Krissah Thompson is a feature writer in The Washington Post’s Style section and has covered first lady Michelle Obama since 2011.
Novelist Benilde Little burst into tears the moment she saw a picture of Michelle Obama in a Sunday newspaper after the first inauguration. When her husband, who was beside her in bed, asked why she was crying, she told him: “I’m just so happy. She’s like me.” Little sees Obama as part of her “tribe,” a subset of black women with whom she completely identifies. “Pre-Michelle,” Little writes, “the Black women in media — who weren’t Halle Berry or Oprah — were either perfect pitch, high bourg or stone ghettoians (Lil’ Kim), no shades or complexities as humans are.”
Little joins 15 other writers in celebrating the first lady in a compilation of essays titled “The Meaning of Michelle.” What emerges is a series of thoughtful meditations on the complexities of the woman who is both partner to the leader of the free world and a powerful American figure in her own right. The Obama in these pages is both an icon and a homegirl. The writers take her seriously yet still write about her playfully.
“I been knowing Michelle LaVaughn Robinson,” Ylonda Gault Caviness writes in a soulful piece that conveys both the book’s joie de vivre and its intelligence. Gault Caviness, a journalist and memoirist, thinks of Obama in the tradition of Sojourner Truth, the abolitionist and women’s rights activist who was born into slavery. Obama’s working-class background and her clear and strong South Side Chicago voice places her on a historical continuum with Truth, who once declared, “If women want rights more than they got, why don’t they just take them and not be talking about it?” Gault Caviness argues that Obama also helped to set women free by modeling the idea : You don’t get to define me. Only I get to define me.
A common thread through many of the essays is women’s identity, as Veronica Chambers, the book’s editor, suggests in the introduction. Obama, Chambers writes, “wasn’t a model, an actress or a musician. She was, quite simply, the star of her own life — and that was a game changer for Black women, and it turned out all women, in the early twenty-first century.”
The “Meaning of Michelle” is strongest when it addresses the joy many African Americans have taken in Obama’s presence on the world stage. Damon Young, editor in chief of VSB (Very Smart Brothas), explains that Michelle was the Obama he crushed on eight years ago. She upended his view of first ladies as “nice, grandmotherly white ladies who belonged to Silver Sneakers” and replaced it with a “statuesque and preternaturally attractive brown-skinned [woman] with grace and style and sex appeal and swag.” And she handled it all with down-to-earth ease. “We saw a regular Black chick,” Young writes, “but with ‘regular Black’ being a compliment — the best compliment — instead of a pejorative.”
Brittney Cooper, an assistant professor at Rutgers University, zeroes in on Obama’s sister-girl friendship with pop icon Beyoncé to explore how the two women “are actively remixing the terms upon which Black womanhood has been cast.” Like Beyoncé, Obama has overcome the haters of her ladyhood, and she has beaten those who “would deny the visceral pleasure of sexiness to a First Lady like Michelle.”
While most of the contributors to “The Meaning of Michelle” have never met Obama, chef Marcus Samuelsson is an exception. As guest chef, he oversaw the menu for the first family’s initial state dinner. He warmly describes his interactions with the first lady’s mother, Marian Robinson, and watching firsthand as Obama adapted to her role. “I saw her every year and every year, she grew,” he writes. “You could see she was a person who got more comfortable in her setting.”
If the book lags, it is when it addresses the outmoded question of whether “women can have it all.” As the first lady has acknowledged, she has had a lot of help. Chirlane McCray, who holds a similar job, knows the frustrations of the busy political woman. In her essay, “Two Black First Ladies Walk Into a Room,” she describes first meeting Obama soon after her husband, Bill de Blasio, was sworn in as mayor of New York. McCray sought Obama’s advice on being a first lady and recalls that Obama gave her practical suggestions on hiring a loyal staff and making time for herself. She appreciates what Obama has achieved despite being “trapped in a box of outdated expectations” that restrict all first ladies. McCray’s theory for how Obama survived the maddening political and cultural environment? The first lady flourished “by moving through the world with ‘show, don’t tell’ and ‘if you can’t be free, be a mystery’ determination,” McCray writes.
It’s a credit to editor Chambers that Obama is portrayed as both a homegirl and a savvy first lady in this volume. During the 2008 campaign, candidate Barack Obama often described himself as a human Rorschach test. In him, people saw what they wanted to see. Chambers shows that Michelle’s persona — which was narrowed and stereotyped early on — is as complex and multifaceted as her husband’s.
Edited by Veronica Chambers
220 pp. $24.99