When Michelle Obama took to the stage in New Hampshire in the waning phase of the longest, oddest, roughest political campaign in United States history, she was not just stumping for Hillary Clinton; she was also cementing her place as one of the most compelling political figures that country can boast of.
It must be remembered that Mrs. Obama stepped on to the scene as a reluctant political wife, with all of the makings of a star. However, there was no telling back then that she would become a transcendent force that would inspire so many all across the globe, including me.
Michelle Obama from the earliest days was real and relatable. She did not have the typical airs of a political wife. She was full and whole, she was not a proxy for her husband but complemented the first African American President by being uniquely herself.
Despite all that Mrs. Obama is and would become and, undoubtedly as a result of this, there were detractors who were outraged during the 2008 campaign when she said it was the first time in her life she was proud of her country, or when she wore a sleeveless dress in an official photo, or fist bumped her husband after a primary victory, or choose exercise and nutrition as one of her signature initiatives.
There were even attacks on her features and mannerisms, suggestions she was too hard and would emasculate her husband. However, despite even the most vile attacks, she managed to make her presence felt near and far.
Much of the aforementioned critique was directly attributable to the fact that Mrs. Obama is of African descent. She, however, took the singular nature of that combination of race and prominence and made it into a message.
On the topic of race, she was really in many ways a contrast to the sometimes contrived objectivity of her husband. Speaking up about both the micro-aggressions of being black in America and thinking through some of the structural inequalities of that country as well, she gave voice in ways that many had never heard from a First Lady.
Saying in one speech to a group of graduates, “they will make assumptions about who they think you are based on their limited notion of the world. And my husband and I know how frustrating that experience can be. We’ve both felt the sting of those daily slights throughout our entire lives — the folks who crossed the street in fear of their safety; the clerks who kept a close eye on us in all those department stores; the people at formal events who assumed we were the “help” — and those who have questioned our intelligence, our honesty, even our love of this country.”
Michelle’s testimonies on race helped black people not to feel alone in a country that has always liked to play loose with its racial realities and may even have changed a mind or two about how they participated in helping racial minorities to not feel at home in their own country.
Michelle Obama took the very white, pencil thin fashion world and shook it to its core insisting that black, tall, strong, middle aged women can be belles of ball too. She expanded conceptions of beauty, for black girls and women she was a kind of recognition, and for black men she was a reflection of the women we know and love. She “slayed” whether it was a state dinner or a television appearance; she looked familiar and made us all feel damn good.
Despite Mrs. Obama’s approval ratings being higher than her husband in this the final week of her tenure as First Lady, she has endured criticism and cruelty throughout her time that would shake even the most steadfast and self-assured individual. Speaking at Tuskegee University in 2015, she said of those critiques and her ability to carry on in the face of them, “I realized that if I wanted to keep my sanity and not let others define me, there was only one thing I could do, and that was to have faith in God’s plan for me. I had to ignore all of the noise and be true to myself — and the rest would work itself out.” No matter who you are, that is a lesson for us all.
Throughout the eight years in the White House, she became well known for her sage advice, sounding like our mothers and favourite aunties on topics of every kind. “There is no boy at this age that is cute enough or interesting enough to stop you from getting your education.” “If I had worried about who liked me and who thought I was cute when I was your age, I wouldn’t be married to the President of the United States,” she once said to a gathering of girls for one of her signature initiatives.
Speaking of our favorite women, any highlight reel of Michelle Obama has to include the moment she rolled her eyes at John Boehner, the former obstructionist Republican Speaker of the House at the Inaugural Lunch.
Together with her husband, she has become a pop culture symbol for romantic love and commitment. Last week when the outgoing president gushed about his love for Mrs. Obama during his final address, social media went wild, and from all that was said, one thing was sure: the kind of love he speaks of and they exhibit is the archetype of the one we all long for.
As a male who is inspired by countless women and who thinks we place too much emphasis on gender in the criterion for choosing role models, Michelle Obama, thank you for your grit and grace and style and good humour. Thank you for being an affirmation for me and so many of the women I love. You make me proud. You are another reminder of why I am blessed to know to love and to have come from black women.
(Andwele Boyce is a young communicator who is passionate about politics and popular culture. He holds a Master’s in international trade policy and is currently pursuing a law degree.)