For Michelle Obama, the Oscars were an unbecoming frivolity

Oscars night winners, from Ben Affleck to Anne Hathaway, discuss their big moment onstage. Also, a look at some of the night's big surprises.
Courtland Milloy
Columnist February 26, 2013

It’s time for first lady Michelle Obama to raise her game.

Nothing wrong with telling kids to eat their peas or showing them how to Hula-Hoop. But after four years of focusing on the body, she’d do well to spend these next four on building strong minds.

Especially girls’.

“If I had the first lady’s ear, I’d say talk more about the kind of education that women and girls — girls of color, in particular — will need to make it in a global economy,” said Avis Jones-DeWeever, executive director of the National Council of Negro Women.

E. Faye Williams, chairwoman of the National Congress of Black Women, said: “I’d like to see her promote the important work being done by women in this country, talk more about how she overcame her own difficulties and encourage girls not to back away from goals that may seem out of reach.”

Williams and Jones-DeWeever are among Michelle Obama’s most ardent admirers — and defenders. Their comments were not offered as critiques but as responses to my question: What else would they like to see her do? The first lady is reportedly looking for an expanded role in her husband’s second term, and I, for one, hope she finds it. Soon.

Enough with the broccoli and Brussels sprouts — to say nothing about all the attention paid to her arms, hair, derriere and designer clothes. Where is that intellectually gifted Princeton graduate, the Harvard-educated lawyer and mentor to the man who would become the first African American president of the United States?

Surely that was not the first lady bumping hips and doing hand-jive dancing with Jimmy Fallon in drag on his late-night TV talk show.

On Wednesday, the president and first lady are scheduled to attend the unveiling of a statue of civil rights icon Rosa Parks at the U.S. Capitol. Michelle Obama might want to hang back afterward and ponder: If a seamstress from Alabama could help move a people to the front of a bus, what might she do to help move them to the head of the class?

Let’s not forget who Michelle Obama is.

The daughter of a Chicago city pump operator and a secretary, she was raised in a one-bedroom apartment on the rough-and-tumble South Side. She and her brother slept in the living room. And yet, by sixth grade, she was speaking French and taking advanced courses at a magnet school. At Princeton, she majored in sociology and developed a profound understanding of African American history. After earning the law degree from Harvard, she went to work for a law firm specializing in intellectual property and then became a Chicago city administrator and a community outreach worker.

She ought to be under consideration for a seat on the Supreme Court, not recruited as a presenter in some Hollywood movie contest.

Last year, in one of the most important initiatives of his administration, President Obama announced a partnership between the United States and 12 other countries to “break down economic and political barriers that stand in the way of women and girls.”

The initiative, the Equal Futures Partnership, has been spearheaded by Obama senior adviser Valerie Jarrett and, until her departure this year, former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton. The effort cries out for Michelle Obama to fill Clinton’s shoes.

Back in 2011, the first lady even gave a speech to the National Science Foundation about keeping girls interested in science, technology, engineering and math, the “STEM” disciplines. These days, however, we’re more likely to hear her talk about stems in a White House vegetable garden than about girls excelling in science and math.

Williams and Jones-DeWeever part ways with me on such an assessment. Both believe that the first lady’s “Let’s Move” exercise and nutrition campaign has been effective in reducing childhood obesity. And they applaud her partnership with Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Biden, to help military families.

As for my view that booty shaking with Fallon and participating in the Academy Awards were frivolities unbecoming to both Michelle Obama and her position as first lady, Williams replied: “Is there ever a time when a black woman can get away from the heavy lifting of the day?”

How would Parks have answered that? Or Sojourner Truth? In 2009, Michelle Obama helped unveil a statue of Truth at the U.S. Capitol. The great abolitionist was the first black woman to be so honored; Parks is the second.

“One can only imagine what Sojourner Truth, an outspoken, tell-it-like-it-is kind of woman ■ would have to say about this incredible gathering,” the first lady said. “Just looking down on this day, and thinking about the legacy she has left all of us, because we are all here because, as my husband says time and time again, we stand on the shoulders of giants like Sojourner Truth.”

And what of her own shoulders? Will they be broad enough for future generations of women and girls to stand on? Or just good to look at?

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/milloy.

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