CLEVELAND — Michelle Obama is still becoming, and she thinks the country is still becoming, too.
"We have more chapters to go,” she said. “So, we can't give up on us because we're not there yet.”
The former first lady spoke about her path from the South Side of Chicago to the White House, balancing work, her marriage and raising two daughters with a sense of normalcy during a stop on the book tour for her memoir, “Becoming,” at KeyBank State Theatre in Cleveland’s Playhouse Square on Saturday night.
The wide-ranging, 90-minute conversation, moderated by chef and former “The Chew” co-host Carla Hall, covered life on the campaign trail, including her first campaign event, when she took off her high heels talking to people in someone’s backyard in Iowa; the whirlwind moves in and out of the White House, which she called "the people's house,” eight years apart; the role of fashion in politics; and becoming the first black first family.
“The bar was just very different for us,” she said.
“Becoming” is currently No. 1 in hardcover nonfiction on The New York Times’ best-seller list. Since its November release, the book has spent 17 weeks on the list and has sold more than 6 million units in all formats and editions in the U.S. and Canada, according to a news release.
Obama said she wanted to be real in her book, sharing stories of marriage counseling and miscarriages to show readers she's a real person, just like them, someone who grew up poor — but happy —on the South Side of Chicago.
“Those were the sights and the smells and the sounds that made me who I am,” Obama said. “The White House was kind of like the dot on the ‘i,’ but the ‘i’ was all the other stuff, and so it was important to share that.”
The 3,200-seat theater was filled to capacity Saturday night, with the crowd laughing along with Obama’s frequent jokes.
Food and health
With Hall moderating the conversation, the discussion, of course, included food, from how Obama decided what meals to serve visiting foreign dignitaries to a trip to the doctor for one of her daughters, during which she found out her body mass index was off. That inspired her to lead her family to eat healthier and eventually culminated in her “Let’s Move!” initiative to combat childhood obesity.
As a working mom on the campaign trail, Obama said she didn't have time to cook, and the family ate out often. She started working with chef Sam Kass to go through their pantry and learn about what was healthy and what wasn’t — like the girls’ favorite boxed macaroni and cheese.
"I didn't know that those choices were affecting my kids' health,” said Obama, who said she wanted to share the choices she made for her family with other families. “What I found and what I found in myself was that I would do for my kids what maybe I wouldn't do for myself.”
During Saturday’s talk, Obama only mentioned the Trumps a few times by name, when she talked about moving out of the White House. But the former first lady made a few jabs at the sitting president, asking, “Who is to say who is more American?” and noting fabrications about Barack Obama being a terrorist or not born in the U.S.
“That stirs up a lot of crazy people, which is why I'm still angry with the guy now,” she said, drawing applause and cheers from the crowd.
After her husband’s eight-year presidency, their lives haven’t returned to normal. She still has a security detail, and she can’t just go on a Target run.
Obama also said she’ll never run for political office, calling it a “tough thing” that’s not for her.
“Sadly, we are in such a divisive place when it comes to politics that if you put an R or D by your name, then automatically, half the country feels like they just can't listen to you or trust you,” she said.
But she encouraged young people to find their passion, push through fear and not quit during changes. She also encouraged people to share their stories and believe in themselves and their stories, regardless of their backgrounds.
“I think that that's the job of becoming,” she said. “That's the journey of figuring out what your path is, because there's no one right way or one wrong way to do this thing called life.”
Fans of first lady
Sisters Marilyn Owens, 85, of Wellington, and Juanita Francis-Mastin, 71, of Lorain, were in line early to see Obama. Francis-Mastin brought her copy of “Becoming” with her — she got it for Christmas but hasn’t had the chance to start reading it.
“Who's more important in this world than her and her husband?" Owens said. “Who wouldn’t want to be her?”
Kareemah Rose, 43, of Maple Heights, leader of a Cleveland Girl Scout troop, said Obama donated 10 tickets to the Girl Scouts of Northeast Ohio so she, two other adults and seven Girl Scouts could attend Saturday’s talk.
Girl Scouts board member Emani Jackson, 16, of Cleveland, also brought a copy of “Becoming” with her. She’s only on Chapter 4, but she already thinks it’s “really amazing.” The nine-year Girl Scouts member was looking forward to hearing the words of Obama’s story directly instead of reading them on a page.
Rose said she hoped her Girl Scouts, who have all been members for four or more years, learned about leadership and empowerment from Obama’s talk.
“To realize that anything they put their mind to, they can do," Rose said. "And the sky's the limit."
Beacon Journal reporter Emily Mills can be reached at 330-996-3334, firstname.lastname@example.org and @EmilyMills818.