Heidi Stevens: Michelle Obama, don’t leave us; we need you


Those of us who love Michelle Obama — and we are legion — have high hopes for her post-White House career.

Even as we concede she would be justified to quietly tend an organic garden in her new, private back yard, in our minds, we’re sizing her up for a superhero cape (designed by Jason Wu), which she’ll don with aplomb as she rescues us from doom.

Naturally we want a memoir. Nearly all the first ladies write them, after all: Laura Bush (“Spoken From the Heart”), Hillary Clinton (“Living History”), Barbara Bush (“Memoir”), Nancy Reagan (“My Turn”) and so on. Pat Nixon was the rare exception. Even Helen Taft, back in 1914, penned one (“Recollections of Full Years”).

While we wait, there’s “The Meaning of Michelle: 16 Writers on the Iconic First Lady and How Her Journey Inspires Our Own,” a marvelous collection edited by Veronica Chambers that taps into the love — not just admiration, though that’s certainly there; not just respect, though it’s there too — so many Americans have for the South Side girl-turned-Washington royalty.

In it, voices as diverse as Chirlane McCray (the first lady of New York City), Roxane Gay (author of “Bad Feminist” and “Difficult Women”) and Marcus Samuelsson (the chef who prepared the first family’s first state dinner) offer reflections on Michelle’s life and legacy.

“Michelle Obama is everything a black man raised by a white single mother in Hawaii needed,” writes Rebecca Carroll. “She is everything a country with an utterly disgraceful history of emotional and physical violence against black women should champion and elevate. And I would argue that she represents at least 60 percent of what America will miss most about the Obama presidency.”

Carroll, an author, producer at New York Public Radio and critic-at-large for the Los Angeles Times, writes my favorite of the 16 essays. She wonders how her own childhood would have been different had she grown up with Michelle Obama in the White House. “My fifth-grade teacher, who was mean anyway, made sure to let me know that I was less than all the others — lucky, but in a defying nature sort of way: ‘very pretty … for a black girl. Most black girls aren’t very pretty.’ And with that, I turned inward and lost a faith in my blackness that I never even knew I had until it turned into pride years later.”

Would a black first lady have strengthened her faith? We’ll never know, of course. Obama entered the White House after Carroll was well past childhood. But millions of other little girls have grown up with the image of the Obamas at the top, and with Michelle, in particular, reminding them that she sees them.

“She has mentioned teachers who openly underestimated her intelligence and prospects to succeed,” Carroll writes. Indeed, Michelle Obama has spoken about feeling tangled up in her own self-doubt through much of her childhood. Carroll continues, “The beauty, though, of having created her own fears and doubts, is the way in which she has effectively, even casually, decimated them along her path to Princeton, then Harvard Law School, as a successful corporate lawyer, and as a prominent badass in the public sector.”

Tiffany Dufu, a Fortune 500 consultant and women’s leadership speaker, writes about Obama’s willingness to reshape the first lady mold into something recognizable, certainly, but also a bit revolutionary.

“For the first time in our nation’s history we saw a sweaty first lady,” Dufu writes.

Obama got her hands dirty in the garden. She challenged Ellen DeGeneres to an on-air dance-off. She gave hugs — including, Dufu points out, to the Queen of England, who hadn’t been hugged in 57 years. (By a public figure anyway.)

“Her complexity is her dichotomy,” Dufu writes. “That is why she resonates. American society has a knack for punishing complex women. We like them to fit one mold. But because Michelle lives in the middle, no matter who you are when you look at her you see yourself.”

Not everyone does, of course. The first lady has been the subject of small-minded taunts and racist venom since her husband’s first run for the presidency. Those are addressed here, but mostly in passing. The book is largely a love letter.

Roxane Gay speaks most directly to the first lady’s post-White House career.

“I hope Michelle Obama does whatever her heart most desires when her husband’s presidency ends,” Gay writes. “But I would love to see her make space for black girls and women in the public sphere and the public imagination. In a perfect world, she might create and lead a robust and well-funded organization dedicated to black girls and women, one that implements a set of initiatives that encourage black girls and women to flourish.”

(Not unlike My Brother’s Keeper, the program created in 2014 by the Obama administration to support young black men.)

Soon enough we’ll learn how Michelle Obama will spend the next decade. In time, I hope, we’ll read her reflections on the previous one.

In the meantime, “The Meaning of Michelle” is a thank-you note, of sorts, and a reminder of all that she represents.

Stevens is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.



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