Tuesday evening, Michelle Obama spoke to a sold-out crowd of 5,000 people at Phoenix's Comerica Theatre. The downtown venue was the highly-anticipated first of 21 stops in the second phase of the former first lady's Becoming book tour. By the look and feel of the crowd, her conversation with host and longtime friend Valerie Jarrett only exceeded the high expectations of the many readers in the audience. Obama received two standing ovations, one upon entering and the other while exiting the stage.
The evening opened with an introduction by five Arizona women who shared brief versions of how they were, in Obama’s words, still “becoming.” The most poignant was that of a survivor of the same shooting that injured former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in 2011. A young woman shared her dream of going to school to become a physician’s assistant. A domestic violence survivor who spoke of choosing to move forward with her life in the spirit of love and healing.
The introduction successfully framed what would stand out as one of evening’s consistent highlights, her remarkable ability to use her breadth of experience to connect authentically with whomever she is speaking with. It's this ability, for which Obama has long been admired for, to make people feel, as she reiterated throughout the evening, that they really, truly matter, contributed to making Becoming the highest-selling book of 2018 in just 15 days.
Throughout their conversation, Jarrett asked Obama a series of questions about her life that followed the general structure of the book. They began with her childhood and education at Princeton and Harvard. Then, they moved on to meeting Barack Obama, starting a family, and, later on, the first presidential campaign and the the White House years. Much of what they covered was familiar in subject matter to those who had read the book, but to hear Obama speak in person brought the intimate tone of her memoir to life in a way that would make even devoted followers look at her through new eyes.
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Obama spoke with unwavering candor and inspiring confidence, weaving in the deeply personal experiences of of herself, her family, and her children in with her perspective on the political and cultural past, present, and future of the United States. Calling on her accomplished storytelling abilities, she did what few people in public American life are able to do at her level: speak to the values of the most ordinary people while at the same time demystifying the lives of the world’s most privileged few. She has lived fully on both sides, and uses that to say that every story matters, that everyone deserves to live a life filled with joy, passion, and love.
True authenticity, as the former first lady pointed out, simply can’t be faked. To paraphrase her, one can always sniff out the true intentions of another, and there was no doubt in the audience that Mrs. Obama’s message was one from the heart. To hear her discuss everything from falling in love with her husband to raising teenagers to meeting the Pope was to internalize the message that she reiterated over and over again: Anyone is capable of both the most ordinary and extraordinary things,and the key is resilience in the face of inevitable failure, including the willingness to stand up to one’s own self-doubts.
Knowing that even Michelle Obama can still struggle with negative voices makes the thought of doing so seem infinitely more possible. It also begs the question as to whether her unshakable optimism with regard (and dedication) to the young people in this country is the only reasonable attitude to embody moving forward, especially in a time of heightened political tensions. Her presence at Comerica Theatre provided an unequivocal message of hope to the residents of Phoenix.