Today, with Donald Trumps inauguration, we say goodbye to the Obama White House, and perhaps now more than ever, Michelle Obama is making it clear why she means so much to so many.
There was her final speech as First Lady honoring high school counselors given on January 6th. It wasn’t just a talk celebrating educators, it was a message to the entire nation: “I want our young people to know that they matter, that they belong. So don't be afraid—you hear me, young people? Don't be afraid. Be focused. Be determined. Be hopeful,” said the First Lady. “Do not ever let anyone make you feel like you don't matter, or like you don't have a place in our American story—because you do. And you have a right to be exactly who you are.”
Just a couple of weeks earlier, Obama was on Oprah’s couch talking about race, hope, and identity in the age of Trump. As usual, she was honest, direct, and graceful.
She revealed to Vogue earlier this year that, as a teenager growing up on the South Side of Chicago, she was told she wasn’t “Princeton material.” She heard parallel assertions when she was campaigning alongside her husband in 2008. That she was “angry” and “non-traditional”—words that have very little to do with who Obama is or was, but quite unsubtly demonstrate the racist attitudes that, with our incoming administration, we all must admit are frighteningly pervasive, alive, and well.
The thing about Mrs. Obama is she refuses to let hate and fear dictate the conversation. She told a crowd in Iowa during the summer of 2007 that the reason she said yes to her husband’s presidential campaign was “because I am tired of being afraid.”
“Everything we do is by choice,” Obama told Vogue last November. “I could have spent eight years doing anything, and at some level, it would have been fine. I could have focused on flowers. I could have focused on decor. I could have focused on entertainment. Because any First Lady, rightfully, gets to define her role. There’s no legislative authority; you’re not elected. And that’s a wonderful gift of freedom.”
Who she is—as an orator, a leader, a mother, an activist—is comprised of so many choices and actions of courage. Her support of healthy eating, children’s education, military families, and yes, the American fashion industry, has been direct and ambitious.
Her dedication to education is personal. Growing up in a working-class family in Chicago, Mrs. Obama traveled an hour and a half every day to attend the city’s first magnate school where, she told an audience of students at Howard University, she was often “afraid to [try] things.”
“For all of you sitting here, with those doubts in your head—because those whispers of doubt, they stay with you for a very long time—ignore them,” she said. “I still carry that with me today, as First Lady of the United States, because there are people who don’t think I should be doing that either.”
Of course, she has been doing that—not just well, but movingly, for the past eight years.
To say we’re sad to see her leave the White House is an understatement. She’s made us all braver and more compassionate, and has consistently addressed the issues that are difficult. We need these qualities now more than ever. And more than a few of us are hoping we’ll see her back in the White House in a different capacity in a few years...