Steering well clear of politics, Michelle Obama offered reflections on her life, family and the time she spent in the White House at the American Library Association’s national conference in New Orleans on Friday.
The former first lady, in a talk before thousands of attendees at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, discussed growing up in a blue-collar family in Chicago, her experiences as first lady and the difficult choices that come from trying to balance a career and a family.
She spoke with Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden. The first woman and the first African-American to hold the post, Hayden was nominated by President Barack Obama in 2016.
The talk stayed away from explicit discussion of national politics, instead focusing on the personal experiences that form the basis of Obama's memoir, “Becoming,” which will be released this fall.
“If I were to describe the book, it’s a rehumanization effort because for me, a black woman from a working-class background, to have the opportunity to tell her story is interestingly rare,” Obama said.
“I think there’s so many people who feel like they don’t exist because their stories aren’t told. … We feel like there are only a handful of stories that make you a true American, and if you don’t fall into that narrow line you don’t belong,” she said.
At times, Obama delved into the difficult decisions and compromises that came with the change from being a successful woman in her own right — she was a lawyer and held various jobs, including vice president for community and external affairs at the University of Chicago Hospitals — to being seen mainly as the wife of Barack Obama.
The transition was not easy, she said.
“I felt myself becoming a spouse,” Obama said. “I went from becoming an executive to becoming a spouse. Where the first thing people would talk about is what shoes I’m wearing, and I was like, ‘No, no, you’re not talking about my shoes.’ "
“You find yourself talking about, ‘Is it fair that I’m on his rocket ship ride when I could have one, too?” she said.
Obama said she and her family knew the significance of being the first black presidential family and felt the weight of living up to that historic role.
“We were measured by a different yardstick,” she said. “Making mistakes was not an option for us. We had to be good — no, we had to be outstanding at everything we did. … When you’re the first, you’re laying down the foundation for others to follow.”
She also touched on the importance of reading and libraries to the former first family and the need to treat all children as important.
“As you librarians know, you’re working in the communities and seeing these kids coming to your doors with such promise, and they just want someone to love them. They want someone to tell them they’re OK,” Obama said. “I always thought that this is the one interaction that could change a kid’s life. This one hug, this one 'You are worth it.' ”
Mayor LaToya Cantrell, addressing the convention before Obama’s speech, said the American Library Association has a special place in the history of New Orleans.
In 2006, the group put on the first major convention the city had seen since Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, even as other organizations were canceling their local meetings. That decision was seen as key to restoring confidence that New Orleans would be able to continue hosting such events in the future.
Cantrell also recalled her work as a community organizer in Broadmoor after the storm to discuss one of her favorite achievements, the construction of the Rosa F. Keller Library and Community Center, and its importance to the neighborhood’s recovery.
“We knew that libraries are not just about books; it’s about community,” Cantrell said. “We share information and we give information and we learn and have access to technology and know we can address the disparities that exist in our communities by visiting our libraries.”