Virginia McLaurin, a 107-year-old African-American woman, started to dance when she met the president and Michelle Obama in the White House during Black History Month earlier this year. “What’s the secret to dancing at 106?!" asked President Obama, laughing, as they took Virginia’s hands. Yoda-like in height, Virginia looked up at Barack and Michelle towering above her and beamed: “I tell you, I am so happy. A black president. A black wife. I’m here to celebrate black history.”
Fifty-two-year-old Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama is a living, breathing part of black history. Now, she is just mere weeks away from leaving the White House, where she has been the First Lady for eight years, and returning to Chicago, where she was born, in the poorer, south side of the city known for its guns and gangs; the city where she met Barack as his mentor at a law firm; the city where they brought up their daughters for the first 10 and seven years of their lives. And now the world is starting to pause and reflect on the significance of the first African-American First Lady. (Michelle Obama credits the city with her career; at a speech about youth violence in Chicago, she said, “My story would not be possible without this city.”)
The pause for reflection is inevitable and she’s mid-media trawl, appearing on everything, from Oprah to Stephen Colbert, doing a rundown of her “best bits”. But the reflection feels somewhat more profound in light of Obama’s recent speeches, particularly the one at the Democratic National Convention and the one at a Clinton rally in New Hampshire. This could be partly to do with the looming threat of a Trump presidency, but mostly likely to do with a new, unleashed frankness. Her New Hampshire speech was described by Republican chat-show host Glenn Beck as “the most effective political speech I have heard since Reagan”. Gloria Steinem said, “Michelle has become one of the most effective public speakers of our time.” The departure of Obama from the White House no longer just feels inevitable – it feels like America is about to lose something very special, maybe even essential.
For eight years, she’s not just been dancing with history, with the American people and with a seemingly pretty great husband, she’s been dancing around the barriers society holds firmly in place for black women
And, just like she did with Virginia McLaurin, the story of the eight years leading up to those speeches can be told via Michelle Obama dancing, from the poignancy of her dance with Barack at the inauguration ball as Beyoncé sang Etta James’s At Last to the way she encouraged millions of Americans to dance to tackle the nation’s obesity problem; or the way she became beloved by those who hated politics and hated Democrats because she was dancing on Jimmy Fallon and The Ellen DeGeneres Show; or dancing with James Corden and Missy Elliott in Carpool Karaoke to raise awareness around young girls and education. Images of her and Barack Obama dancing to Al Green and Aretha Franklin brought a cool, black culture into the most powerful house in the world. And, on Thursday night, she danced again, on stage, behind Hillary Clinton in North Carolina. Watching Obama dance has been infectious. After just a year in office, 71 per cent of the country had a favourable opinion of her, according to Pew Research Center, higher than Hillary Clinton (60 per cent) or Laura Bush (64 per cent) had in the same position.
It wasn’t all the party it might sound like, though. Obama has been met with considerable sexism and racism and that particularly nasty spot where those two things meet. Dr Marcia Chatelain, associate professor of history and african american studies at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C told me that Obama’s “ability to ignore all the trolls and the racist critics demonstrates what women of colour have to go through in order to be themselves". A voter at a Mitt Romney rally told American radio, “I don’t like [Barack Obama’s] wife. She’s far from the First Lady. It’s about time we get a First Lady in there that acts like a First Lady, and looks like a First Lady.” The man who made this comment later denied that there were any racial undertones but, either way, Obama doesn’t look like a First Lady because there has never before been a black First Lady. Jill Filipovic, an American journalist who has covered women and politics for The New York Times and Time magazine, told me that Obama was up against a whole catalogue of prejudices: “I think Michelle's occupying really unchartered territory. She's not just an ambitious, hard-working, very successful woman who is married to the president, but she's also African-American and there are so many stereotypes about African-American women. I imagine it is a pretty difficult dance around all of these racial and gender landmines that are waiting for her, and to develop her persona over the past eight years – that is pretty incredible. Black women have to contend with stereotypes that they're angry or that they're loud or aggressive or emasculating or that they're not good mothers.”
And so, for eight years, she’s not just been dancing with history, with the American people and with a seemingly pretty great husband, she’s been dancing around the barriers society holds firmly in place for black women – all while playing the game to keep her husband elected. Despite her glowing assessment of Obama, Filipovic recognises that she is “quite a savvy political player” who was “very carefully cultivated for public consumption”. And that’s one theory as to why her recent speeches were so powerful – she isn’t having to play the game any more and she’s no longer trying to dance around those landmines. Of her DNC speech, Gloria Steinem said, “Eventually, she spoke up about the pain of the racist assumptions directed at her, but she waited until her husband could no longer be politically punished for her honesty.” The fact that Obama would play the game, make that sacrifice, doesn’t feel surprising. To the outside, at least, the mutual adoration seems genuine. (She recently called Barack “swaggalicious”.) And, as a couple and a family, they’re redefining the American dream. Steinem again: “We will never have a democracy until we have democratic families and a society without the invented categories of both race and gender. Michelle Obama may have changed history in the most powerful way – by example.”
So, finally, there she was, speaking as a black woman and a black mother, merging her gender, race and the role of motherhood into one profoundly powerful image: “I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves and I watch my daughters, two beautiful, intelligent, black young women, playing with their dogs on the White House lawn.” (It was a hell of a line in a country that seems on the verge of a crisis over institutional police racism and brutality.)
And 2016 wasn’t the first time Obama had used the DNC stage to portray herself as mother first, First Lady second. In 2012, she called herself “mom-in-chief”, but there was no reference to slavery or the progress her daughters represented, living in the White House. Interestingly, Sarah Mantilla Griffin, a cultural critic who has specialised in African-American literature, said that, in the 2012 speech, “Obama reinvigorated black feminist motherhood as uniquely American, as powerfully productive and as a framework for social, economic and political progress that may be called upon in creating the American future.” The message was always there – as June Eric-Udorie points out, “She is steeped in her blackness”; her Princeton thesis was on the racial divide, titled “Princeton-Educated Blacks and the Black Community’” but, after eight years, she no longer hides behind voter-friendly titles like “mom-in-chief”. Now, she can decode it for us; now, is she allowed to break it down for us. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie recently wrote of Obama’s 2016 DNC speech: “She said ‘black boy’ and ‘slaves’ – words she would not have said eight years ago because, eight years ago, any concrete gesturing to blackness would have had real consequences.”
But Obama’s words have always had consequences, especially to the next generation of young black women. Writing for The Pool the day after the DNC speech, June Eric-Udorie said, “How lucky I am to have been given a role model that is so unapologetic about who she is, where she comes from and where she is going.”
Siana Bangura, the editor of No Fly On The Wall, a platform for the voices and experiences of black self-identifying women in the UK, told The Pool: “No other First Lady has had the same impact on young women and girls… For young black women to see someone in that position who looks like them makes so many more things possible for them.” Furthermore, Bangura believes that the message of the Obamas as a couple is equally powerful: “It’s important for me to see the most important man in the world married to a dark-skinned black woman. Not all the time, but often, powerful or successful black men are married to white women or women of other races.”
Michelle Obama seems a genuine supporter of Clinton. On Thursday night, she called her “my girl” and, as if speaking directly to all the cynics who believe Hillary is, in fact, an establishment chatbot, she said, “And, yes, she is my friend.”
It doesn’t go unnoticed, of course, that the culmination of eight years of an impressive, likeable, relatable, inspiring black First Lady, who’s now having the conversation she wasn’t really allowed to before, is being used to fuel the campaign of Hillary Clinton – a white woman who is seen to embody the establishment. And more than just fuel – the campaign has called her “our not-so secret weapon”. The Hillary camp was hard to penetrate, but the general gist was Michelle is great, but don’t forget it’s far harder to be the first woman running for president than a First Lady about to step out of the limelight. And, to be fair, as a First Lady Hillary Clinton tackled far harder issues than Michelle has. Michelle’s fight for education for young girls and healthy eating is, of course, admirable, but Hillary tried to launch a health-care bill in the 90s, she was far more outspoken on abortion and reproductive rights and, of course, she was married to Bill Clinton, not feminist-dad-in-chief Barack. It’s no secret that our society still tars women with their husbands’ – often grimy – brush.
Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama at a rally in North Carolina
Michelle Obama seems a genuine supporter of Clinton. On Thursday night, she called her “my girl” and, as if speaking directly to all the cynics who believe Hillary is, in fact, an establishment chatbot, she said, “And, yes, she is my friend.” In her DNC speech, Obama said, “Hillary Clinton has never quit on anything in her life.” It was a smart line that at once addresses and smoothes over what is arguably the biggest thorn in Clinton’s side.
And it was being an ally to women that was at the heart of the brilliance of Obama’s New Hampshire speech – a speech that was arguably instrumental in the turning point of people no longer being able to ignore Trump’s misogyny, and helped push reluctant voters towards Hillary. But this was about more than Trump – this was the recognition and articulation that women deal with unacceptable behaviour from men all the time. The fact that that speech was a tribute to the day-to-day difficulty of being a woman could, in part, be perceived as a fitting tribute to Clinton. The promotion of other women – be it their own daughters or young girls in Third World countries – is something these women share.
As is the scrutiny they’ve received as First Lady. But, while Obama has always been mostly praised for her style – Ngozi Adichie called her “an American style icon”, her Versace dress recently sent the internet into total meltdown and there are a million articles online about how to “get Michelle Obama’s arms” – Clinton’s appearance has always caused problems and been the target of blatant sexism. And so, perhaps, the one big difference between the women is arguably Obama’s defining feature: Clinton had to mould into a figure the press and public could accept (although they never really have).Yet, speaking earlier this year to Oprah, Obama said, “I think, as women and young girls, we have to invest that time in getting to understand who we are and liking who we are. Because I like me. I’ve liked me for a very long time. So, for a long time, I’ve had a very good relationship with myself.” Is it this self-acceptance, this defiant message of “This is who I am” that has made Michelle so liked, so seemingly relatable? Perhaps, but Jill Filipovic issues a warning: “I don't know anybody that's on a international stage the way she is who is 100 per cent authentic.”
For the last eight years, Michelle Obama has played a dutiful, conventional First Lady, appearing on Sesame Street, working for human-rights causes, being a great mother and a wife. But she has also challenged us – with herself, with who she is, be it by her tall athletic frame, her natural sense of style, her coolness, her swag and now her prowess as a great communicator, as a great political speaker who can whip passion and purpose and meaning into a rally at a gym in middle America; and, of course, by challenging stubborn stereotypes of black women on the global stage.
Now, she’s in her fifties, about to return to her hometown of Chicago and, for lots of men and women, eight years of Michelle Obama is simply not enough. Of course, there are calls for Obama to run for president. But there are other concerns too. Dr Marcia Chatelain hopes that "as Mrs. Obama transitions out of the White House she spends more time talking about the problems of racism, police violence and takes a stronger stance on why all people must stand in solidarity with Black Lives Matter".
I ask Filipovic what she hopes for: “I hope that the conversation her and Barack are having right now is that it's been his turn for the past decade and I hope what she's saying is, ‘You know what? Now it's my turn.’”