On a sunny and cold November 4th in 2008, I was 17 years old and remember sitting with my family in our Texas home watching America elect your husband, Barack Obama, to the highest office in the land. I think for most people, it was a welcome surprise. A deep feeling of joy mixed with excitement and reflection about how far America had come.
For many women and girls of all races, what probably meant the most is not only getting to see history made, but seeing a strong, poised, beautiful woman and her daughters also ascend to the most well-known address in the world. While your husband became the first African-American president, it is a rarely stated fact, that you too had a first of your own — becoming the first African-American first lady.
Since you burst on to the scene, you have spent eight years of your life serving this country with grace, heart, and confidence. You’ve shown me and so many other women of all races and backgrounds what it means to stand up for one’s self, to be aware of who you are and unflinching in your beliefs and values. You’ve taught us what it means to stand face to face with criticism, name calling, and racism and not waste time being petty and dignifying foolish words with a response.
You taught us what it means to be bold and brilliant, all brains and equal parts beauty. And you’ve stood up for the things that really count and the people who really matter. You were first lady but you put your family and other people — children, veterans, military families, women, girls —first. You made balance of work and family and all the little details in between possible. I would say you made it look easy, but I know it wasn’t. Under the intense scrutiny, you thrived and allowed no one to take away your girl-from-the-south-side persona.
Beyond that, you loved, loved, loved. You never let the stress and the pressure define you or change you. And you were always ready to give hugs and smiles and kind words. You managed to reflect dignity and respect, dance and humor, regularity and spontaneity, strength and softness, intellectual ability and physical capability at the same time. After almost a decade under the microscope, there are girls and women who now have a role model to follow. Who can now look at themselves in the mirror and believe they can be strong, tough, smart, elegant, bold, and confident in the same mind, heart, and soul.
Very few of us will get to be first lady of this country, but we all live under a microscope of some sort. There are people watching, people criticizing, people cheering us on, people seeking to break us down, and people who don’t know which way to take us. Under the public microscope, you’ve certainly been there and you’ve shown us what it means to insist on authenticity without sacrificing the inner sanctum where we all go to reflect, decompress, and contemplate what is, what was, and what we want to be.
To say you have succeeded at being a mother and wife, role model and icon, interpreter and defender, comforter and critic, friend and woman would simply be an understatement. You haven’t just succeeded; you’ve thrived. You’ve done so with kindness, love, honesty, sensibility, devotion, and humor. And so many of us now believe that we can thrive as well. To wake up each morning, wear our best clothes, put on our biggest smiles, give our biggest hugs, be our best selves, and handle our business.
In case you didn’t know, you’ve been one of the best examples girls and women could have, not just as a woman, but as a human being with all the pains and privileges that come with it.
History will have plenty a varied opinion on the “legacy” of your husband as it rightly should have. Not everyone will agree on what was well done and what wasn’t, of course, for we are more divided by opinion than fact. But if there was a Hall of Fame for First Ladies, you would certainly be in the number. The creators wouldn’t have to think twice. History would be sorely mistaken if it didn’t say you are one of the best first ladies this world has ever known.
We hate to see you go, Michelle, but we will love you forever.