Photo: Getty Images

OPINION

What Michelle Obama means to me, a black woman

Obama makes me feel seen, says June Eric-Udorie, as she reflects on the legacy of the former First Lady and her new memoir, Becoming

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By June Eric-Udorie on

This Tuesday, Michelle Obama’s hotly anticipated memoir, Becoming, was published. So far, the memoir has been described as an incredibly personal invitation into her life, much more than she’s ever offered before. In fact, in the last few days before the release of the book, various news sources praised Obama’s discussion of having a miscarriage and her use of in-vitro fertilisation to have her daughters, Malia, 20, and Sasha, 17, as a means of fighting the stigma that exists against reproductive issues that we rarely discuss, especially among black women and women of colour.

A month before the release of Becoming, I was visiting Washington DC with my guardian and she took me to see the portrait of the former First Lady at the National Portrait Gallery. I remember feeling annoyed, lazy, because of the fact that we had to walk and I was tired. I already saw it online, I thought. But now, as I reflect, I think I didn’t want to allow myself to feel what I knew would come up. I’m still thinking of the significance that, after centuries of degradation, exploitation and violence inflicted upon the black female body, there has now been a black First Lady. Imagine the magnitude of that and of being part of that history.

I thought, as I stood before the portrait, that I was going to cry, but instead I found myself speechless. The portrait was painted by Amy Sherald, an artist who is known for using a grayscale to paint her subject’s skin tone as a meditation and challenge to the concept of colour as race. And this was absolutely the case with Obama’s portrait. As I stood there, I thought: what does it mean that a woman who looks like me – with a nose, hair and features like mine – could exist in a space so populated with old white men? What does it mean that, up until Sherald unveiled the portrait of the first black First Lady of the United States, she had existed relatively under the radar? In what ways has Obama opened doors for Sherald and for other black women like me?

Here, Obama is pushing us to reckon with our own becomings – to realise our own story and to have the power to tell it

These questions lingered on my mind, as I read Becoming on the night of its release. As a young black working-class woman at an elite institution in the American South, what really resonates with me about Obama’s story are her humble beginnings and how much she’s been able to make of her life. At her book-launch event in Chicago, Obama said, “Yes, I’m black; yes, I’m a woman; yes, I grew up working-class; and, yes, my parents didn’t get to finish college. That is part of the American dream. This story is it… My story does matter. I love my story. It is the American story. My struggles, my journey, my small house on the South Side of Chicago, my father with a disability, all of that makes me more valuable to the conversation, not less.”

Michelle Obama, as a young student at Princetown in the early 1980s (Photo: Instagram)


And, perhaps, this is what I value so much about Obama, her story and the woman she’s become. Obama helps me feel seen – when I turn up for that five-hour shift at work, so that I can make ends meet; when I raise my hand in a class where I’m the only non-white person; when I’m invited to mingle with some of the richest donors at my university; and on the day-to-day as I navigate the world as a working-class, queer, disabled black woman, even on the days it feels impossible. Obama’s story inspires me to keep going, to remind myself that a better future is possible and that the things I might be embarrassed about – taking medication for my mental health, worrying if I have to dip into my savings to cover a medical bill and booking a 12-hour train home for Thanksgiving because that’s what I can afford – are the things that make me me, and make me valuable, and are the things that I should be proud of.

Of course, Becoming is Michelle Obama’s story, of how she moved from a girl on the South Side of Chicago to becoming one of the most powerful women in the world. But in the final pages of the book, Obama writes, “It’s all a process, steps along a path. Becoming requires equal parts patience and rigor.” Here, Obama is pushing us to reckon with our own becomings – to realise our own story and to have the power to tell it.

@juneericudorie

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Photo: Getty Images
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