By Heidi Stevens Chicago Tribune
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Oprah Winfrey joined Michelle Obama onstage at the first stop of the former first lady's "Becoming" book tour. One of her key messages..."Don't silence yourself."
Like a weary, battered flock, we sought refuge in the United Center, hungry for stories of success, joy, inclusion, triumph over long odds, the higher road. American stories.
And Michelle Obama fed us.
She fed us with her humor and her honesty and her grace.
She fed us with stories about growing up on South Euclid Avenue in Chicago, living in the upstairs of a tiny house with her mom, dad and brother, Craig, one floor above her Aunt Robbie, who taught her to play the piano.
She fed us with her slogans, one of which, she said, is, "It's harder to hate up close."
"If I was sitting in someone's living room talking to someone up close," she said, "you could see them thinking, 'You're different than I thought.' "
She fed us with stories in which we could see ourselves.
Oprah Winfrey joined Obama onstage Tuesday night, Nov. 13, at the first stop of the former first lady's "Becoming" book tour.
"What I've come to understand," Winfrey said, "in all the years of interviews I've done, is everybody has this question: Am I enough?"
Obama said she first grappled with that question when she started attending Whitney Young Magnet High School.
"Do I belong here?" Obama said. "Can I compete in this school that's drawing in all this talent? And I'd say to myself, 'Maybe I was just good enough for the school I was in. Maybe I couldn't compete in a bigger market.' And I think a lot of us have those doubts."
She fed us with the story of her guidance counselor at Whitney Young telling her, "I'm not sure you're Princeton material."
"Failure is a feeling long before it is an actual result, and for me it felt like that's exactly what she was planting," Obama read aloud from her book. "A suggestion of failure long before I'd even tried to succeed. She was telling me to lower my sights, which was the absolute reverse of every last thing my parents had ever told me."
She wasn't new to that feeling. She talked about a second-grade teacher who wasn't bothering to bring much teaching into the classroom at Obama's school, situated as it was in a neighborhood experiencing white flight at a rapid clip.
"Maybe she had already made some decisions about who she thought we were," Obama said.
Second-grade Obama (Michelle Robinson then) came home and told her mom that they weren't learning much. Her mom stood at the kitchen sink and listened. And then acted.
"She was at the school causing holy heck," Obama said. "She was asking questions, and she wasn't just asking for me."
She was asking for all the students, students whose parents worked tirelessly to push their kids toward greatness and didn't want that potential cut down in their earliest, formative years of school.
That model, her mother's model, followed Obama to high school. To that guidance counselor's office.
"I wasn't going to let one person's opinion dislodge everything I thought I knew about myself," she read. "My only thought in that moment was, 'I'll show you.' "
She went on to Princeton, graduating cum laude in 1985, and Harvard Law School after that.
"There will be people who set the bar so low, not even knowing who you are," Obama told the audience, which included a healthy section of current Whitney Young students. "They don't go away. Just because you become Oprah Winfrey or the president of the United States, they are still lurking. The challenge becomes how do we listen to the good voices in our heads, because for most of us, we have those."
Tell us how, Winfrey said.
"What is the secret, or the information, you want women to most know about sitting in those rooms with powerful men," Winfrey asked, "during a time when it feels like we're at a tipping point for women in the culture?"
"Maybe they want us to think we don't belong because maybe we belong too much," Obama said. "There are some people who are taught that they are entitled to be there. And then we think that we shouldn't be there, as women, as minorities, as poor kids, as rural kids, as first-generation kids. You know, we're taught that our stories don't matter. That we don't belong."
The truth is, she said, we do. And the truth has to lead us.
"At every table I got to," she continued, "I was like, 'I do belong here. And I do have something to say.' "
Don't silence yourself, she told the audience.
"Our fear that our story doesn't matter, it chokes us," she said. "It keeps us silent because we're afraid of putting ourselves on the table because we think we're not worthy, so we don't add value when we're at these tables because we're too busy hiding. And I've learned that my story does matter.
"I love my story. It is the American story. My struggles. My journey. My life on the South Side of Chicago. My father with a disability. All of that makes me more valuable to this conversation, not less. And I think we, as women, need to understand that we have a lot to offer in these seats. We have perspective and wisdom and ability and empathy and a set of skills that many men don't, and that's why we need to be there.
"But if we get at those tables and we're silent because we're afraid, then we're of no use to anyone."
She fed us, too, with the stories that have already grabbed headlines since advance copies of "Becoming" were reviewed. (The book hit shelves Tuesday.) She and Barack Obama have gone to marriage counseling. They conceived their daughters using in vitro fertilization.
But what filled me up most, with hope, with healing, with gratitude that tens of thousands of people, young and old, were hearing her words, was her call for us to find and tell our stories.
"It matters, and it is valid, and it is necessary for our country to move forward," she said. "The one thing I'm claiming is my story is the quintessential American story.
"And yes, I'm black. And yes, I'm a woman. And, yes I grew up working-class, and yes, my parents didn't get to finish college," she said. "That is part of the American dream. This story is it. So how dare somebody tell me that I don't belong? That I don't love my country? How dare somebody tell me that I don't have a right to have a voice?"
The crowd cheered. Winfrey basked.
"Have you found the answer to, 'Am I enough?' " Winfrey asked.
"Yeah," Obama answered.