CHICAGO — Michelle Obama was on her old stomping ground this week, back on the South Side to give a commencement address to the Class of 2015 at Martin Luther King College Preparatory High School. It was especially personal. She saw herself in the graduates, who had been raised in the same neighborhoods she grew up in, and warned them of the negative stereotypes they would face by pointing to the ones she has faced herself.
“With every word you speak, with every choice you make and with the way you carry yourself each day, you can write a new story about our communities,” she said. “That’s a burden that President Obama and I proudly carry every single day in the White House, because we know that everything we do and say can either confirm the myths about folks like us — or it can change those myths.”
As the first lady has travelled the country giving commencement speeches this spring, she has spoken with unusual candor about deeply personal experiences. Thepast two months could be called Michelle Obama’s season of telling it like it is — or at least telling it how she sees it.
She probably was not surprised by the blowback after talking at Tuskegee University in Alabama about the ways racism has personally affectedher. Sean Hannity said Obama displayed a “bitterness” and a “lack of appreciation for the opportunities” afforded her; Laura Ingraham, another conservative pundit, called thecommencement address “a litany of victimization.”
CNN held a panel on the topic, asking,“Do the Obamas talk about race too frequently?” In years past, liberal commentators questioned whether the first couple talked about race enough.
For students in the audience at the predominantly black college’s May graduation ceremonies, the reaction was confusing. Brian L. Johnson, Tuskegee’s president, said that for weeks he ran into students who didn’t like what they were hearing about her speech in the media.
“They were like, ‘I don’t understand. I can’t believe they would do the first lady like this. She didn’t mean any of that.’ They took it like a family member being accosted,” Johnson recalled.
He saw it as another lesson for the students: “The elephant in the room for highly successful African Americans has always been race.” For them, both her speech and the reaction to it was “sobering,” he added.
Last month at Oberlin College in Ohio, the first lady admitted that she often wants to “run” from the partisan fray and find a community of like-minded men and women to work with on issues she cares about. Instead, she asked the students to take a different approach: “I want to urge you to actively seek out the most contentious, polarized, gridlocked places you can find. . . .Throughout our history, those have been the places where progress really happens.”
Taken together, these three recent speeches are a fresh window into what the first lady is thinking and feeling during her seventh year in the White House. Amid clashes between minority communities and law enforcement officials nationwide, race, class and social change are foremost on her mind.
Obama has a relatively small team assigned to her policy initiatives and crafting her public remarks, and she closely edits their drafts. There is now a clear rhythm to her graduation remarks: Her language leans toward the casual and colloquial and she often includes historical references to reinforce her points.
At Tuskegee, famous for training the military’s first black pilots in an era of legal segregation, she spoke of the struggles of the nation’s first black airmen who were faced with “so-called scientific studies that said that black men’s brains were smaller than white men’s [and] official Army reports [that] stated that black soldiers were ‘childlike,’ ‘shiftless,’ ‘unmoral and untruthful.’ ”
Her retelling of the story of the Tuskegee airmen and the choice of that university to give a commencement address was unsurprising. The first lady has spoken often at historically black colleges. Her close friend Valerie Jarrett’s great-grandfather is one of the icons of the college, and Rep. Terri A. Sewell (D-Ala.) attended Princeton with Obama, where the future first lady was Sewell’s upperclass mentor on campus.
On the spring day that Obama took the stage at Tuskegee, some were surprised at how frank she was. Until then, she had been mostly reluctant to directly discuss the ways being black has shaped her experience in the White House.
“I think she was genuinely authentic in sharing her own experience,” said Sewell, who greeted Obama before she spoke. “She humanized her position as first lady. What she was saying is the African American experience has always been one of resilience and so was her road to the White House. I didn’t think she played the race card at all.”
Like Obama, Sewell said she has not erased the memory of a satirical New Yorker magazine cover that depicted racial fears about the Obamas with a caricature of Michelle donning a large Afro and holding a machine gun while giving her husband a fist bump. The congresswoman found the cover so outrageous that she kept a copy.
“As an African American woman seeing someone I knew depicted that way, I was incensed,” Sewell said.
Obama told the Alabama crowd that the cover “knocked me back a bit.” So did other campaign trail moments: “You might remember the on-stage celebratory fist bump between me and my husband after a primary win that was referred to as a ‘terrorist fist jab.’ And over the years, folks have used plenty of interesting words to describe me. One said I exhibited ‘a little bit of uppity-ism.’ Another noted that I was one of my husband’s ‘cronies of color.’ Cable news once charmingly referred to me as ‘Obama’s Baby Mama.’ ”
In those days, Obama said, she had a lot of sleepless nights and worried what people thought of her until she began to “have faith in God’s plan for me” and “ignore all of the noise.” But she did not publicly push back against the depictions at the time.
Hearing Obama’s own emotional reaction to the magazine cover and to other perceived slights answered lingering questions about how she has dealt with them. Her advice to the graduates was to realize “there will be times when you feel like folks look right past you” and to succeed despite those obstacles — despite sometimes feeling invisible.
This more authentic discussion on the first lady’s part has not been relegated to commencement speeches. At the reopening of the Whitney Museum in April, Obama took the stage to congratulate the institution on its facility and to admonish its leaders to do more to welcome inner-city youth into its rarefied halls.
“There are so many kids in this country who look at places like museums and concert halls and other cultural centers and they think to themselves, well, that’s not a place for me, for someone who looks like me, for someone who comes from my neighborhood,” Obama said. “In fact, I guarantee you that right now, there are kids living less than a mile from here who would never in a million years dream that they would be welcome in this museum. And growing up on the South Side of Chicago, I was one of those kids myself.”
She was greeted with hearty applause for the substance of her speech, although others found it polarizing. This week in Chicago she had the flip side of that message for students at King College Prep, where she asked the students to change perceptions about their communities.
“Starting today, it is your job to make sure that no one is ever again surprised by who we are and where we come from,” Obama told them.
By placing herself in the center of her speeches, Obama has given her message a sharper edge and made it stronger, said Isabel Ostrer, co-editor of “The World Is Waiting for You: Graduation Speeches to Live By from Activists, Writers, and Visionaries.”
“It makes for an even better speech when the speaker brings up personal stories, encounters they’ve had in the past that have shaped their identity and have caused them to fight for the causes that they are fighting for,” said Ostrer, who graduated from Harvard last year and spent months editing an anthology of commencement speeches.
Obama seems unlikely to heed critics’ calls for her to stop talking about race and class — and the college speeches could foreshadow more such discussions. She mentioned the racial unrest in Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore that she said was “rooted in structural challenges” but seemed more comfortable talking about subjects that are intimate and drawn from her own experience, such as the little indignities she and her husband have faced. Such as, “the people at formal events who assumed we were the help,” she said recently.
Tuskegee’s Johnson, for one, hopes she continues to unburden herself.
“It should not be ‘Oh, I made it to the White House and everything is fine,’ ” he said. “No one is fine. Next year or years from now we will read [the Obamas’] biographies because we will want to know their struggle.”