“Yes I’m black. Yes I’m a woman. Yes I grew up working-class. How dare someone say I don’t love my country, that I don’t belong.”
Those words rang out in Chicago’s United Center Stadium as thousands of black women and girls listened to former first lady Michelle Obama discuss her life before and during her years in the White House.
After spending eight years as the first lady and two years working on her just-published memoir, Becoming, Michelle Obama returned to her hometown as a superstar, ready to launch her multi-city book tour with what was billed as an “intimate conversation” with fellow Chicago sister Oprah Winfrey.
Before she became first lady and a household name, however, Obama was a regular girl from the South Side, just like me. Growing up, we were taught to think beyond our circumstances and believe that we deserved the best. We were encouraged to enter competitive educational and professional worlds that had not been open to our parents.
Outside of our neighborhoods and social circles, however, we were met with attitudes that we were “exceptions,” not the norm. We learned to ignore or overcome the implication that black people had negative attributes, and we believed in ourselves, nurtured each other and excelled anyway. Michelle Obama did all that, ascended beyond the stereotypes and become a global role model.
She has become an affirmation of the beauty, talent and strength for all African American women in Chicago and beyond.
It was obvious sitting in the stadium that many people are still inspired by her. The book launch had the feel of a major concert. Throngs of people (mostly women of all different ages and ethnicities) stood in long lines to buy books and souvenirs, including T-shirts, keychains, mugs, keychains and pens. Banners of some of Obama’s quotes were placed throughout, and people took pictures of themselves next to them while holding her book.
Obama made it clear that she wrote her book to tell her own story in her own way. She, like a lot of us from predominantly black neighborhoods, seems to feel a need to help people understand that there are loving, nuclear, hard-working families on the South Side and throughout Chicago.
She talked about how her parents encouraged her and her brother Craig to believe in and express themselves. She described how her mother fought for her to receive a fair education in her neighborhood school as the demographics changed from multiracial to mostly black. She emphasized that there is community and excellence that emerges from these predominantly black sections of Chicago and similar communities around the country.
“Michelle Obama is a 'homegirl' who believed she could achieve great things and has become a multi-millionaire, international sensation and global icon.”
These values of believing in yourself, challenging yourself, stepping out of your comfort zone and believing that you belong wherever you want emerged as the strongest messages from Obama’s book launch event.
Michelle Obama attended public schools in Chicago, then went on to Princeton and Harvard law. She, like so many of us who hail from the same racial and economic background, was the first generation to attend any college or the Ivy League. She was a trailblazer in her own right.
Michelle Obama came from a community full of people who had dreams for their children to have better lives than they did. They fought for their children to get the best educations possible and to strive for professional opportunities that were out of reach for many in our parents’ and grandparents’ generations.
“Obama became a beacon of hope for black women in America.”
The black community has always known there are thousands of smart, talented, ambitious and accomplished people like Michelle Obama. It just seemed like some people outside of our community could not imagine that as a truth.
“The world has this perspective that somehow Barack and Michelle Obama are different, that we’re unique. And we’re not. You just haven’t seen us before,” she said in an interview a few years ago.
She’s right, of course. Many other African American women have walked a similar path. There are plenty of lesser-known black women who are loving mothers and devoted wives, who work hard, take care of themselves and their communities. These women have gone on to contribute to our country in professions that include doctors, lawyers, engineers, civil servants, dentists, business executives, entertainers, and educators.
But none have the same visibility or impact of Michelle Obama.
She has ascended to a position where she can make an impact on the entire globe. As first lady, she’s been on the front lines facing ridicule, death threats, lies and trauma. Yet she endured and became a beacon of hope for those of us dealing with our own versions of insults and attempts to marginalize us as black women in America.
And she continues to do so outside of her former role. Obama has not forgotten who she is. She celebrates it and encourages other black women to do the same, and to celebrate where they are and where they come from.
Michelle Obama is a “homegirl” who believed she could achieve great things and has become a multi-millionaire, international sensation and global icon. She comes from a community of hard-working, hopeful, forward-thinking people who nurtured and believed in her. She is taking the values and sense of thinking beyond your circumstances that she experienced on the South Side of Chicago and is making an impact on millions all around the world.
Michelle Duster is an author, speaker, and writing professor at Columbia College Chicago. She has written, published and contributed to a total of nine books, including Michelle Obama’s Impact on African American Women and Girls.
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