Updated: Nov 12, 2020
Part 3 of a special 3 part feature on Michelle Obama’s historic conversation with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in London: how we celebrated, media coverage and the wider impacts.
One week on from the Conversation of the Century and the stardust has barely settled. The book tour has been temporarily halted, due to the affairs of state, but there's still a buzz in the air. Time to take a peek into the media features on the event. I jest, the reportage has been flung in all our faces, but I don’t mind one bit. Fashion, Intellect, Literature, Twitter explosions, discussions on race and links with the British Royal Family. What’s not to welcome in the Connected cultures world? A seemingly unprecedented event of transatlantic wonder and joy, moderated by an esteemed Nigerian, along with a healthy dose of social realism and a call for all us to go higher.
At the Southbank Centre (photo: Jack Taylor via the Evening Standard)
I like to think we were welcoming one of our own, two of our own even. We were. No surprise there. Michelle Obama and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie are almost universally welcome and always seem to have a smile and say the right thing. Tough, challenging things sometimes, too, wherever they go.
Sometimes we speak back to them. There is normally at least one person, usually a man, with rather more ignorance than judgement, likely to say the wrong thing. I had been cringing at the thought of the one who would be foolish enough to ask
“How do you manage to juggle motherhood with a career?”
This would inevitably have resulted in a double barrel blast from two women who are known for not taking any nonsense. Thankfully, in this regard, there was no time set aside for questions from the floor. Just ninety minutes on fascinating stage-time verbal interaction.
Ready to knock back any questions that needed challenging
Now, let's open up the coverage. Here's how the media reacted, along with the rest of us.
1. The Evening Standard
Still the London newspaper, with a thriving Arts section, despite changes in recent times including making the paper free and appointing George Osborne as editor. In print and online, the Standard provided extensive coverage. The paper presented everything we needed to know about her book tour, including much attention on the former First Lady's wardrobe, the music playlist for the build-up in the Royal Festival Hall on the night, quotes from the conversation, and a delve into Twitter to see the instant popular reaction.
The words picked out included “utterly inspirational”, “phenomenal”, “captivated”, “enraptured”, “wise and beautiful” and “empowering”. When you have citizen journalism like this, reporting becomes so much easier.
On the former First Lady's fashion sense, the Standard picked out her “fashion, flared trousers and best dressed moments” and suggested more than a hint of power dressing on tour, if not on stage. Michelle shares her love of fashion and glamour with Chimamanda, though there's no evidence yet of this extending to a Michelle Obama cosmetics collection to match Chimamanda's Boots Number 7 range.
On an intellectual note, we are reminded that you can be smart in more ways than one:
“The former First Lady has always been a believer that being highly educated and having an interest in high fashion doesn't have to be mutually exclusive”.
On stage in Philadelphia
The paper even managed to squeeze in talk of a secret rendezvous with Meghan Markle, the other big female star of this celebrity rich year. The Duchess of Sussex held a “power meeting” with Michelle Obama in London to discuss
"supporting and empowering women across cultures and communities".
No need for secrecy there.
Michelle Obama with Meghan Markle (R)
Just as the Evening Standard told us, everything we needed to know, and then some.
2. The Guardian
The most striking coverage in the Guardian came from fashion correspondent Jess Cartner-Morley, who went beyond clothes in talking about Michelle Obama’s image and influence, never straying far from the contrast between black and wide. It has been noticeable for a long time that Michelle likes wearing white outfits. They present a soft, welcoming, approachable image, and at the same time make her stand out.
Her London get up seems to have impressed many, but to me it was a disappointing cross between a trouser suit and a dress. Presentable and flowing to a degree though rather shapeless and confused. But I’m getting out of my depth here.
Back to Cartner-Morley and the more important social concerns. The journalist links the colour white with the virtue of grace, and with racial implications. She quote’s Michelle Obama’s words from Becoming, on becoming the first black first lady:
“If there was a presumed grace assigned to my white predecessors, I knew it wasn’t likely to be the same for me…My grace would need to be earned. Grace is a virtue and a code of honour, but it is also an aesthetic”.
From this, it seems Michelle was convinced she had to appear a certain way, in a certain dress colour, to influence how people reacted to her and how she felt herself in the extraordinarily exposed position in which she found herself. Cartner-Morley likens this to the challenge faced by Princess Diana in the UK:
“Diana did something similar in bringing a tactile, human warmth of tone to the British royal family."
And yet, Michelle, as Diana did, has frequently appeared in black outfits. For both power-dressing and aesthetic reasons, as well as to show that she is not prepared to take too much nonsense. Not obliged to confine her wardrobe to the oppressive limitations of others.
Power dressing (?)
At the Lower East Side Club (Getty Images)
Princess Diana, in many ways a kindred spirit (Getty Images)
3. The Southbank Centre
The morning after the event, Ted Hodgkinson, Head of Literature and Spoken Word at the Southbank Centre, posted a happy picture of himself bursting with pride, standing next to the moderator for the event. The other amazing woman on stage. He rightfully described Chimamanda as a “superstar”.
Ted Hodgkinson (L) with Chimamanda
(photo via @TeditorTed's Twitter feed)
Dare I say this, but Ted’s Twitter profile picture, and even this one, makes him look so smug you almost want to punch him! Sorry Ted, I really don’t! I’m just a tad envious. And besides, who wouldn't be a tiny bit pleased to be in a photo with Chimamanda? It must have been wonderful indeed to welcome her back to this great cultural centre. And as you say,
“Who better to draw out Michelle Obama’s extraordinary story than a novelist of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s insight, wit and warmth. #IAmBecoming”.
4. The wider Twitter-sphere
Twitter is rarely quiet and never very far away from the big experiences. Here’s another sample, picked out at random and remarkably befitting of this historic occasion:
“It was the literary equivalent of a Beyoncé concert, if the supporting act was the angel apparition of Dr Maya Angelou" @yomiadegoke for @i_D magazine on @MichelleObama’s conversation with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie @penguinlive"
As we’re still talking about celebrities, the audience must have been packed with stars. Those present who expressed themselves on Twitter included Olympic double gold-medallist Dame Kelly Holmes, Dawn Butler MP and writers Malorie Blackman, Afua Hirsch and Bernardine Evaristo. All these are people who normally inspire others, getting inspired here themselves. No wonder then, that ordinary people could not get tickets.
There were some non-famous members of the public in the venue, however. And one of them posted this brilliant tweet:
“Wise and beautiful words of @MichelleObama - empowering, profound and so human storytelling. And that comic streak! Kudos to @ChimamandaReal for great questions. And to @southbankcentre for the stage. @YesPleaseNot”
Nb – Chimananda doesn’t use twitter – but the sentiments expressed are just right.
Apologies if you’re actually a celebrity yourself @YesPleaseNot, but I don’t recognise you from your Twitter handle!
So this is what the golden tickets look like. Complimentary of course
(photo via @LeahSinclairr)
5. The BBC
There was inevitably lots of mainstream news coverage by the BBC, but here let’s focus on one statement they, among many media channels, picked up on. Impostor syndrome.
Explaining that things aren't always as they seem
The BBC reported this when reporting Obama’s pre-Southbank visit to Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School, an all-girls school in north London that she had visited in 2009.
Asked how she felt to be seen as a "symbol of hope", Mrs Obama told students:
"I still have a little [bit of] impostor syndrome, it never goes away, that you're actually listening to me.
"It doesn't go away, that feeling that you shouldn't take me that seriously. What do I know? I share that with you because we all have doubts in our abilities, about our power and what that power is.
Michelle Obama then elaborated about responsibility and accountability for what she says. Two words that seem to have been abandoned by those in positions of actual political power of both sides of the Atlantic. We know who the impostors are, and Michelle Obama is not one of them.
6. New York Times
The Americans have been saving their best ink and online features for the US dates of the tour, of course. So it was perhaps no surprise not to find much on the European tour in the US press. However, I did find a beautiful illustration of the former First Lady by Jillian Tamaki to go with the NYT’s short interview “By the Book”, in which the authoress of Becoming was asked who and what she reads. Her answers include:
“Educated,” by Tara Westover; “An American Marriage,” by Tayari Jones; “Exit West,” by Mohsin Hamid; “White Teeth,” by Zadie Smith, and Ann Patchett’s “Commonwealth.”
Michelle also mentioned her autographed copy of Nelson Mandela’s "Conversations With Myself.”
Illustration by Jillian Tamaki (New York Times)
7. Bella Naija
One of my go-to media outlets for events involving Chimamanda. But for once, the coverage here was disappointingly sparse.
Bella Naija carried the standard set of photographs, including a close-up of Chimamanda, and captioned each one with the same words announcing that:
“The former First Lady’s memoir titled ‘Becoming’ has become the best-selling book in the US for 2018 according to figures released by her publisher Penguin Random House.”
Breaking publishing records
The content was otherwise limited to brief reference to Michelle Obama’s role of First Lady, and her ongoing activities since leaving the White House. Still, I dare say the British press would not go overboard about a similar event in Nigeria. I wonder, incidentally, if Chimamanda has asked Michelle to visit Nigeria, or even to do an African tour in the near future.
8. London School Children
Michelle Obama first visited North London secondary school Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School in Islington in 2009. Hugs all round, both then and now in 2018. Different pupils of course, but a lovely, ongoing connection. From south of the River Thames, Lambeth school children also attended the Southbank event.
With EGA pupils (photo via Michelle Obama's Twitter feed)
The lucky group included pupils from Elmgreen School in Tulse Hill. As reported via Huffington Post, looking forward to the event, Maryam, 18, said:
“This is better than the Olympics, I’m so excited.”
16 year old Anna expanded expanded on this.
“Seeing Michelle hold her own next to Barack was really significant. I think we’ll look back and think, wow, she really set the bar for generations to come…It inspires me to see such possibility. I think a lot of people don’t feel empowered enough to achieve but she’s shown what you can do when you work hard and have the power of self-belief.”
Much delight and inspiration for girls, then. And one final quote, this time from Jesse, a 15 year old school boy:
“She’s 100% a good role model for me,” he says. “This is about equality.”
These young people are a great source of inspiration too.
9. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie herself
It is rare to get direct quotes from Chimamanda following up events. Rather than soundbites, she tends to save her thoughts for essay, stories and subsequent public speaking engagements. No Twitter account. Instagram, yes, but that tends to be more for posts showing her latest outfits. There is just one Southbank related photo on Instagram, where she refers to suit, hair and make-up. This has been met by an impressive 36,70 likes.
Image via Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Instagram feed
It could be that Chimamanda, or her agent, has posted more on this on Facebook, but I’m still on sabbatical from this portal. Not sure when if ever I’ll reactivate my account.
For now, I think we can all tell from all the photographs and reviews everywhere else how much she relished the occasion. Her smile goes a long way.
10. Michelle Obama herself
It’s clear the feelings generated by her school visit were mutual. Her invitation to 300 pupils to attend the event was a token, in the great scheme of things, but a token of genuine kindness as well as a sign to all of us that we need to encourage and listen to our young people. To govern and to look after the world for them, and to prepare for them to take over when their time comes.
There have been no subsequent London specific tweets by Michelle. So maybe she’s not quite as in love with London and the UK as we are with her! Still an American girl at heart, and why not? She’s also been caught up in US political celebrations and protocols. So again, her homeland comes first.
American at heart
But, as with Chimamanda, we know from all the photos and smiles that Michelle had a joyful and rewarding time here, and the affection is heartfelt on both sides. Come back soon!
And so it seems that millions of us in the UK are enchanted and energised by the former First Lady and what she represents. The hope that inspires us all. The strength to make things happen. This event has given us a reminder to reflect on how we may become better people ourselves. Always a good idea. Becoming is a book of memoirs but the tone is also forward-looking and encourages ongoing, positive change.
As exhibited in the media, online, in print, everywhere, so many people want a piece of her. A photograph, an experience, a quote, maybe a dream.
We have maxed out and overloaded on her visit. And we still want more. In time, her own state visit, perhaps. That’s not asking too much, surely? Should that happen, it would be even harder to get close to her, surrounded by secret service agents. For now, let’s enjoy the moment. Read the book. And celebrate a vibrant and inspirational woman of grace, wisdom and stature.
© Eddie Hewitt 2018
See Part 1 of the Connected Cultures feature on Michelle Obama in conversation with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Becoming Excited
See part 2 of the Connected Cultures feature on Michelle Obama in conversation with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Becoming Disconcerted
The Evening Standard
The Guardian, Jess Cartner-Morley
New York Times
School Children, via Huffington Post