a dress, they told you, to your annoyance: ‘Oh, don’t worry, I’ll do it for you,’ recalled the former first lady. That is why she never learned to knit: she considered it “a knowledge of the past” to “get rid of to embrace progress”. What she did not imagine is that she would end up saving her “from depression” in those first months of uncertainty, pushed into the abyss by the contemplation of Trump “disastrously” managing the health crisis. And that was how, she tells her in with its own light, in 2020 she became the kind of person who would do the same “a fluffy crewneck sweater” for her husband, “who is from Hawaii and catches colds easily in winter,” who was giving a speech at the 2020 Democratic convention to encourage voting.
“The worst thing is that Barack saw it coming,” he revealed in his chat on Tuesday. “When Trump won, he asked himself: what will happen if a pandemic comes? He said it because there was evidence that one was coming. They had organized briefings for it at the White House. They had prepared. It doesn’t matter who is president when everything is going well. But the moment there is a catastrophe is when you need a leader with clear things. It’s obvious we didn’t have it.”
In the first chapter of the book, which has a translation by Carlos Abreu, Efrén del Valle, Gabriel Dols and Raúl Sastre, the author uses the needle and thread as a metaphor for “the power of the small” and the usefulness of concentration to overcome anxiety and stress. In others, she defends the importance of hugs, she makes a closed defense of friendship or glosses the figure of her mother, who became “grandmother in chief” in spite of her. She has seen her, she writes, “talk to the pope and to the postman, addressing both with the same mild, unruffled manner.”
He also theorizes about fear, with which he has been living for “58 years already”: “We don’t understand each other. She makes me uncomfortable. She likes to see me weak. She has a giant file, filled to the brim with all the mistakes and missteps I’ve made in my life. (…). She hates my appearance, at all times and in all circumstances. He doesn’t like the email I sent to a coworker. He also doesn’t like the comment I made at the banquet last night; can’t believe he talks so much nonsense in general. Every day she tries to convince me that I don’t know what I’m doing to myself. Every day I try to contradict her, or at least nullify her with more positive thoughts; but even so, she will not leave ”.
At the event, he shared his recipe with the public: cultivating “comfortable fear”. “I have met many brave people in my life, from everyday heroes to giants like [la escritora] Maya Angelou and Nelson Mandela. People who from a distance may seem impervious to fear. I have lived with world leaders making decisions under enormous pressure that endangered and saved the lives of others. I know artists who can bare their souls to stadium-sized crowds. Activists who risked their freedom and safety to protect the rights of others. Not a single one of them, I would say, would consider themselves fearless. But they do share the ability to coexist with danger and think clearly in its presence. They learn to be afraid comfortably.”
The largely female audience, who had paid for tickets starting at $100, nodded to this and other advice at the Warner Theater, normally devoted to musicals, on Tuesday with a murmur of approval and rapturous applause. The tour continues this Saturday in Philadelphia, where only a handful of tickets remain on sale. Then it will continue through theaters in 11 other cities in the United States. In some of them, it has more than one date. In all of them, the former first lady will be received with the honors reserved for stars.
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