Michelle Obama’s show was remarkable – her wisdom is a beacon | Afua Hirsch

There are few opportunities to hear a black woman in a position of unparalleled visibility. It was unforgettable

Michelle Obama has, she says, learned to grasp the art of reinvention. And watching her appearance at London’s South Bank Centre on Monday night – the only European stop on the tour for her sales record-breaking book Becoming – was like winning a front-row seat as this remarkable reinvention happens, in real time.

Admittedly, the circumstances of this particular episode in Michelle Obama’s journey were partly not of her own making. The only time I have seen an even remotely comparable audience; at least a thousand black women in the 2,700 audience, a proliferation of natural and shaved hairstyles, bright ankara print, an intense concentration of, as I heard several people describing it, #BlackGirlMagic, was when the novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was being interviewed on stage at this very same venue last year.

This time Adichie was the one with a guest, Michelle Obama, and the audience was on their feet in a standing ovation before she had said a single word. Striding in, long, brilliant white jumpsuit flowing, to the sounds of Alicia Keys’s Girl On Fire – most were already emotional after a film featuring memories from family members, childhood photos, and iconic images from Barack Obama’s unforgettable 2008 victory.

Many people felt that that election – the very fact of this black first family in the White House – was the symbolism that, no matter what happened next, no one could take away. Michelle Obama drew so many British people to her in London on Monday night – 60,000 who applied to get tickets as well as the fraction of that number who were able to attend – because she came to represent a dignified, excellent, stable kind of black presence that resonated far beyond America’s borders.

But very little that she actually said while in office was as memorable, for me, as the things she revealed on Monday night. Like how Barack Obama, the man we were used to calling president, came along with a “swerve” that was at once exciting and hectic, and clearly needed to be managed.

The genuine sting of racist press reports, and how the chapter of Becoming recalling those, was the hardest one to write. She had a message for other black women, experiencing the same hostility, albeit on a lesser scale. “What happens to black women, is that we become a caricature,” she said. “Our style, our swag, it becomes co-opted, yet we are demonised. We are too loud. We are too everything.

“I experienced that. Not just from white men. But also women. Some of my first critics were women who accused me of emasculating my husband.”

And for those experiencing the self-doubt that she describes knowing well, she had the kind of reassuring insight that no one else could offer. “I have been at just about every table of power, corporate boards, non-profits, the UN. The secret is … they are not that smart! There are plenty of hardworking and talented people, but their ideas are no more exciting. They need our voices at the table to fix things.”

To hear Adichie asking these questions was at once a joy and a frustration. At one point the author – a superstar to many in her own right – asked a question about women of colour, then corrected herself to “black women”, prompting whoops from an audience palpably frustrated with always being an addendum to vague claims about diversity. There are so few opportunities to hear a black woman in a position of unparalleled visibility, having experienced the office of executive power. Michelle Obama is one of ours.

But it was a missed opportunity to hear a conversation entered firmly in the British context. The audience took matters into their own hands to translate a story about “bangs” – “we call it a “fringe!”. A disparaging comment about Kenya, from Adichie, who is Nigerian, sent an awkward vibe through the air. I felt there were too few questions about Donald Trump, about self-censorship and making oneself palatable to white voters, about the experience of scrutiny, power and agency. I felt there were too many questions about peanut butter and fashion.

Not that these areas of questioning aren’t interlinked. Obama was candid about the politicisation of her body, and the way that she chose to dress. “You have to get this balance,” she said. “Looking expensive without looking too out of touch, without looking not too cheap.”

The British press was singled out for its obsession with her outfits. “Every report started with what I was wearing,” Obama lamented, of one particular trip to London. “We were trying to get some really substantive stuff done, it’s incredibly frustrating.”

I would have liked to unpick further the questions of identity and belonging with which I suspect the audience would have found so much common ground. “A lot of African Americans have this idealised view of the ‘Motherland’, that when we go we are going to have this cultural connection,” Obama said. “And there are similarities. But there are a lot of differences too, and that is very jarring – because until then you think that if it all goes wrong in America you can just go home! And then you realise how American you are.”

To be proud of one’s African heritage, but to have had all one’s social conditioning in a country that has constructed itself as the opposite of Africa, is something to which I heavily relate.

Obama was generous in her thoughts about love (“Love doesn’t form somebody, you have to choose somebody who is already formed, or who is unformed in ways you can live with), in how to talk to your children about sex, in how fear holds people back. And it sparked all kinds of magic; Meghan Markle, also in the audience, seen laughing hysterically at Obama’s comments about the Queen, (“she was like ‘oh this protocol stuff is all rubbish, just get in the car’”), and watching the sign-language interpreters explaining how Adichie swooned over Michelle’s and Barack’s first kiss was something that had to be seen to be believed.

I met Obama afterwards, and she stroked my back with the affection of a favourite auntie while she told me calmly, and confidently – with no hint at exhaustion despite having spoken to dozens, maybe hundreds of people already that day – what we as black women need to do. But even were it not for that, having been in the audience and witnessed the transformation of this woman – who at 55 seems stronger and more magnetic than ever before, revelling in saying things she never used to be able to say – was an experience that no one who witnessed it will forget.

• Afua Hirsch is a Guardian columnist

• This article was amended on 5 December 2018 to correct the spelling of Adiche to Adichie.


Afua Hirsch

The GuardianTramp

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