When I was a little girl, I never dreamed that in my lifetime we’d have a Black president, let alone an African-American first lady. But if I did (and I wish I did), I’d wonder what she would be like. Would she wear pearls like the others? Could she convey both empathy and strength standing alongside her husband on the world’s biggest stages? Would I relate to her?
In the new biography, Michelle Obama: A Life (out April 7), author Peter Slevin tells a nuanced story of “the most unlikely first lady in modern American history.” He traces through First Lady Michelle Obama's working-class upbringing on Chicago’s South Side, the racism she faced at Princeton University and Harvard Law School, raising children in the spotlight and how she's managed life inside (and outside) the walls of the White House. The book also gives an in-depth look at the context of race and gender in Mrs. Obama’s personal story and how they each motivated her over the years.
It’s a book I’d encourage you all to read for its lessons on what excellence really means in terms of family, career and legacy, so I am sharing a few of my favorite insights below.
She Understands What It’s Like to Be Unseen
Slevin describes “the bubble” as an unavoidable aspect of the modern presidency; it’s a life of 24-hour Secret Service details and massive security sweeps just to grab a weeknight dinner or a walk around the block. But unlike President Obama, the first lady has been known to mingle among the common folks largely undetected. For example, there was a widely publicized shopping trip to Target, where a female shopper, not recognizing her, asked her to grab something from off a high shelf. As Slevin writes,“The first lady told friends that some white people simply do not ‘see’ her, a black woman, when she was out in public and trying to be inconspicuous.”
Despite living in the guarded confines of “the bubble,” Mrs. Obama’s life isn’t perfect. She’s been overlooked, passed over and misunderstood simply because of her race and gender, as I have and likely you have at one point or another. Never has a first lady confronted what it means to be Black and female head-on, as she has in recent interviews, because there hasn’t been a first lady like her.
She Reminds Us That It’s OK to Dress the Part
Sometimes I struggle with when it’s appropriate to dress for myself and when it’s not. No one wants to come across as shallow for investing too heavily into their own looks, but that shouldn’t mean losing sight of style as an expression of one’s individuality in this world. Mrs. Obama has weathered her share of criticism concerning her knack for designer labels, whether she’s wearing affordable J. Crew cardigans or $540 Lanvin sneakers to volunteer at a Washington food bank (yep, that happened). But as she once told Ebony, as was quoted in Slevin’s book, “what you wear is a reflection of who you are.” We shouldn’t feel ashamed about expressing who that person is. If you’ve worked hard for those Louboutins or even that plain, white Hanes T-shirt, do you.
She Proves That We Each Control Our Own Destiny
The daughter of Fraser Robinson III, a city water plant employee and Democratic precinct leader, and Marian Robinson, a secretary at a mail-order catalog, Mrs. Obama wasn’t supposed to get where she ended up. Her high school counselors said her grades and test scores were too low to make it into Princeton, but she proved them wrong. As a Black girl from one of Chicago’s toughest neighborhoods, she wasn’t supposed to excel among the country’s most privileged, but she did. In her senior thesis, which focused on issues of racial identity among Black Princeton grads, Mrs. Obama wrote that her experiences “made her far more aware of her ‘Blackness’ than ever before.” She continued, “Regardless of the circumstances under which I interact with Whites at Princeton, it often seems as if, to them, I will always be Black first and a student second.”
She relied on the lessons of her parents and from her community to define her worth for herself. And we each can do it, too, because we are all good enough, despite whatever little voice argues otherwise. It’s a lesson best summed up in a 2009 speech given to the female students at London’s Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School, where 90 percent of the girls came from ethnic minority groups and low-income families.
“Nothing in my life would have ever predicted that I would be standing here as the first African-American first lady. I was not raised with wealth or resources or any social standing to speak of. I was raised on the South Side of Chicago. That’s the real part of Chicago,” she said. “I want you to know that we have very much in common. You, too, can control your own destiny, please remember that.”
As a woman at the end of my 20s, I now realize the power in our little girls growing up with Michelle Obama’s legacy as a template. Seeing a woman who looks like them in one of the world’s most influential roles makes the lessons about hard work, dedication and humility very real to grasp because she’s walked a path many of us have shared.
The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.
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(Photo: Knopf Publishing)
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