In a passionate and candid speech, the First Lady told a 2015 graduating class at Tuskegee University how she overcame her own personal insecurities and sleepless nights after she was mocked by the media and conservatives who took deliberate aim at the first Black woman to occupy the White House.
“Back when my husband first started campaigning for President, folks had all sorts of questions of me: What kind of First Lady would I be? What kinds of issues would I take on? Would I be more like Laura Bush, or Hillary Clinton, or Nancy Reagan?” Obama told about 4,000 people during a commencement address Saturday at the historically black college in Alabama.
“And the truth is, those same questions would have been posed to any candidate’s spouse. That’s just the way the process works. But, 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. 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 was uplifting and powerful to hear the First Lady speak openly about her early years in the White House, the emotional toll it took on her, and how she maintained her composure even while being ridiculed by those who clearly didn’t want a Black woman living in the White House.
Obama, a formidable woman, a Harvard trained lawyer, a mother, a crusader for healthy eating, shared a few examples of how she’s been mocked over the years. And while it’s true that the media goes after politicians, journalists rarely single out the wives of politicians the way some journalists have attacked Mrs. Obama.
“Then there was the first time I was on a magazine cover — it was a cartoon drawing of me with a huge afro and machine gun,” Obama said. “Now, yeah, it was satire, but if I’m really being honest, it knocked me back a bit. It made me wonder, just how are people seeing me.”
“Or you might remember the on-stage celebratory fist bump between me and my husband after a primary win that was referred to as a “terrorist fist jab.” And over the years, 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.”
In perhaps her most blunt speech yet, the First Lady confirmed what many Black Americans have been saying all along: That Michelle Obama, a distinguished African-American woman, has been scorned by some because she’s black.
The level of disrespect shown to Michelle Obama has been unprecedented, shameful and often racist. But through all the derogatory remarks, the first lady has shown the nation how to remain graceful under fire and rise above the bigots.
“And all of this used to really get to me,” she said. “Back in those days, I had a lot of sleepless nights, worrying about what people thought of me, wondering if I might be hurting my husband’s chances of winning his election, fearing how my girls would feel if they found out what some people were saying about their mom.
“But eventually, 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,” Obama said. “I had to ignore all of the noise and be true to myself — and the rest would work itself out.”
And let’s not forget Univision host Rodner Figueroa who was fired recently after comparing Michelle Obama’s appearance to a cast member from the “Planet of the Apes.”
Meanwhile, the First Lady offered a rare glimpse into her private life, a life of constant and sometimes mean-spirited scrutiny.
“Now, some folks criticized my choices for not being bold enough. But these are my choices, my issues,” she said. And I decided to tackle them in the way that felt most authentic to me — in a way that was both substantive and strategic, but also fun and, hopefully, inspiring.”
The First Lady also noted that events like those in Baltimore and Ferguson, where unarmed Black men have been killed by police, have caused many African Americans to challenge the criminal justice system.
The Freddie Gray, Jr., incident was the latest of a number of high-profile cases of Black men getting killed by police. Friction between police and the Black community has intensified since 18-year-old Michael Brown was killed by a white police officer, Darren Wilson, in Ferguson, Mo. Wilson was cleared by a grand jury.
“They’re rooted in decades of structural challenges that have made too many folks feel frustrated and invisible,” she said. “And those feelings are playing out in communities like Baltimore and Ferguson and so many others across this country.”
And Michelle Obama shared profound thoughts with the graduating class at Tuskegee University about how to handle cruel criticism and derogatory comments.
“My husband and I know how frustrating that experience can be,” she said. “We’ve both felt the sting of those daily slights throughout our entire lives. … And all of that is going to be a heavy burden to carry.”
“But,” she added, “those feelings are not an excuse to just throw up our hands and give up. They are not an excuse to lose hope. To succumb to feelings of despair and anger only means that in the end, we lose.”
Wise words. That’s true inspiration.
What do you think?
Click over to read the full text of the First Lady’s speech.