To Michelle Obama, With Love: Notes to First Lady Thank Her for Changing American History
Four notes celebrating Michelle Obama and everything that she is, that she does and that she has achieved have been printed in the New York Times. The notes, which are characterized as thank you notes by some and love notes by others, are written by author and novelist Chimamanda Adiche; political activist Gloria Steinem; Pulitzer prize-winning biographer Jon Meacham; and actress and producer Rashida Jones.
All four letters in some way address Obama’s grace and poise, especially given the incredible racism she has faced as our first Black first lady, and the ways in which that has manifested.
Gloria Steinem writes that Michelle Obama, “managed to convey dignity and humor at the same time, to be a mother of two daughters and insist on regular family dinners, and to take on health issues and a national food industry addicted to unhealthy profits.”
The first lady has had many successes, but has always had many detractors.
“She did this despite an undertow of bias in this country that subtly questioned everything she did,” Steinem continues. “Was she too strong, physically and intellectually, to be a proper first lady?”
The question that Steinem poses gets at the heart of the critiques against Mrs. Obama. Jon Meacham writes that, “The important thing is that Mrs. Obama, a clear-eyed lawyer, found a way to withstand the scrutiny of the spotlight. In point of fact, she did more than withstand it. To borrow a phrase from William Faulkner, she not only endured it; she prevailed over it.”
Obama prevailed over it by clearly positioning herself as not just a first lady: a figurehead, a symbolic position. Michelle Obama made herself the first Black first lady by not being afraid to be a proud Black woman. A proud intelligent Black woman, who is a lawyer, a wife, a mother.
Rashida Jones’ praise of the first lady is centered around how Michelle Obama has shown that a woman should not be afraid to be everything.
“All women struggle to reconcile the different people that we are at all times, to merge our conflicting desires, to represent ourselves honestly and feel good about the inherent contradictions. But Michelle manages to do this with poise, regardless of the scrutiny,” Jones writes.
She continues: “Michelle makes me feel like every choice is available. You can go to Princeton and Harvard, you can rap with Missy Elliott, you can be a mother and a lawyer and a powerful orator. You can champion the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, while also caring about fashion.”
“You can dance with Ellen and also fearlessly remind people, on live television, of the reality of your position: ‘I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves. And I watch my daughters, two beautiful, intelligent, black young women, playing with their dogs on the White House lawn.’ ”
Chimamanda Adiche’s letter is particularly important, as her writing is centered specifically on Blackness and Black women. Adiche writes that, despite Michelle Obama being many things at once as a proud Black woman, “Voters and observers, wide strips of America, wanted her to conform and defer, to cleanse her tongue of wit and barb. When she spoke of [President Obama’s] bad morning-breath, a quirky and humanizing detail, she was accused of emasculating him.”
Adiche asserts that “because she said what she thought, and because she smiled only when she felt like smiling, and not constantly and vacuously, America’s cheapest caricature was cast on her: the Angry Black Woman. Women, in general, are not permitted anger — but from black American women, there is an added expectation of interminable gratitude, the closer to groveling the better.”
“Michelle Obama was speaking,” Adiche writes, her refrain throughout her letter. “I felt protective of her because she was speaking to an America often too quick to read a black woman’s confidence as arrogance, her straightforwardness as entitlement.”
Adiche writes that she understands that Obama’s criticism and the disrespect she receives are specifically because she is a Black woman, that this knowledge makes her feel pride in her, yet want to protect her as well.
“The insults, those barefaced and those adorned as jokes, the acidic scrutiny, the manufactured scandals, the base questioning of legitimacy, the tone of disrespect, so ubiquitous, so casual,” Adiche says of the racist disrespect that Michelle Obama has faced over the past eight years. “She had faced them and sometimes she hurt and sometimes she blinked but throughout she remained herself.”
Meacham perhaps best described what Michelle Obama did with the role of first lady, saying, “She did what the first African-American first lady arguably had to do to play a successful public role. In Voltaire’s terms, she cultivated her own garden, never threatening and never intimidating her neighbors.”
And indeed, Michelle Obama literally and figuratively cultivated her own garden. She has been — mostly because she is and also because she has to be — grace and poise personified.