CULTURE & ARTS

16 Writers Reflect On The Revolutionary Meaning Of Michelle Obama

"Many of us saw a Black woman to be admired. A Black woman to be trusted. There it is.”

In her forward to Veronica Chambers’ The Meaning of Michelle, filmmaker Ava DuVernay describes a historic scene. In the center of her story is, of course, Michelle Obama, the first lady who’s spent two terms standing beside and, in some ways, rocketing past her husband, President Barack Obama. On the particular day DuVernay chose to remember, Michelle ― in a deep red shift dress ― was touring her then-future home for the first time.

“Damn being demure! The sight of her striding up the White House steps was a transformative image to behold,” DuVernay writes. “In one wardrobe choice, this stellar sister brought a breath of fresh air to the hallowed halls of the world’s most famous residence [...] In that one photo op, Michelle infused the image of the First Lady with pride, panache and polish. Many of us saw a woman to be admired. A woman to be trusted.”

“Scratch that,” she adds. “Many of us saw a Black woman to be admired. A Black woman to be trusted. There it is.”

The Meaning of Michelle, edited by Mama’s Girl author Chambers, is a collection of stories dedicated to the iconic first lady’s legacy. With essays from Roxane Gay, Tanisha C. Ford, Marcus Samuelsson, Phillipa Soo, Rebecca Carroll, Sarah Lewis and more, the book is meant to stand as a parting gift to Michelle, set to leave office a mere weeks after the book’s publication in January. The 16 writers cover everything from representational justice to fashion to stereotypes related to race and marriage to the “unapologetic power of blackness.”

For many of these authors, the allure of Michelle is both academic and personal, a draw so intimately connected to identities of womanhood, motherhood, blackness and beyond that her influence is rarely described without the object “us.” She stirs us, provokes us, leads us, emboldens us, so many write. Her achievements can be our achievements, so many intone; she is both singular and a reflection of a rising tide of women leaders. “Michelle!” DuVernay proclaims. “That name now carries a whole world of meaning.”

In honor of Michelle’s birthday on Jan. 17, and the final week of her eight-year run as first lady, here are excerpts from the 16 authors in Chambers’ collection. Together, they make up an ever-evolving definition of Michelle Obama:

Veronica Chambers on Michelle’s intimacy:

“There’s an intimacy we felt with her from the beginning. The mainstream media seemed flummoxed by her lack of political posturing: Is she on board with this whole political spouse thing? do the Obamas want it (meaning the presidency) badly enough? But it was that very same lack of fake warmth and glossed-over royal waves that let us, in the Black community, know that she was real, and this is what won our affection.”

She’s given us permission to be ourselves, on a national stage, to be proud of our Blackness, our realness, our humble beginnings, our regular-ness, our greatness. Benilde Little

Benilde Little on Michelle’s pride:

“Michelle resonates for us on a deeply personal level. She’s given us permission to be ourselves, on a national stage, to be proud of our Blackness, our realness, our humble beginnings, our regular-ness, our greatness. To not be perfect and to not even have that as a goal, because she’s smart enough to understand that perfection is its own prison.”

Damon Young on Michelle’s acceptance:

“I believe that defense of Michelle helped many of us acknowledge, accept, confront, and attempt to alter some of the more unsavory and unflattering latent beliefs and sub-conscious feelings we possessed about our skin and our noses and our eyes and our hair. It’s a legacy I’m amazed by when I think of kids like my 9-year-old niece and 11-year-old nephew.”

It's easier to be brave in our era when possibility is modeled the way that that couple has. Alicia Hall Moran

Alicia Hall Moran (in conversation with Jason Moran) on Michelle’s place in history:

“She has achieved what we Black people have really taken personally, what Maya Angelou called ‘the dream of the slave.’ It makes living in a contemporary society very easy. It’s easier to be brave in our era when possibility is modeled the way that that couple has.”

Brittney Cooper on Michelle and Beyoncé’s relationship:

“Both Michelle and Beyoncé are actively remixing the terms upon which Black womanhood has been cast. The denial of the right to ladyhood that has shaped Black women’s lives since the advent of slavery can no longer proceed unchecked into the twenty-first century.”

Why should [Michelle] be apologetic? Come to think of it, why should I? Ylonda Gault Caviness

Ylonda Gault Caviness on Michelle’s fearlessness:

“Why should she be apologetic? Come to think of it, why should I? Michelle did not come to play. Yes, she is proud in her role as Mrs. Obama and, rightly so, she gives Barack his propers all day long, loving and supporting his candidacy. But she never set out to function as a mere prop to his ― or anyone else’s ― agenda.”

Chirlane McCray on Michelle’s self-definition:

“When First Lady Obama said her top priority was to serve as mom-in-chief, she was telling us that her family comes first. [...] I have tremendous respect for how she defined herself, right from the beginning, defined her role before there was too much speculation about what she would do.”

I have tremendous respect for how she defined herself, right from the beginning. Chirlane McCray

Cathi Hanauer on identifying with Michelle:

“I wouldn’t be surprised if someone suggested I’m about as unlike Michelle Obama as two women roughly the same age with two children can be. Yet in one way ― and it’s an important one ― I really identify with Michelle. And that’s this: She and I have both had to learn to be The Wife.”

Tiffany Dufu on Michelle’s professional success:

“Michelle Obama is only the third [First Lady] to have a professional or graduate degree, public evidence of intellectual prowess and independence, and to have balanced her own high-profile career with her private role as wife and mother. She, along with Hillary Clinton, charted a path that allows future first ladies to do it their way. Her polarity inspires all of us to break the mold.”

She, along with Hillary Clinton, charted a path that allows future first ladies to do it their way. Tiffany Dufu

Tanisha C. Ford on Michelle as “us”:

“We, as Black women, respected and admired how she lived between two tensions: the stature and visibility of the office of First Lady and the disturbing social responses to her Black womanness. [...] Even though her platform was larger than ours, her daily routine ― with her team of secret service agents who clocked and coordinated her every move ― different than ours, she was us. Even if she was the First Lady, first and foremost, she was a Black woman.”

Marcus Samuelsson on Michelle’s relevance:

“It’s an amazing achievement, for her to be so relevant in these conversations, whether it’s talking about Obamacare or talking about New York Fashion Week or kids’ food. Always aware that, no matter what she says, she’s speaking to the world. She is putting something out there to the world that the world has never seen before.”

Authenticity is not an achievement. Yet authenticity doest take effort if you are upending centuries of history with your mere presence. Sarah Lewis

Sarah Lewis on Michelle’s authenticity:

“Authenticity is not an achievement. Yet authenticity does take effort if you are upending centuries of history with your mere presence. It takes work to let people stare, wonder, probe and prod to determine the veracity of your life.”

Karen Hill Anton on Michelle’s determination:

“Michelle, what I really like about you is that you did not settle for an assigned role. I imagine you saw early on the potential of the position of First Lady, and determined to use it to full advantage. I guess you also saw the risks, but went for it anyhow. Wow.”

She is a civil disruptor with a radical kind of benevolence. Rebecca Carroll

Rebecca Carroll on Michelle as a politician:

“She is a civil disruptor with a radical kind of benevolence. She is focused and silly, compelling and humble. It would all be an act if it wasn’t. And while some might argue that this is precisely what politicians do and who they are ― polished, well prepared, articulate, unflappable ― Michelle Obama is not so much a politician as she is a manifestor; the hyper spectacular incarnation of a Black woman unbound.” 

Phillipa Soo on Michelle’s ability to bring people together:

“I could tell just from watching Mrs. Obama that she has such an awareness of what it means to bring people together, how important that is. We can all be doing our separate things amazingly, but when you bring groups together the ways she does, it can actually create something better than you could have imagined.”

I hope Michelle Obama does whatever her heart most desires when her husband's presidency ends, but I would love to see her make space for black girls and women in the public sphere. Roxane Gay

Roxane Gay on Michelle’s future:

“I hope Michelle Obama does whatever her heart most desires when her husband’s presidency ends, but I would love to see her make space for black girls and women in the public sphere and the public imagination. In a perfect world, she might create and lead a robust and well-funded organization dedicated to black girls and women, one that implements a set of initiatives that encourage black girls and women to flourish.”

The Meaning of Michelle, published by St. Martin’s Press, is available on Amazon or at your local bookstore.

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BEFORE YOU GO

PHOTO GALLERY
Michelle Obama's 2016 Style
CONVERSATIONS