Michelle Obama‘s commencement address at Tuskegee University over the weekend was centered on her role as the first African-American first lady of the U.S.. She repeated the questions she faced…
“Was I too loud, or too angry, or too emasculating? Or was I too soft, too much of a mom, not enough of a career woman?
Throughout this journey. I have learned to block everything out and focus on my truth. I had to answer some basic questions for myself: Who am I? No, really, who am I? What do I care about? And the answers to those questions have resulted in the woman who stands before you today.”
“As potentially the first African-American first lady, I was also the focus of another set of questions and speculations, conversations sometimes rooted in the fears and misperceptions of others.”
Obama referenced the cover of the July 2008 issue of The New Yorker, in which Obama was depicted with her husband as terrorist enemies of the United States. (Which was of course, an indictment of the critics of the White House but it still stung…)
“Then there was the first time I was on a magazine cover. It was a cartoon drawing of me with a huge afro and a machine gun. Now, yeah, it was satire, but if I’m really being honest, it knocked me back a bit. It made me wonder ‘just how are people seeing me?'”
In her nearly 30-minute speech, the she recalled other particularly tough moments, including being referred to on Fox News as “Obama’s baby mama.” She also recalled a moment on the campaign trail when she gave her husband a fist bump to celebrate a primary win, later to be referred to by an anchor on that network as a “terrorist fist jab.”
“Back in those days, I had a lot of sleepless nights worrying what people thought of me…”
Obama also said that once she became first lady and was working on platforms and issues that were important to her she was once again criticized for her choices not “being bold enough.”
“So I immersed myself in the policy details. I worked with Congress on legislation, gave speeches to CEOs, military generals and Hollywood executives.” Obama said. “But I also worked to ensure that my efforts would resonate with kids and families — and that meant doing things in a creative and unconventional way. So, yeah, I planted a garden, and hula-hooped on the White House lawn with kids. I did some mom dancing on TV … And at the end of the day, by staying true to the me I’ve always known, I found that this journey has been incredibly freeing.”
Obama made reference to some of the racial controversies being played out in several American cities.
“All of that is gonna be a heavy burden to carry. It can feel isolating. It can make you feel like your life somehow doesn’t matter … And as we’ve seen over the past few years, those feelings are real. They’re rooted in decades of structural challenges that have made too many folks feel frustrated and invisible, and those feelings are playing out in communities like Baltimore and Ferguson and so many others across this country.”
The first lady concluded by saying that while those feelings are real, they are never an excuse for the graduates to give up or lose hope but instead provide a better example of how to succeed.
“It teaches us that when we pull ourselves out of the emotional depths and we challenge our frustrations into studying and organizing and banding together, then we can build ourselves and our communities up,” she said. “We can take on those deep rooted problems, and together, together we can overcome anything.”
So I immersed myself in the policy details. I worked with Congress on legislation, gave speeches to CEOs, military generals and Hollywood executives. But I also worked to ensure that my efforts would resonate with kids and families — and that meant doing things in a creative and unconventional way. So, yeah, I planted a garden, and hula-hooped on the White House lawn with kids. I did some mom dancing on TV … And at the end of the day, by staying true to the me I’ve always known, I found that this journey has been incredibly freeing.
“You’ve got to vote, vote, vote, vote. That’s it; that’s the way we move forward. That’s how we make progress for ourselves and for our country.”
What an inspiration for those graduates and millions of others around the world. I’ve met her and she is all that you would imagine; warm, charming, funny (a hugger) kind, smart, and fiercely determined. It’s nice to feel proud of someone who represents us all so well.