The Age of Michelle Obama
An Open Letter to the First Lady of the United States
Dear Mrs. Obama:
Do you have any idea what you mean to us?
By us I mean the strong, independent, accomplished black women of America. I suspect that on some level you do, but because you are the First Lady of the United States, I know that you don’t think along those lines , and you should not. I love that you embrace all Americans and that you are everyone’s First Lady. But please allow me this small indulgence as I share with you how special you are to us. What I am about to say may seem a bit much, but it is important that you know—that everyone knows—how much you have changed and are changing everything for present and future generations of black women in this nation.
“How so?” you may ask.
I’ll tell you how: You humanize us. You soften us. You make us invisible no more. You make us approachable, feminine, sexy, warm, compassionate, smart, affirmed, accomplished, and fun-filled all at once. Your very nature most emphatically answers Sojourner Truth’s 160-year-old question, “Ain’t I a woman too?” Yes, we are women too!
In a national survey of accomplished black women (ABWs) conducted for this book, a whopping 87 percent of black female respondents credit you with “dispelling stereotypes” about black women in America. You are our ebony Jacqueline Kennedy—our brown-skinned Eleanor Roosevelt. You are down to earth and yet surreal. We have waited for someone like you to come along and set the record straight. And set it straight you have!
Yes, many other phenomenal black women have come before you: Coretta, Rosa, Fannie, Shirley, Barbara, Oprah, Condi, and many other successful sisters whom Americans admire. They made it possible for you to be where you are. But no one has ever been the first black First Lady of the United States. And that is what makes you different.
Your very image and presence is captivating in a way that brings forth our pained history and our powerful triumph all at once. I respectfully ask you to embrace your unparalleled title as “the sister who changed it all” for this present generation and the next generations of black women and girls who never thought they’d see someone like you living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. You yourself have reflected openly on why you felt it was so important for you to do the historic VOGUE Magazine cover shoot in March 2009 with these important words: “While I don’t consider myself a fashionista, I thought it was good for my daughters and little girls just like them , who haven’t seen themselves represented in these magazines, hopefully to talk more broadly about what beauty is, what intelligence is, what counts.
I believe that right now in America we as black women are going through a cultural shift. You can feel it in the air—there is something transformative, reaffirming, and fulfilling about our willingness to share our stories in cinema and reveal these mysteries in heartwarming prose. Myths and legends don’t die easily. History teaches this lesson well. But I can’t tell you enough how much you have contributed to dispelling misinformation about a certain kind of black woman in America and how much you are helping young women of a new generation to discover the possibilities for their lives beyond our much-heralded academic and career achievements.
Somehow, seeing you descend the steps of Air Force One in faraway places like India, Japan, or Africa, looking confident and full of grace, swells our hearts with pride. And that pride continues as we watch you step out onto the White House lawn from Marine One as you return from a short trip here at home.
Some days you are glamorous and looking fierce as you await guests at the White House for a state dinner. At other times we may see you popping your fingers and dancing to Stevie Wonder as you entertain our nation’s governors. And my favorite days are when we see you walking with your daughters hand in hand, your hair pulled back, sporting jeans and sneakers as Bo the pup tags along. This is why we love you, Sister Obama. You are real.
You make us proud every time we see you with our soldiers and their families, traveling abroad as an ambassador of goodwill, and talking to our kids here at home about citizenship and service. The images of you walking barefoot along the beaches of Panama City, and dancing freely with young girls in India as well as playing hopscotch in the streets were magical. You exude a laughter and warmth that is rarely ours .
Most important (and this is a big one), you show us how you truly love your man and you let him love and take care of you. You honor the passion and sanctity of your marriage by making time for date nights out, nuzzling in public (unaware of or unconcerned that cameras are snapping every move), and private weekends away with the commander-in-chief. You support him too; you are his total and complete helpmate.
This may sound a bit extreme, but I see this time in our American history with you as our First Lady as a time of rebirth, renewal, and redefinition for the American black woman. In that regard, I hope you won’t mind my coining the phrase “the Age of Michelle Obama” because I believe that long after you are no longer in the position of First Lady, you will forever be remembered as the woman who changed the national perception of strong, educated, accomplished black women in America.
The narrative of black women is played and replayed daily in the media, on YouTube, in the workplace, in the boardroom, in church gossip, and everywhere we exist. We are angry, overly opinionated, aggressive, controlling, emasculating, and generally physically unhealthy women—right? Yet, whether it is in the heat of a national campaign or in the course of your daily duties as First Lady, you take it all in and absorb the attacks and the smears with grace, humor, and an unflinching strength that we all know is the hallmark of strong black women everywhere. Whether you know it or not, you are teaching a powerful lesson on how to deal with conflict even under the glare of a spotlight that few of us will ever experience.
There is a powerful lesson here for us all: You don’t have to shout back at your critics or crawl into the pit of mudslinging with them. The best revenge is success, and success comes with a willingness to constantly reinvent, reform, and redefine the rules of the game, how you play the game, and what you consider a “win” at the end of the game.
As I mentioned previously, I believe you are the woman you have always been; the difference is that you have now been given the platform and opportunity as First Lady to show the world what we have always known exists within our community: healthy, vibrant, powerful, family-focused sisters who take care of business on all fronts and do so in a way that truly empowers the lives of all who know them. You are teaching us to master the rules of the game as you publicly support your husband’s policies while championing your own initiatives and always being a great mom, daughter, and wife. In this way, you represent the model wife that most women aspire to be and you exhibit twenty-first-century career-girl savvy. You remind us- gently- of your power in a very chic, feminine, endearing way.
More important to me, and for the younger women we polled and spoke with in focus groups, you show the world every day that strength, intelligence, and achievement alone don’t make a life—they simply add to one’s life. You have shown us all what it is like to shift and willingly redefine yourself not as a hard-driving career woman or policy theorist or outspoken political activist, but as a devoted wife, mother, and daughter first. You demonstrate for young women and middle-aged women who still aspire to marriage and family that balance is possible and that you can have it all—maybe just not all at once. In addition, we are very grateful that you love and support our nation’s military families and that you have taken up the great cause of reducing childhood obesity, especially since it affects African American children most disproportionately.
I’ll ask again: do you know what that means to us?
You model for us, and the many generations of sisters to come, something that we haven’t seen in the media and culture for a long time: a loving, compassionate, attractive, smart, spiritual, nurturing, devoted, physically fit, temperate, classy, fun, married, strong, accomplished black woman. A sister who knows how to rest, how to take care of her mind and body, and most important, how to be comfortable in her own skin (and show that skin off in a tasteful, attractive manner).
That is redefinition at its best, my sister!
From Black Woman Redefined: Dispelling Myths and Discovering Fulfillment in the Age of Michelle Obama, copyright 2011 by Sophia A. Nelson, published by BenBella Books, Inc. Reprinted by permission of BenBella Books.