Michelle Obama has largely ignored unflattering critiques of her physical appearance, often tinged with racial overtones, that have been lobbed by people who apparently still have not accepted the fact that African Americans inhabit the White House. At a memorial service Saturday for poet Maya Angelou, who died last week at age 86, Obama offered revealing insights about how she and other black women sometimes define their beauty in the context of the larger society’s standards.
The first time I read “Phenomenal Woman,” I was struck by how she celebrated black women’s beauty like no one had ever dared to before. Our curves, our stride, our strength, our grace. Her words were clever and sassy; they were powerful and sexual and boastful. And in that one singular poem, Maya Angelou spoke to the essence of black women, but she also graced us with an anthem for all women – a call for all of us to embrace our God-given beauty.
And, oh, how desperately black girls needed that message. As a young woman, I needed that message. As a child, my first doll was Malibu Barbie. That was the standard for perfection. That was what the world told me to aspire to. But then I discovered Maya Angelou, and her words lifted me right out of my own little head.
The first lady went on to say that Angelou’s empowering message has motivated her through school, career and family challenges throughout her life, “words so powerful that they carried a little black girl from the South Side of Chicago all the way to the White House.”
Beauty is more than skin deep, especially for women of color. Whether we are seen as beautiful can have a huge impact on how we are treated, protected and loved — both by society and, more importantly, by ourselves. And in a world that still places a much higher value on women who look more white than not, it is important for women of color to learn to claim their own beauty.
Obama’s tribute to Angelou captured the sentiments of a generation of black women who found affirmation in the poet’s sensuous descriptions of black women’s physical features and her passionate declarations of their strength and resilience. And in similar fashion, the first lady, with her brown skin and Ivy League degrees, is a role model for today’s little black girls.