In the new anthology, The Meaning of Michelle: 15 Writers on the Iconic First Lady and How Her Journey Inspires Our Own, edited by Veronica Chambers, former First Lady Michelle Obama is embraced as a meaningful symbol of the American dream. While many books have looked at Michelle Obama from historical or political perspectives, The Meaning of Michelle explores her place in our global culture. In addition to being a tribute, the book is also a timely conversation about race, class, marriage, creativity, womanhood and what it means to be American today.
The brilliant contributors include: Ava DuVernay, Veronica Chambers, Chirlane McCray, Roxane Gay and Benilde Little — bestselling author of the novels Good Hair, The Itch, Acting Out, Who Does She Think She Is? and the memoir Welcome to My Breakdown. We asked Benilde to share with us about her contributing essay, “Michelle in High Cotton.” —Ed.
When I got a text from Veronica Chambers asking me to contribute an essay to an anthology on First Lady Michelle Obama, I immediately said yes. First, I love Veronica from way back. She was my editorial assistant at Essence magazine about twenty-five years ago. She was 19 or barely 20 and had just graduated early from college. I was immediately taken: her mind works like a Swiss watch and she is a constant bubble of ideas and insights.
The second reason I jumped at the chance is that I LOVE Michelle Obama.
What I find so special about her, as much as one can assess in the public eye, is that she presents her whole self. What I love about her, what I wrote about in my essay for the book, and what I relate to is that she has always been who she is. She is rooted by her black South Side Chicago neighborhood, and her loving parents and family. The white gaze hasn’t shaped her narrative. She has been clear when she’s said she is not defined by her Ivy League education. Talismanic for too many of us. Her self-worth, like mine, is rooted in a stable black core. One of the reasons she’s so enigmatic is because we don’t see people, especially Black folk in the public eye, who have done this. It’s why she resonates with so many women, especially Black women. She is our shining Black princess. She represents our uniqueness, our flawlessness, our struggles, and our multiplicity.
That enigma is in the tone of her voice, kind of deep like mine; in the way she speaks; in the way her urban inflection is always apparent. It’s in the things she says: “Dang” and “Bye Felicia,” as we saw in an Oprah interview when asked if her mom would be staying D.C. for the last two years while Sasha finishes high school. I love that! She keeps it real, but without, as comedian David Chappelle wrote, “. . . going wrong.”