At Long Last, Ready for the Real Deal

By Maya Angelou
Sunday, January 18, 2009

In September 2008, I was invited to introduce Michelle Obama at an event in Greensboro, N.C. I had met her fleetingly during the Democratic National Convention in Boston, but I had no real sense of her personality.

I telephoned Oprah Winfrey, aware that she knew the Obamas, and asked, "What is your take on Michelle Obama?"

Oprah answered promptly and with conviction, "She is the real deal."

I waited backstage in the Carolina Theatre wings. Mrs. Obama arrived, and we sat and talked for 45 minutes. We spoke about family, the economy, youth obesity, television, music, cooking and men. I was completely won over. She neither postured nor preened. I sensed no subterfuge in her conversation. She said what she thought and said it clearly, without bombast. When I was cued to go onto the stage, I shook hands with her warmly and went to the microphone. The theater was packed, and there was no standing room. I told the audience of some of Mrs. Obama's accomplishments, and then I told them of the conversation that I had had with Oprah. I ended my introduction by saying, "Now ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the 'real deal.' "

The room exploded with the tumultuous sound of whistles and shouts, feet stamping and hands clapping. In the midst of all that explosive sound, Mrs. Obama took the time to thank me as she passed on her way to the microphone.

I stood in the wings, amazed and even perplexed. The welcoming roar did not lessen, and I looked back at the assemblage. Three-quarters of the audience were white women and white men; only about 20 percent were African American men and women. I am sure that I saw some Latino and Asian faces. The composition of the group staggered me. I sat reviewing Carolina history as it had been lived for the past five decades.

The original sit-ins, which became a part of the civil rights movement, took place in Greensboro in 1960. The Ku Klux Klan has been known to live in many parts of North Carolina. In 1979, the Klan was charged with fatally attacking a group they accused of spreading communist beliefs.

Sen. Jesse Helms appeared to rule the state of North Carolina from 1973 to 2003. He appeared to speak for all white Carolinians. Yet what I had just seen was Michelle Obama captivating an audience of white Carolinians who supported her husband. They were still shouting as I struggled to comprehend the event. The noise abated as Mrs. Obama stressed her husband's desire for fair play for all Americans. He had included whites, blacks, Latinos, Asians and Native Americans in his vision for our country. As Michelle Obama spoke, the assemblage showed its approval by applauding, standing and shouting out encouragement. "That's right, you say it," some called out, and a few even added, "You go, girl."

I went home quietly and sat alone, giving myself time to understand the optimism I'd seen on the faces of all the people in that theater.

Over the past five decades, our national spirit has ebbed, our self-confidence has waned. The presence of Barack Obama seems to return us to our national motto: "Yes, I can. I am an American."

In the 18th century, Alexander Pope wrote, in his poem "An Essay on Man":

"Hope springs eternal in the human breast:

Man never is, but always to be blest."

Many believe that this time, our nation has been blest.

Maya Angelou is a poet, author, playwright and civil rights activist.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company