When TIME magazine profiled Michelle Obama in 2009, they titled the piece “The Meaning of Michelle Obama”. Because, even then, it was evident to us all that Michelle Obama would have a meaning. That was eight years ago. Eight years ago, I was 10 years old, observing the 2008 US elections. Eight years ago, I was a little black girl in a country far away from the shores of the US, but this felt like my country’s election. Eight years ago, and I watched spellbound, as my parents yelled with sheer joy when it was announced that Barack Obama would be the first Black President of the United States. Eight years ago, and I didn’t even understand or notice the significance of a black President or a black First Lady. This was to be my norm, and the older I grew, the more I learnt that this thing I considered “the norm”, had been for centuries, an impossibility. This might have been a new reality, that black people would live and walk on the lawns on the White House, but I later learned I was observing a historical revolution before my eyes.
“I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves,” remarked the First Lady, at the Democratic National Convention on Monday. The First Lady she is, but she is also a black woman. To have a black woman confront white America with their uncomfortable truths; that this great nation was built on the backs of people who felt the “lash of bondage, the shame of servitude, the sting of segregation but who kept on striving and hoping and doing what needed to be done” renders me speechless. I am still speechless, a day later. “Do you know what it means?” I texted my friend, in the early hours of the morning yesterday. ‘Do you really understand what any of this means?”
I am not African-American but I am a young black woman and I claim Michelle Obama as my own. Michelle Obama is my Auntie Chellie. Yesterday, I thought, how lucky I am. How lucky I am, to have had the Obamas in the White House during my formative years. How lucky I am to have taken it for granted that a black woman could be the First Lady of the United States, and be given the power to redefine that role as she suited, becoming “Mom-In-Chief” despite criticism from all sides. 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.
We can rejoice in all that the First Lady has accomplished and the lessons she has taught us – about humility, self-worth, hard work and knowing when not to engage with bullies
Make no mistake, Michelle is steeped in her blackness – her Princeton thesis was on the racial divide, titled “Princeton-Educated Blacks and the Black Community” – and this is perhaps the reason why I love and respect her the most. Speaking at the DNC on Monday, Michelle Obama, in her own unique way, acknowledged the fight of the police and the Black Lives Matter movement, saying that “police officers and protesters in Dallas […] all desperately want to keep our children safe”. Note, the inclusion of the protesters, an acknowledgment of their struggle and utmost desires in a world that fights to conflate them with aggression, supremacy and terrorism.
As the Obama presidency comes to an end, there will be many comments about the legacy of Michelle Obama. We can rejoice in all that the First Lady has accomplished and the lessons she has taught us – about humility, self-worth, hard work and knowing when not to engage with bullies but to remember her motto: “When they go low, we go high.” But this, this will only be a tiny part of her legacy. Because the Obamas are a first – a black first – which comes with a certain bittersweetness, the joy that a thing that was long overdue has finally happened; a paralysing fear that now that it has happened, it may not happen again, for a while.
Black firsts like the Obama family have become a symbol for so many people across the globe, a symbol that your dreams can become realities and change landscapes. Her true legacy, the reason why when we observe Michelle Obama as First Lady, when we watch her speak, when we read her words, and we feel excitement, joy and pride, is because we know we are witnessing a woman, a black woman, being a first that will lead to more firsts, and seconds and thirds. It will be hard but she has begun a process where more black girls feel that they can try, at least, in a world that doesn't want to see them achieve such firsts. We know that she has changed the world for women, especially black women.