EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is part of The Nation’s special issue on Barack Obama’s presidency, available in full here.
After the 2008 presidential election, I expected to see Michelle Obama working on law cases, appearing from time to time in classic suits and speaking in a remote legal language, making it clear to all that she was equal to her husband in worldliness.
I was a little puzzled at first when I saw her planting vegetables on the White House lawn with DC schoolchildren. And I was even more puzzled that she seemed to do it with such purpose. It was clear that she gave planting these vegetables great weight. Later, she seemed to bring the same seriousness and enjoyment to the exercises she led with local children.
On television news programs, she talked about her husband—who happened to be president of the United States—as if they actually did have common goals. Her language was so devoid of pretension that you could imagine them discussing ideas, planning their daily lives. Over and over, I studied footage of Michelle when she was with her mother, Marian Robinson, and her daughters, Sasha and Malia. She really looked at her mother when she spoke with her. She looked at her daughters when she spoke with them. She wasn’t posing.
Often, I would try to place Michelle in the context I knew and had known. My high school in Cleveland, circa 1949, had many beautiful black girls—scholarly, with high aspirations, well-spoken and energetic. I had known one black woman studying law in college, and I had a friend with a PhD, a husband who was a naval officer, and children, and who was loyal and devoted to her family. But none of these women had Michelle’s glossy hair, striking good looks, and charming designer clothes. I gave up.
Before the election, my main insight into Michelle had come from my experience teaching at Harvard in the winter of 1990. Michelle had recently graduated from Harvard Law School. At the time, blacks stood out when they walked across Harvard Yard. Great black scholars like Nathan Huggins, Eileen Southern, Charles Ogletree, and others had led the way, but this was before Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Cornel West expanded the African-American studies department, attracting more black students.
Whenever I saw Michelle on TV during the presidential campaign, I would think, “What a strong and strong-willed person she must be, and what a dedicated, brilliant, determined young woman she must have been to navigate Harvard Law.” I felt that the general attitude toward blacks at that time was disdainful. My assistant for a course I was teaching at Harvard told me that I didn’t teach in “Harvard language.” I often wondered: Had Michelle encountered resistance, even hatred, as a young law student? I imagined that she’d had to muster all her intelligence and faith to excel at Cambridge.
* * *
Long ago, I studied Queen Elizabeth I, Queen Victoria, Bette Davis, and Billie Holiday, always trying to locate the person behind the figure that had captivated history. I tried to do the same with Michelle, but she was more elusive than the other black women in the public eye: Condoleezza Rice, the only child, expected to conquer all; Beyoncé, a star from childhood; Oprah, victorious over early traumas. I could not find a dramatic line on this level for Michelle. There were many subtleties I couldn’t grasp.
I read as much as I could find about her childhood, always trying to understand the young woman who had made the leap from Chicago to Cambridge. I could see the student who walked across Harvard Yard, but who was this woman walking across the White House lawn to waiting helicopters? She seemed so graceful, so at ease.
I admired the composure of the four people who most often surrounded her: her husband, her daughters, and her mother. I felt that Michelle was the source of this composure, the centerpiece. I watched her, so very confident, and I would wonder: Had being a law student at Harvard given her the ability to stand before the entire world with such equilibrium? She radiated control, gracefulness, happiness. When she spoke of her husband, she was magnetic. Often, she relayed his thoughts and feelings in a way that he seemed unable to do.
Michelle Obama is one of the few political figures I admire, the first first lady I’ve wanted to be since I read Eleanor Roosevelt’s newspaper column “My Day.” I would like to address the entire world with her grace. I have studied how she engages great power and utilizes it, and I will continue to learn from her. She has had a role like no other American black woman in history. Watching Michelle Obama has been, and is, a precious education. And a joy.