Watching the Obamas leaving the White House breaks my heart, especially since it means I will have to say goodbye to Michelle. An inspiration to Americans of all backgrounds, Michelle Obama is a veritable superheroine to Black women, particularly Black girls around my age, who came of age with someone who looked like them as the First Lady of the United States. I can’t let her leave the house that I have come to associate with her and her family without reflecting on what Michelle Obama has meant to a generation of Black girls who, during her eight years in the White House, turned into women and went into the world to make a change because they were inspired by her.
Michelle was with me on the most devastating day of my high school career: when I was named salutatorian. I was eleven years old and attending my cousin’s high school graduation when I discovered there was a word for the smartest person in the graduating class: valedictorian. That day, I made it my personal mission to maintain near perfect grades for seven straight years (no one told me that your middle school GPA didn’t matter in deciding the valedictorian), bulldozing along my high school academic career, doing everything absolutely right–only to have my dreams shattered in the time it took to download a transcript. I cried like my heart would rip itself out of my chest, so hard my eyes were swollen shut and my parents kept me home from school the next day.
In an attempt to cheer myself up, I googled, “Famous Salutatorians,” and was pleasantly surprised to find out that Michelle Obama, First Lady of the United States, had also been her high school salutatorian. Smiling, I thought to myself, for what would be the first of many times, well, if salutatorian is good enough for Michelle Obama, it’s good enough for me.
Michelle had become an unconscious standard and metric by which I measured my own life. I had never seen a more visibly successful Black woman. When the Obamas started to become a household name by the time I was about twelve or thirteen years old, I was able to turn on the news, and see a tall, strong, beautiful, Princeton and Harvard educated woman almost every day. With Michelle Obama came a normalization of intellectual Black women. There was a visible, readily accessible woman to whom people could compare all of the intense Black women with verbal fortitude that they encountered in their day to day life. Not that there weren’t others, but everyone knew Michelle, and nobody could deny that Michelle was smart.
And Michelle wasn’t just smart–Michelle made smart cool. Michelle could say things like, “There is no boy at this age that is cute enough or interesting enough to stop you from getting your education. If I had worried about who liked me and who thought I was cute when I was your age, I wouldn’t be married to the president of the United States,” in a 2015 speech to girls, but she would put her money where her mouth was. In her everyday life as First Lady, she wore her intellect proudly, choosing to focus more on what was being said at the debates or speeches she watched, than on smiling when the camera panned to her.
But when she did smile, she could light up a whole room. Michelle taught girls not only to be proud of their intelligence, but of their bodies as well, in the way she carried herself. She taught girls that “thin” didn’t have to be synonymous with “beautiful,” that we should strive to be healthy instead. With a role model like Michelle actively being kind to her body, which looked familiar to so many Black girls, me included, it was impossible to overlook her beauty, which came from within and definitely from without. Let’s not forget the awe inspiring photo from Essence last year that reminded us that “fit” and “curvy” are not mutually exclusive.
While it’s easy to get swept up in Michelle as a First Lady, we shouldn’t forget that Michelle was also excelling in some other roles as well: wife and mother. When she wasn’t giving inspirational speeches and serving up some of best looks of the decade, Michelle was actively raising young children in the White House (with the help of her own mother, of course.) And to be First Lady, you have to be a wife–Michelle has been a courageous partner in crime to the man leading our nation. So many aspects of this are awe inspiring. Michelle gave goals to a Black girl trying to organize her aspirations. She was married, in love with her man and had two beautiful girls– and never put her career on pause for a moment. Michelle is proof that a successful and flourishing career and a loving family do not have to be mutually exclusive. Too often, there is talk of what women must give up if they want to chase their ambition. Michelle Obama is proof that very little is outside the realm of possibility.
This champion of girlhood, advocate of accessible education and inspirational role model will be greatly missed. She was the First Lady who could have hope while acknowledging America’s traumatic past, recognizing the generations of Black people who have worked so that she could wake up in the White House, a house built by slaves. She was the First Lady who taught us that “when they go low, we go high.” She was the Black First Lady who was an icon for an entire generation of Black girls that watched her make history, everyday for eight years.
Michelle, thank you.
Thank you for showing us complexity, and intelligence, and poise, and love. Thank you for showing us what it is to be a wife and a mother. Thank you for being a leader of grace and accepting nothing less than excellence, and being nothing less than excellent.
Because of you, we can. Because of you, I can.
Thank you for being our First Lady.