Considering she is the first black First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama does not talk a lot about race.
Though a descendant of slaves and spouse of the first African American US president, Obama is more likely to opine on healthy eating than controversial racial divides.
But, by design or default, her trip this week to South Africa has brought the issue to the forefront of the diplomatic agenda, Reuters reports.
On her second official solo trip abroad, Obama confronted the remnants of the racial discrimination system known as apartheid, highlighted the struggles of the U.S. civil rights movement, and answered questions about her role as a high profile African American woman.
The first lady and her husband, President Barack Obama, tried hard to transcend race during his 2008 presidential campaign. His positions on the economy, U.S.-led war in Iraq, and healthcare reform trumped, they hoped, any tendency among voters to focus on the historic nature of his White House bid.
In Africa, however, Michelle Obama has been welcomed as the daughter of a continent she has only visited a handful of times, and interest is high in her unique position as a black presidential spouse and leader in her own right.
“Do you still feel pressure being the first African American first lady?” a young student asked Mrs. Obama at a forum on Thursday at the University of Cape Town.
At first Obama didn’t catch the question.
“Do I feel –” she prompted back.
“The pressure,” the student responded.
“Pressure, oh, the pressure. I thought you said the ‘pleasure’,” Obama said, to laughter.
“I don’t know if I feel pressure. But I feel deep, deep responsibility. So I guess in a sense there is pressure, because I don’t want to let people down.”
The attentive, youthful audience did not appear the least bit let down.
“I didn’t necessarily run for office. I was actually trying to talk my husband out of running for office,” she continued, again to laughter.
“But now that we’re here, I want to be good because this is a big job, and it’s a big, bright light. And you don’t want to waste it.”
Not wasting that “light” has meant, for the first lady, focussing on U.S. domestic issues such as combating childhood obesity and helping military families. Other than trips with the president, outreach on her own abroad has been limited.
But aides said she herself chose South Africa for her second official solo foreign trip. And doing that meant dealing head-on with race.
Which she did. In a well-received speech in Johannesburg, Obama touched on the struggle for racial equality in her own country as well as South Africa. She also met, to her delight, with Nelson Mandela, the former South African president and revered anti-apartheid activist.
Asked for her take on the state of racial relations in the United States, Obama seemed circumspect.
“I think we’ve grown. We have definitely grown,” she said in a joint interview with four reporters travelling with her on the week-long trip.
“Who can predict how long it will take for us to continue to talk through these things and feel through them? But we keep moving. There is no point at which I felt we’ve gone backwards…It’s just been a gradual progression. And sometimes it feels too slow, but it’s movement.”
Obama seemed somewhat less eager to emphasise her own background.
Does she feel a kinship with Africa?
“Absolutely, yeah,” she said in the interview, before comparing that to the feeling she had in Moneygall, Ireland, where the president met a distant cousin in May.
“I absolutely feel that connection here. And I wasn’t surprised by it. I absolutely felt that connection in Moneygall (and was) a little more surprised by it.”
Thousands of people lined the main street of tiny Moneygall last month, welcoming the Obamas as if they were long lost relatives. The president’s mother, who was white, had Irish ancestry. His father was Kenyan.
“The love, the warmth, the connection, the excitement. That was family, too. And that’s what I want my kids to understand — that your family is Granny in Kisumu, but it’s also your cousin in Moneygall. That is your history. That is really the American history.”
Audiences in Johannesburg and Cape Town found the first lady’s history and success inspiring, a reception that gratified White House aides, who had planned the trip for months.
“As a young black woman, I see her as a role model,” said Nozi Samela, 26, in Cape Town, adding that it was Obama’s work – not necessarily her race – that generated admiration.
“She has taken time to come to the communities, to see the people from the ground level, and actually talk to them, and hear what the issues they face are. I see her as a role model.”
Mamphela Ramphele, a former anti-apartheid activist who moderated Obama’s discussion with students at the university, said the first lady rose above skin colour and gender.
“To have someone like her who is successful in her own right and represents the transcendence of barriers of race, of class, of gender in the U.S. coming here and engaging in such a human way… that touches the hearts of ordinary people,” Ramphele said in an interview.