The White House’s first black first lady will depart next year. Commentators consider Michelle Obama’s legacy as she prepares to leave office.
Peter Slevin, author of Michelle Obama: A Life
We are not likely to see another American first lady do the hula hoop on the White House lawn, practise kickboxing on an official video, dance in public to Uptown Funk or feed kale chips to comedians dressed in drag on late-night television.
“I’m pretty much willing to make a complete fool of myself to get our kids moving,” said Michelle Obama, this most uncommon of first ladies, talking about her efforts to improve kids’ health. Nearly eight years on, as she prepares to return to a less public life, the medium and the message will be her legacy.
Obama and her public relations team mastered the internet and social media to reach audiences – especially young audiences – in ways equal parts targeted and unfiltered. She counts her Instagram and Twitter followers by the million. Her videos routinely go viral. She is as comfortable with a whimsical six second Vine as with a crafted 30-minute speech.
But without the message, the medium would be meaningless, and it is her work on economic, social and racial inequality that most animates her and sets her apart. It is also this work, particularly the education of girls of colour in the United States and around the world, that is most likely to define her post-White House life.
First ladies – there has never been a first gentleman – arrive in the White House without a playbook. They have no official duties, no salary, no official job description. Yet critics are ready to pounce from every point on the compass. More so with the first African-American first lady in a country that is anything but post-racial.
Obama made clear that she did not want to do certain things simply because first ladies had always done them. She told her aides: “Don’t just put me on a plane, send me someplace and have me smile.” As petitioners clamoured for her attention, she declared that she would be purposeful, she would push substantive policies and she would strive to do work that will not evaporate when she leaves.
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Childhood obesity disproportionately afflicts low-income Americans and children of colour. The same holds for gaps in education, jobs and wealth. These are disparities that she has seen and studied since her earliest days in a working class household in largely segregated Chicago. Now one of the most recognisable women in the world, she remains determined to do what she can to unstack the deck.
In January, Obama will leave the White House three days after her 52nd birthday. She rules out a formal role in politics. But, unchained from the expectations and constraints of her current existence, she will have much to say.
In 2008, Barack Obama’s election to the White House as the first black president was not the only event that made history: Michelle Obama did so too when she became the first black first lady. Many have observed that Michelle Obama exemplified “black girl magic”. She is a Harvard-trained lawyer with the middle name LaVaughn, has excellent fashion sense, and is an activist in her own right. Her legacy for black women is that we can unapologetically be black, even in the White House.
To be clear, I seriously disagree with some of her husband’s policies and stances. I’ve been particularly critical of his tendency to place responsibility for police violence with black communities. In my imagination, after he makes those statements on national television, the first lady scolds him and urges him to take concrete action to improve the lives of black communities across the nation.
But that’s just it. Many of us following the last eight years of the Obama presidency may have criticised her husband’s policies, but find that Michelle is flawless and can do no wrong. She is meticulous, brilliant, and fun. She holds African dance classes in the White House with the legendary Debbie Allen, and she takes selfies that call for the release of more than 200 African schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram.
She is unabashedly a feminist, the kind that black women and women of colour can relate to. Polished yet unpretentious, she loves her man but is not in any way dependent on him for success, value or worth. That is Michelle Obama’s legacy, one that made many of us feel more comfortable in our skin.
As the first lady’s second term comes to a close, I hope that she becomes a more visible advocate for improving the conditions of black women’s lives so that all black people can thrive.
The moment is ripe for her to join the growing chorus to improve the lives of black women and girls: those who are holding together the tatters of our democracy and our economy, those who are working low wage jobs with little to no protections, those who are being funnelled from a broken economy into an ever expanding prison system.
Though some of us in jest may say “Michelle Obama for President in 2016”, I am eagerly looking forward to the next contributions of the first black first lady.
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