Michelle Obama has given a blistering speech in which she reveals the emotional challenge of facing down racist attitudes towards her being America’s first African-American First Lady, and which has brought African-Americans out in protest across the country.
When her husband Barack became the first black president of the United States in 2009, America got its first black First Lady too, in Michelle Obama. A woman who went from humble beginnings in Chicago, to become a leading corporate lawyer, Michelle Obama is no shrinking violet. But she needed to become emotionally bullet-proof to deal with what came next.
“As…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,” the First Lady said during a near half-hour commencement address at traditionally black Tuskagee University on Saturday.
It wasn’t long before these misperceptions began asserting themselves in the corporate media. In 2008, the New Yorker’s first magazine cover featuring Michelle Obama satirized her as a radical terrorist. The racial overtones could not have been more explicit.
“It was a cartoon drawing of me with a huge afro and a machine gun,” she recalls.
“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.”
Over the half-hour address, Mrs Obama recounted the racist comments she and her husband have endured. The highlights included Fox News calling the First Lady her “husband’s crony of color” and “Obama’s baby mama” (as if Obama was some street corner player that had left Michelle with a couple of kids – and not in fact a successful and committed married couple holding the highest office in the land). She and the future President were even assumed to be “the help” by fellow guests at formal events.
“Back in those days, I had a lot of sleepless nights worrying about what people thought of me,” she recalls. “I had to ignore all of the noise and be true to myself — and the rest would work itself out,”
At this point in the speech, the graduates broke out in cheers and applause.
As the room quietened, Mrs. Obama came to her point. This speech isn’t about her, but about the bigger issue of racism in America. The racism that people of color face every day, and the anger that has people on the streets from Baltimore, to Ferguson, and beyond.
“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.”
But while these circumstances present their own set of challenges, the First Lady urged those affected communities never to lose hope for a better tomorrow.
“The road ahead isn’t going to be easy. It never is for folks like you and me. Because while we’ve come so far, the truth is that those age-old problems are stubborn.
But those views are no excuse to throw up our hands and give up!”
Mrs. Obama calls on communities to rally, organize and build each other up – so they can look those who would misjudge them in the eye and know they are equal. They must channel their anger into work, studying and the kinds of actions that elevate not only individuals, but entire communities. In short, it is time to rise with the kind of productive fury which propels us inexorably to the highest positions in the land. And from there, make a fairer, most just world for us all.
Watch the address below:
Featured Image via Tuskagee University