This story was excerpted from an essay by Rebecca Carroll featured in the new collection, The Meaning of Michelle: 16 Writers on the Iconic First Lady, edited by Veronica Chambers.
The minute Michelle Obama rolled up to the podium at the 2008 Democratic National Convention wearing that cool mint-green dress, hair laid to the gods, demonstrating what would become her trademark unflinching poise and ineffable ease, it was quite clear that she did not come to play. And some months later, as televised footage of the inauguration of President Barack Obama captures instances when Obama appears more taken with his wife than with the fact that he has just become the country’s first black president, her magnific influence and his gratitude for it is all but palpable.
Michelle Obama is everything a Black man raised by a white single mother in Hawaii needed. She is everything a country with an utterly disgraceful history of emotional and physical violence against Black women should champion and elevate. And I would argue that she represents at least 60 percent of what America will miss most about the Obama presidency.
It would be easy here, and a thousand other times over the past eight years, to trot out the “behind every great man is a great woman” trope, or the “strong Black woman” and “Black superwoman” stereotypes. In truth, though, what Michelle Obama did as First Lady of the United States was take the strong Black woman stereotype and laugh, then kick its ass and tell it to move on out of her way. You see, as she and the President like to say, Michelle Obama has no use for stereotypes or tropes—because they stunt intellectual growth, leave no room for imagination, and are antithetical to the power of hard work, individual strength and self- determination. And if FLOTUS and the President are about anything, it’s about the platform of self-determination.
As indomitable as she is today, as a young girl, like most girls and perhaps in particular most young black girls, Michelle did not always lead with confidence. She has admitted to feeling “tangled up in fears and doubts that were entirely of my own creation” when she was a student in high school, and spending too much time worried about her hair and her looks, and what other kids might be saying about her. She has mentioned teachers who openly underestimated her intelligence and prospects to succeed. The beauty, though, of having created her own fears and doubts, is the way in which she has effectively, even casually, decimated them along her path to Princeton, then Harvard Law School, as a successful corporate lawyer, and as a prominent badass in the public sector.
Self-determination is not a mysterious thing—but Michelle makes it seem like it is. For a kid who grew up on the South Side of Chicago with a big brother to trail behind and working-class parents to make proud for their sacrifices, her will and character and complete lack of cynicism are woven throughout her life like threads of magical realism. We can all imagine little girl Michelle in school, working hard and being brave, as the notion evokes almost on cue images of Ruby Bridges and Charlayne Hunter-Gault, alone in the white world of newly integrated schools. But it gets harder to envision when you think about young woman Michelle at Princeton and Harvard in the 1980s—set in between the Black Is Beautiful 70s and the Living Single era of the 90s. Somewhere along the line, she walked into the light and got the hell over.
I marvel at the thought of how my own little brown self would have been influenced growing up with Michelle Obama in the White House. The little brown me, adopted into a white family, surrounded by anti-reflections, inundated by unremitting standards of white beauty, acceptance, worth. Exoticized for my caramel skin and praised for my talents as a dancer and a storyteller early on, when I hit fifth grade, it was as if my skin had somehow suddenly taken on a darker hue—scorched for flying too close to freedom. I wore an afro and sometimes handkerchiefs around my head leaving just a lion’s mane ring around my face. I smiled and smiled and laughed and wrote stories and played with friends and felt free. I was free. Until I was not. My fifth-grade teacher, who was mean anyway, made sure to let me know that I was less than all the others—lucky, but in a defying nature sort of way: “very pretty . . . for a black girl. Most black girls aren’t very pretty.” And with that, I turned inward and lost a faith in my blackness that I never even knew I had until it turned into pride years later.