Monday, June 29, 2015
Michelle Obama Talks About Race and Success
A selection of clips from the first lady’s recent speeches to young people around the country. Publish DateJune 10, 2015. Photo by Christian K Lee/Associated Press.
CHICAGO — She looked around and saw herself three decades ago, young and uncertain, from a part of town where success is a struggle, not a birthright. She knew what they had been through, what it was like to take the long way home to avoid gangs, what it was like when the family strained to make ends meet.
For Michelle Obama on Tuesday night, addressing a graduating high school class from the South Side near where she grew up summoned memories and offered a chance to draw lessons from her own upbringing: Never be afraid to ask for help, she told them. Instead of being discouraged by hardship, reach higher.
At a time of roiling debate over the issues of race and opportunity, punctuated by the events of Ferguson, Mo.; Staten Island; and Baltimore, the nation’s first African-American first lady has added her voice. It is not a new message for her, but one that has taken on special resonance and one delivered with bracing candor in recent speeches. Along the way, Mrs. Obama has opened a window into her own life, not just in Chicago but also in the White House.
By her telling, even living at the world’s most prominent address has not erased the sting of racial misunderstanding. In recent weeks, Mrs. Obama has talked of “insults and slights” directed at her husband and caricatures that have pained her. It all “used to really get to me,” she said, adding that she “had a lot of sleepless nights” until learning to ignore it. But she said she realized that she and her husband had a responsibility to rewrite the narrative for African-Americans.
“That’s a burden that President Obama and I proudly carry every single day in the White House,” she told the graduating seniors of King College Prep High School on Tuesday, “because we know that everything we do and say can either confirm the myths about folks like us — or it can change those myths.”
She uses her own story to try to inspire young men and women, especially African-Americans, as she did last month in another commencement address, at Tuskegee University, the historically black college where she described her searing introduction to the national stage.
“As potentially the first African-American first lady, I was also the focus of another set of questions and speculations, conversations sometimes rooted in the fears and misperceptions of others,” she said. “Was I too loud or too angry or too emasculating? Or was I too soft, too much of a mom, not enough of a career woman?”
It is a role Mrs. Obama did not covet. By most accounts, she felt burned and misunderstood during her husband’s first presidential campaign, where her words were scrutinized as never before and she worried she hurt his prospects. Once in the White House, she struggled to define a role with no playbook. She steered a cautious course, casting herself as “mom in chief” to her two daughters while choosing issues like fighting childhood obesity and supporting veterans.
In private conversations with acquaintances, she has given the impression of not especially enjoying the klieg-light life in the White House even as she is criticized periodically for foreign trips, like the one she will take this month to England and Italy with her mother and daughters for a mix of official events and sightseeing, partly subsidized by taxpayers as other first ladies’ trips have been.
But Mrs. Obama is popular with the public, with favorable ratings consistently from 60 percent to 70 percent, and she seems willing to address issues she has been thinking about in a more expansive way.
“She has found her voice in talking particularly about inequality and the lack of fairness in society, and she has returned to a role that has been important to her since she was a young woman, as a mentor,” said Peter Slevin, the author of “Michelle Obama: A Life,” a new biography. “She clearly feels more confident in talking about these issues and more liberated in talking about these issues.”
Marcia Chatelain, a Georgetown University professor and author of “South Side Girls,” a new book on black girls growing up in Chicago, said Mrs. Obama “learned the hard way” to measure her words. “I’m sure she always felt she was navigating a minefield,” she said. “So now that they’re heading on the way out of the White House, she’s opening up about what those early days were like for her.”
Valerie Jarrett, her close friend as well as a senior adviser to the president, said Mrs. Obama had always considered her role an “awesome honor,” but not one without challenges, and she has used recent commencement addresses to share that experience.
“The point is,” Ms. Jarrett said, “even as first lady of the United States, she’s still subject to criticism, and oftentimes that criticism is hurtful. But you can’t let it define you. That’s important for them to hear. Sometimes, there’s a tendency to put her up on a pedestal as if she’s immune from hurt, but she’s not.”
Mrs. Obama has often been open about her experiences and race in speeches that went largely unnoticed, but rarely more so than in the speech at Tuskegee, where she recalled the New Yorker cover in July 2008 depicting her with a large Afro and an assault rifle. “Now, yeah, it was satire, but if I’m being really honest, it knocked me back a bit,” she said. “It made me wonder, just how are people seeing me.”
She noted that a fist bump with her husband on the cover was referred to as a terrorist fist jab. “And over the years,” she said, “folks have used plenty of interesting words to describe me. One said I exhibited ‘a little bit of uppity-ism.’ Another noted that I was one of my husband’s ‘cronies of color.’ Cable news once charmingly referred to me as ‘Obama’s baby mama.’ ”
It bothered her. She wondered what people thought of her and feared what her daughters would think. “But eventually,” she said, “I realized that if I wanted to keep my sanity and not let others define me, there was only one thing I could do — and that was to have faith in God’s plan for me. I had to ignore all of the noise and be true to myself.”
Brian Johnson, Tuskegee’s president, said it was powerful for graduates to understand that the president and first lady felt the bite of stereotypes. “I think they somehow thought that they were immune to that,” he said. “To hear her poignantly and practically share those experiences, more than I’d ever heard her, I think it deeply moved the audience.”
Representative Terri A. Sewell, an Alabama Democrat who was a year behind Mrs. Obama at Princeton University, said the speech was profound. “While we no longer have segregated lunch counters, the reality is we still have racism in America,” she said. “To acknowledge that does not mean one is playing the race card. I felt she was being very honest and humble and authentic.”
But outside that room, it stirred debate. To some critics, it sounded as if Mrs. Obama was complaining about a privileged life, as if she was bitter and resentful. Ron Christie, who was an aide to President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, said that as an African-American he was proud that the Obamas lived in the White House.
“I just wish the Obamas would recognize the historical significance of that rather than say racism is driving everything down or that America is inherently racist,” he said. “America is not this mean, angry, racist place that sometimes I think the first family in the form of Michelle Obamawould like you to believe.”
Mrs. Obama’s choice of venues for commencement addresses this spring underscored her message. Besides Tuskegee and King College Prep, she spoke at Oberlin College in Ohio, the first higher education institution in America to adopt a policy admitting black students and the first to award bachelor’s degrees to women in a coeducational program.
Speaking 50 years after the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. addressed an Oberlin commencement, Mrs. Obama said it was tempting to “just tune out all of the noise” in a fractious political environment. “In fact, I sometimes have that instinct myself — run!” she said. But instead, she urged them to be involved, “to run to, and not away, from the noise.”
Marvin Krislov, Oberlin’s president, said Mrs. Obama seemed to have been reflecting on her own journey in the White House. “You could see she was speaking partly to herself and to people like her who are tempted to say, ‘I don’t want to get involved because it’s so complicated,’ ” he said.
Some still think Mrs. Obama has not been involved enough, that she has not used her platform to its full advantage. But they still see her as a powerful symbol. Marian Wright Edelman, the president of the Children’s Defense Fund, called the first lady an inspiration and said she was glad the president had proposed initiatives like universal preschool.
“I wish these were bigger and higher on the agenda,” said Ms. Edelman, who was at the Oberlin event. “But it’s all nice to be the outside critic, and it is our job to push them on the policies. But on the other hand, she has to define who she is and be who she is and do what is comfortable with the hand she’s been given.”