Michelle Obama is unlike any other First Lady in American History. From her first moments on the public stage, she has challenged traditional American notions about what it means to be beautiful, to be strong, to be fashion-conscious, to be healthy, to be First Mom, to be a caretaker and hostess, and to be partner to the most powerful man in the world. As Hillary Clinton has said, admiringly about Michelle Obama, our soon to be ex–First Lady exemplifies “the ideal concept of American womanhood.” What is remarkable is that, at 52, she is just getting started.
While many books have looked at Michelle Obama from a fashion perspective, no book has fully explored what Michelle Obama means to our culture. The Meaning of Michelle will do just that, while offering a parting gift to a landmark moment in American history. This deliciously readable collection presents a chorus of diverse voices with smart, engaging perspectives on Michelle Obama. There will be a preface by Ava Duvernay and an introduction by Veronica Chambers. Confirmed contributors include Roxane Gay, Rebecca Walker, Chirlene McCray, Melissa Harris Perry, Brittney Cooper, Tiffany Dufu, Alicia Hall Moran and Jason Moran, Sarah Lewis, Dr. Janet Taylor, Benilde Little, Marcus Samuelsson, Phillipa Soo and Cathi Hanauer.
|Publisher:||St. Martin's Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.60(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.10(d)|
About the Author
VERONICA CHAMBERS is a prolific writer and the author of the critically acclaimed memoir Mama’s Girl. She has contributed to several anthologies, including the bestselling Bitch in the House and Mommy Wars. She’s been an editor at the New York Times Magazine, Glamour, and Newsweek, as well as developing Latina magazines for Conde Nast and Hearst. She lives with her family in Hoboken.
Read an Excerpt
The Meaning of Michelle
16 Writers on the Iconic First Lady and How Her Journey Inspires Our Own
By Veronica Chambers
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2017 Veronica Chambers
All rights reserved.
Michelle in High Cotton
The first time I saw a picture of Michelle post 2008 inauguration I literally cried. She was featured in the Style section of the Sunday New York Times, dressed in that fabulous, custom-made purple dress. I was reading in bed, next to my husband who handed me the section, knowing it was then the first thing I read. I got a few lines into the story, welled up and then literally burst out crying.
"Why are you crying?" Cliff asked. By now he was used to me breaking into tears, the way some people break into song. Do you remember the way the Holly Hunter character in Broadcast News used to have an appointment sob daily before everyone else showed up for work? She would sit on the floor in her office, unplug her phone and sob. For no apparent reason. Me too.
"I'm just so happy. She's like me," I said.
She was the first woman I'd ever seen in The New York Times — or any majority media outlet — with whom I completely identified. She was part of my tribe. He looked at me, surely thinking, She ain't really. But my dear husband had the good sense to keep his opinion to himself. He must've understood that I knew something he didn't; an unuttered, undecipherable code of Black womanhood that he'd never be able to tune in to. It's kinda of like the way we say gurl to each other, but more nuanced. Gurl can be an appraisal, but a loving one that basically says, "I see you. You are me and I am you."
I'm not gon front, I'm not talking about all Black women: We are not a monolith. We have nuances and there are tribes within this tribe. Michelle is part of my tribe. In my tribe:
We're honest with ourselves and the world around us.
We value other women. We hold each other up with no interest in the tear down.
We strive to achieve and keep it real for us — however that looks. There's no one size fits all.
Tracee Ellis Ross is a part of our tribe. She shows up sans makeup and without gettin' her hair did. She gangsta raps as an alter-ego character, T-Murda — which is straight-out hilarious. She shows up on Blackish with her hair cornrowed and bamboo earrings, and then she shows up straight-up fashion flawless. I love what seems like her acceptance of her total self — not just as a glam actress and daughter of a superstar icon.
Holly Robinson Peete is part of the tribe, too. She went to Sarah Lawrence (as did Robin Givens — they actually had a fist fight there), did her successful sitcom stint — never playing chitlin', neck-rollin' stereotypes — found a good, smart, solid dude (an athlete, no less), had a bunch of babies, stayed married to him and does important foundation work. Props to gossip queen Wendy Williams and 80s It girl actress Givens, but neither of them are part of this tribe and they probably wouldn't want to be. / It might be easier to say who we are not. We're not: Glamazons who stomp around in six-inch heels, hoisting a handbag that costs a salary in some parts of the country, with somebody else's straightened hair down our backs. Publicly tearing folks down is not edifying for us. We want to look good but like ourselves with an individual twist — like Michelle rocking a J. Crew sweater with an haute couture skirt.
Pre-Michelle, the Black women in media — who weren't Halle Berry or Oprah — were either perfect pitch, high bourg or stone ghettoians (Lil' Kim), no shades or complexities as humans are. We can be round-the-way, love being with our peeps from the 'hood, be comfortable having drinks with our girls at The Mandarin Oriental, sit on museum boards, have close friendships with white girls and some of us have white husbands — all while holding on to an inner compass, not one set by someone else's judgment of what's best.
Michelle was a real hard-working professional, from a working-class South Side Chicago family, who shuttled her daughters to dance lessons and movie play dates on Saturdays. Just like I did. She looked regular — could look amazing (like in that purple sheath) or not — sometimes photographed with her hair pulled back and not in a cute chignon, but in that I-need-to-go-to-the-beauty-parlor-but-I-don't-have-the-time look. Her good Chicago friend Yvonne Davila insists that Michelle is "Real. She is you, she is me, she is everybody."
Coming from the South Side provides natives with a very specific sense of place. Chicago is an extremely racially polarized city and Michelle has that "thing" people from the South Side have. I have a good friend who grew up there and she says, "It's hard to get that South Side out of us." I asked her to explain it and this is what I've gathered: folks from there have a defiant grounded-ness; a resoluteness perhaps born in the Black Belt (Alabama and Mississippi) where most Black Chicagoans came from.
The Black Belt had the largest cash crop, cotton, and those enslaved there, it has been said, were treated most harshly. (To be clear, that's like saying the whippings were every day instead of six days a week.)
The South Side attitude of togetherness was borne of being excluded from much of the city's political power for so long. When a Black man, Harold Washington, was finally elected mayor in 1983, Black people there were literally dancing in the streets.
People from the South Side have a tell-it-like-it-is way about themselves. Now, don't get it twisted. It's not all Kumbaya togetherness. There was and is a sharp class division there, too (although everybody Black was down with the election of Harold Washington). There are the generations of Chicagoans who are college-educated folks; some who are so light-skinned you gotta look hard to discern any African heritage. In the early days, that segment filled selective groups like Jack and Jill, the Links, some Greek-lettered organizations.
Michelle's dad worked fixing boilers in the city's water department and her mom went to work as a secretary after her children entered elementary school. The Robinsons were not even close to qualifying for membership in the Black bourgeoisie and from all appearances that wasn't a goal. Her family, like mine, stressed education and wanted their children to be free, to have choices about how they would make a living — to have a career as opposed to a job. The Robinsons stressed solidly middle-class values, not social strata aspirations. Our neighborhoods were Black — up and down the spectrum.
I have watched how Michelle navigated the world of her childhood as she took the world stage. I greedily gobbled up anything she said about that world. I looked for anything I could find about her girlfriends — any bit of info that would provide insight into more of who she is. I did look up two of her best friends on Facebook and found that both of them are real regular. The home décor in one house featured chain store furniture and curtains, not drapes, in the living room. Real, real.
"One of the most interesting aspects of the Obamas' ascendency is that neither one of them is the product of this approval-dependent world of relentless obligation, prayerful duty and punishing well-scrubbed-ness ... And since both of Michelle Obama's parents were working class, it's doubtful that they would have considered the hefty fees and consuming time commitments a priority, even assuming they'd have met the more social-climbing criteria that a number of such [elite] clubs emphasize," Professor Patricia Williams wrote in The Daily Beast.
Although the term "South Side" is thrown around like a blanket for "Black," for the 'hood, it's quite diverse. There are middle-class, working-class and affluent pockets. While geographically Hyde Park is only about a mile from where Michelle grew up, it might as well be another state. Hyde Park is fancy and stately and has always been an island — home of brainy University of Chicago. Michelle told a reporter from MORE magazine: "As a black kid on the South Side, the University of Chicago was a foreign entity to me." She said as a young person she had never set foot on the campus.
"All the buildings have their backs to the community. The university didn't think kids like me existed, and I certainly didn't want anything to do with that place."
A Chicago friend, Cindy Moelis, says Michelle wanted a house — a big house with a big yard. "Barack wanted his family to be comfortable, but he would have been satisfied with three spoons, a fork, and a dish," says an acquaintance who talked to him often about the matter. "It was an issue for her." She got to indulge in her dream house — in Hyde Park/Kenwood, a $1.65 million, six-bedroom, three-story Georgian revival mansion with a wine cellar and dark wood paneling — when Barack's convention speech in 2004 sent his memoir onto bestseller lists, and the couple suddenly had money. It is where she and Barack settled and made a close group of friends who seemed to be like them — accomplished doctors, lawyers, entrepreneurs who all seemed "down," not interested in membership in the established Black elite — even though they all had qualifying credentials.
Their good friend and political godmother, Valerie Jarrett, is Black Chicago royalty and referred to as Barack's secret weapon. Valerie, who grew up going to her family's home on Martha's Vineyard, introduced that Black Bourgeois mecca to Michelle and Barack. The writer Touré wrote a piece for New York magazine about the ritual gathering (the generational ownership of homes on the island) and, in his view, the myriad criteria for being welcomed there. While trying to unlock the mystery of the island's attractions and assess the Vineyard's suitability as a vacation spot for our new First Family, he spoke to one anonymous, snobby, long-time islander who reportedly questioned Michelle Obama's place in the group's hierarchy, referring to the First Lady as a "ghetto girl." The actual quote: "[Michelle Obama] is basically a ghetto girl. She grew up in the same place Jennifer Hudson did. She hasn't reached out to the social community of Washington."
I know. Really? Clutch the damn pearls.
Fortunately, there was a loud outcry at such a statement, including from those in the established old guard. They got together and wrote a letter to the Vineyard Gazette and complained that Touré had portrayed them as a bunch of racist snobs. He stood by what he had written, maintaining that the article was written in admiration, not condemnation — and he had the unnamed source on tape. I had no problem believing that someone had made this comment. As an "outsider" who started going to the Vineyard in the early 80s and returned twenty years later (when my daughter begged us to rent our own house so she didn't have to keep sponging off her friend's grandparents), I'd been asked: How long have you been coming? Code: Are you old or new? The area of Oak Bluffs is considered "our town" by the old guard and anyone new is socially X-rayed. However, I know lots of the old guard who are lovely and welcoming; and it's become much more democratic, and crowded, in the last 25-plus years. The small-town feeling is gone, and with it some of the possessiveness, even as many of the homeowners complain about all the new people.
As a Black person with a lot of the same accoutrements as the elite, it can be an intricate dance of expressing your true self, holding on to that "ghetto girl" while travelling so far from your origins. Being in worlds that have no understanding of or exposure to where you're from — the real, not the stereotype — can be exhausting and sometimes lonely. Michelle seems to flawlessly navigate these uncharted, sometimes hostile terrains.
Michelle never responded publicly to the "ghetto girl" comment, but I would've loved to have been a fly on the wall when she did so in private. I'm sure there was at least a mention of it among her girls and maybe even with her mama. Marian Robinson clearly don't take no mess, or as the old folks say: No tea for the fever. In other words, she seems just like the kind of straight-talking, no-foolishness-tolerating Black mother I had.
Michelle has ruling-class education credentials — those worshipped by many in the Black elite — yet she was far from that. She wears her working-class roots as easily as she wears Narciso. But, when she talked about having shared a room with her brother, Craig, a partition between twin beds providing their only privacy while her parents slept in the living room, I stood back in awe of her. How did she do that? How did she find her balance at Princeton, when that ruling-class environment crushed middle-class kids of color?
"At Princeton in the 1980s, she had remained somewhat aloof from the white students, partly by preference and partly because Blacks weren't welcome at the exclusive eating clubs that dominated campus social life. The family of her first roommate, a Southern white woman, had protested to the university administration because their daughter had been assigned to room with a black person," Geraldine Brooks wrote in More magazine.
Many years ago, I went to a post–football game party held by one of Princeton's exclusive eating clubs. The Ivy is the most selective of the select and it was literally painful to be there. I was 24 and felt as if I had a neon sign on my forehead, but I was utterly invisible to all the plastered white faces. My boyfriend at the time (who had been a member) and the guys balancing trays of pigs in a blanket and cocktails were the only other Black folks — or people of color — in the room. He was a lovely guy who had been a scholar and three-letter athlete, and he was revered and very comfortable in this world of old-line WASPS.
Michelle has talked about not always feeling at home at Princeton. In a Washington Post piece, Robin Givhan, a Princeton alum, quotes Michelle: "My experiences at Princeton have made me far more aware of my 'Blackness' than ever before ... I have found that at Princeton no matter how liberal and open-minded some of my White professors and classmates try to be toward me, I sometimes feel like a visitor on campus; as if I really don't belong. Regardless of the circumstances under which I interact with Whites at Princeton, it often seems as if, to them, I will always be Black first and a student second."
She's said she had a similar feeling at Harvard Law School, but she became active in the Black student union and that helped see her through. "The truth is that if Princeton hadn't found my brother as a basketball recruit and if I hadn't seen that he could succeed on a campus like that, it never would have occurred to me to apply to that school — never."
As someone who has written fairly extensively about class divisions among Black folk and who, during my time at Howard University, struggled with finding a place of belonging once I became aware that there was such a thing as social class, I found Michelle nothing short of amazing. At Northwestern, where I went to graduate school, it was another Black student who introduced class and color discussions among our white friends and classmates. And incidentally, in the early 80s, they had no idea what she was talking about when she constantly referred to herself as being "high yella," and the social hierarchy based on such.
I grew up in Newark, with two working parents. My dad worked on the assembly line at General Motors, and my mom was a nurse's aide. In my unsophistication, I thought poor and working-class people only came in shades of brown. I thought that rich people only came in one shade even if all white people weren't rich. I assumed that anyone who had generational wealth and higher education was white. Yes, there were a few teachers in my neighborhood, but that was it, in terms of Black folks with a college education.
At Howard, I had an apartment off-campus with two roommates and my dad had bought me a car to make it easier to commute from my place in Maryland. I didn't know that the off-campus apartment and the car set me up to look like a member of the Black elite. Rich girls lived like this. So when other students asked me questions like: "What does your father do?" or even more strange, "What did your grandfather do?" I was completely baffled. You mean what does he do when he comes home from work? I literally didn't even understand the question. But members of the Black elite tribe do.
This presumption that I was one of "them" set me on a path of questioning myself, obsessing about my image, and taking lots of paths — friends, boyfriends and therapy — before I found my north star. Color and class are often entwined — again something of which I was totally (and blissfully) ignorant. I was two semesters in before I realized that there was some kind of currency placed on lighter skin. I remember the early spring day the fuse lit and my blissful ignorance was shattered.
Excerpted from The Meaning of Michelle by Veronica Chambers. Copyright © 2017 Veronica Chambers. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Preface Ava Duvernay xi
Introduction: Homegirls Veronica Chambers 1
Michelle in High Cotton Benillde Little 13
Crushing on Michelle: Or the Unapologetic Power of Blackness Damon Young 33
The Composer and the Brain: A Conversation about Music, Marriage, Power, Creativity, Partnership … and the Obamas Alicia Hall Moran Jason Moran 45
Lady O and King Bey Brittney Cooper 57
We Go Way Back Ylonda Gault Caviness 69
Two Black First Ladies Walk into a Room Chirlane McCray 73
Becoming the Wife Cathi Hanauer 85
On Being Flawlessly Imperfect Tiffany Dufu 101
She Slays: Michelle Obama & the Power of Dressing Like You Mean It Tanisha C. Ford 115
Cooking with a Narrative Marcus Samuelsson 131
Michelle Obama: Representational Justice Sarah Lewis 145
The Freedom to Be Yourself Karen Hill Anton 155
She Loves Herself When She Is Laughing: Michelle Obama, Taking Down a Stereotype and Co-Creating a Presidency Rebecca Carroll 171
The Best of Wives and Best of Women Phillipa Soo 181
Making Space Roxane Gay 191
Contributor Biographies 199