I was very moved by Michelle Obama’s last official address from the White House as First Lady today. Not long ago, I wrote an article about Mrs. Obama’s food reform which was published in a collection on African American foodways. (The collection, Dethroning the Deceitful Pork Chop, was just named an Outstanding Academic title for the year by the American Library Association!) While I was researching and writing that article, I was immersed in all things Obama for some time. Such an endeavor was intimidating, at times, due to the sheer volume of press, commentary, and material available on the Obamas. All of my books have been historical in nature. I had never been sufficiently inspired by a current phenomenon to write a serious academic piece about it. Enter Michelle Obama.
I am not one to typically get sentimental about contemporary national events. Being a writer and historian, I try to keep a critical eye open. Yet, I’ll never forget voting in 2008 because I was living in Indiana, where I was teaching at the time, and the state voted Blue for the first time in decades. For me, it was the only time that I felt my vote truly counted in a presidential election because I was in a swing state. And I’ll never forget watching the Obamas’ first inauguration on that frigid day in January 2009. It was something. I was fine until I saw Rep. John Lewis crying and then I gave in to a tear. The feeling that history was being made, made in a new way, was palpable. I loved the gold coat that Mrs. Obama wore that day. To me, it seemed to symbolize a new morning.
When I was doing research for my article, I took away a few conclusions. First, there was a strong current of cultural and political backlash against the Obamas that was undeniable and much of it was based on race. It surfaced of course in government but also on the web, and in random spaces. For example, while living and teaching in rural Indiana and rural East Texas during the Obama administration I saw on numerous occasions hand painted plywood signs in yards lashing out at the President. It was clear that there was a strand of racism waiting for an opportunity to resurface.
On the other hand, I also concluded when writing about Mrs. Obama that she was a person of admirable self possession. Until today, that was the main source of my inspiration from her. To know yourself and to own who you are; this seemed to be how she lived her public life and I believed it was/is a substantial legacy. She always owned what she wore, the causes she pursued, the words delivered in her speeches, and even her fun public appearances on late night television. There were always critics at the ready to parse her every move, but she appeared to be relatively unfettered by those and simply kept being who she was and moving forward. This struck me as a positive example for any girl, woman or human being seeking to live an authentic life.
In her speech today, Mrs. Obama summed up this idea in her own words: “Lead by example with hope. Never fear.” Yes! I thought. This is absolutely how we should all be living at this moment. I have never been so convicted about inhabiting the change you want to see in the world, as Gandhi said. I don’t want to end by writing that I will miss thinking of Michelle Obama in the White House so I will say that it will be a joy to see the avenues she pursues in the future. Thank you, Mrs. Obama, for being true to who you are.
Just for fun: