Michelle Obama Talks Books, Values, and Doing Pushups with Bishop Tutu | ALA Annual 2018

Across downtown New Orleans on Friday, June 22, attendees of the American Library Association (ALA) annual conference buzzed about the Opening General Session, where Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden would be interviewing former First Lady Michelle Obama.

Michelle Obama and Carla Hayden at the ALA Opening General Session
Photo © George Long

Across downtown New Orleans on Friday, June 22, attendees of the American Library Association (ALA) annual conference buzzed about the Opening General Session, some receiving early-morning calls and texts similar to the one Deimosa Webber-Bey, senior librarian at Scholastic Inc., got at 7:30 from her friend Kirby McCurtis, branch manager at Multnomah County Library, OR: “Get out of bed now, go down to the [Morial] convention center, and get on line.” People started queuing up at 7:00 for seats at the convention’s 4 p.m. kick-off, where Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden would be interviewing former First Lady Michelle Obama.

The line of patient conferencegoers eventually snaked through several sections of the building [picture here]. When the doors to the auditorium opened shortly after 2 p.m., some 8,600 library staff, leaders, and vendors jumped up and ran to claim seats (another 1,800 watched on video monitors from an overflow room) and others streamed into the vast hall throughout the afternoon. A party atmosphere reigned for those waiting, with lively music on the PA and much meeting and greeting. At one point Hayden walked through the center aisle, met by a roar of excitement.

Waiting for the ALA Opening General Session
Photo credit: Lisa Peet

Troy Andrews—better known as Trombone Shorty—and his ensemble of young musicians from the Trombone Shorty Foundation led off the proceedings with a rousing jazz set. Among the kickoff speakers was New Orleans mayor LaToya Cantrell. She recalled how, in June 2006, ALA’s was the first convention to return to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. In her shout-out to librarians, she said, “You meet our people where they are. You are intentional in your approach.” Cantrell is the first woman to hold the office of mayor in New Orleans, and was a fitting run-up to Hayden—the first woman and the first African American to serve as Librarian of Congress—who accepted an honorary ALA membership from outgoing ALA president Jim Neal just before her discussion with Obama.

Obama, relaxed and upbeat, began her conversation with Hayden with a description of her lifelong relationship with reading and libraries—the library card she received at age four was her “first big-girl thing,” and she worked her way through her library’s children’s section and upstairs to the adult books, eventually moving on to using library resources as a college student. A steady reader, she recently got three chapters in to Zadie Smith’s White Teeth before realizing she had read it already (“I thought I must have ESP or something, because I knew what’s going to happen on the next page”)—and read it through again. Barack Obama is also a book lover, she said, noting that bookstores and golf courses were practically the only places he went for fun as president, and he has collected boxes of books everywhere they’ve lived. Together, they brought their daughters up to be readers as well.

She also recalled working in a book bindery the summer before she went to college, and the drudgery of the repetitive labor involved: “I just thought, my God I’m ready for college!... But it taught me great respect for the men and women who do that work every day.” This included her father, Fraser C. Robinson III, who hardly ever missed a day on his own blue-collar job tending boilers at a water filtration plant for the city of Chicago, in spite of having multiple sclerosis and using a cane.

Both he and her mother, Marian Shields Robinson, were ethical compasses for her and her brother, Obama said. “They had a really advanced sense of parenting,” she explained. “They taught us how to advocate for ourselves very early. Her expectation was, ‘You know how to fix your problems. You know what to do.’” Teaching kids at an early age that they have a voice worth listening to—and attentive adults at the dinner table will do it, she noted—will empower them. Later, having her mother around to help with child care when she was working and her husband was a senator and on the campaign trail, and in the White House, gave her a constant sounding board—not to mention trusted child care, a critical need of every working mother. “She taught the girls to do their laundry,” Obama said. “She kept the whole White House grounded.”


Grounded was a good adjective for all of Obama’s chat, in fact. When she discussed the difficulties of maintaining balance as a mother and a woman in a high-powered job married to another busy professional when the burdens of child rearing fell largely to her, or the importance of keeping a close circle of friends for support and to have fun with—her posse, she called them—or the challenges of raising balanced children in what she acknowledged was a “dysfunctional” situation, Obama was entirely relatable.

“I didn’t come to the position of First Lady a blank slate,” she noted, and frankly discussed what it felt like in those years, shifting from being an executive to the world’s most famous spouse, “where the first thing people would talk about was ‘What shoes is she wearing?’” Obama admitted freely to doubts, questions, and even resentment when it came maintaining her own life and career. “How do you balance it all? And is it fair that we’re on his rocket ship ride when I have one too?” (She tells young women that, yes, they can have it all—but maybe not all at the same time.)

She even managed to explain the weirdness of having it be business as usual to meet the Pope, or to find herself doing pushups with Bishop Desmond Tutu (“Please get up,” she recalled thinking), in a way that would resonate for anyone in the audience who had ever found their head spinning at the end of a whirlwind workweek.

Obama was also very funny, particularly about the trials of parenting their two daughters normally in spite of the ever-present motorcades at parent-teacher conferences and mandatory sweeps of friends’ houses before sleepovers, or finding out about unsupervised teenage parties from their daughters’ Secret Service detail. “Imagine trying to go to prom with eight men with guns,” she noted.

Still, she said, children are resilient as long as they know they’re loved and supported. “The biggest thing that Barack and I could ever do to be good parents to our kids is to be good people in the world for them to see every day.” And just as many of the library staff in the audience offer their young patrons both information and inspiration, she explained, during their White House years the Obamas worked hard to develop initiatives for children, “because I always thought, this is the interaction that could change a kid’s life.”

This relatability is very much a theme of her memoir, Becoming, on the way from Crown in November. She described the book as “a rehumanization effort,” an attempt to describe how extraordinary things can happen to a relatively ordinary person, yet the important things remain the same: raising competent children who know they’re loved, making a difference in the world when and where you can, keeping relationships real.

Writing the book has finally given her a chance to reflect, she told Hayden. “We did so much so fast, and we also knew we didn’t have the luxury to make mistakes.… Barack and I knew very early that we would be measured by a different yardstick.” Not that they didn’t make mistakes, she acknowledged, but the Obamas had to be “outstanding” in all they did nonetheless.

She hopes the book will help those who may feel faceless or voiceless to feel pride in their own stories and give voice to them. “I am not a unicorn,” Obama told Hayden. She grew up without much money, but with a family that reinforced the value of music and art, education, and love. She has always striven to do the same, in her family and as a public figure with the power to change others’ lives. “There are millions of kids like me,” Obama said—and 10,000 library people nodded along.

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Linda Collins

ALA continually champions diversity -- I would expect that to include diversity of political stripe. Yet year after year, it is blatantly and increasingly left of center. Last year, Hillary Clinton was >the< guest. This year, Michelle Obama. It would be nice if ALA considered independent and conservative speakers at future events. They publish books, too, do they not?

Posted : Jul 02, 2018 08:20


This comment has been deleted because it violates LJ's comment policy.

Posted : Jun 28, 2018 06:51

anonymous coward

This comment has been up for over a day. That's not cool, LJ.

Posted : Jun 28, 2018 06:51

anonymous coward

thank you.

Posted : Jun 28, 2018 06:51



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