The Significance of Michelle

(This quarter’s theme is:  Complexity)

Message to the Black Woman – Message 2

by Rhonda Sherrod, J.D., Ph.D.

(c) 2013

(Again, I ask, Black Woman:  “Don’t you know who you are?”)

“Only the Black woman can say, when and where I enter, in the quiet undisputed dignity of my womanhood, without violence and without suing or special patronage, then and there the whole Negro race enters with me.”

Anna Julia Cooper, Ph.D.

From A Voice From the South published in 1892


Intellectual.  Disciplined.  Charming.  Warm.  Witty.  Classy.  Generous.  Attractive.  Sporty.  Grounded.   She is also a loving and affirming mother, and a strong, responsible, and motivating wife.  She is on the list of the most admired women in the world.*  She is the one everyone watches, and her style is the style everyone wants to emulate.  She is Michelle Obama, the First Lady of the United States (or FLOTUS).  So, it would appear, Black woman, that we have come a long way.

There was a time when the only place in the White House for a Black woman was as a slave or a servant.  Since then, Black women have arrived at the White House to advise presidents, like Mary McLeod Bethune did with Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and to serve in presidential cabinets, as Patricia Roberts Harris** did when she became the first Black woman to hold a cabinet position, after she had already served as the first Black female American envoy under President Lyndon Baines Johnson.

But Michelle is the first Black woman to reside in the White House as the First Lady.  The significance of Michelle is major and worthy of several books.  In short, however, in a country that has traditionally bound up (White) womanhood and motherhood in a phantasmagoric cauldron of saintliness, sanctity, sacrifice, benevolence, and goodness (even as it, paradoxically, debased women and motherhood), to have a Black woman as First Lady is major.  It is the reason that Michelle suffered so many unwarranted, vicious, unkind, and even unconscionable attacks when her title was first conferred.  Considering the fact that there was a time when Black women were not even considered “ladies” in this sad and still racist society, some people have had a very hard time accepting a Black woman as the face of American womanhood and as the “mom-in-chief.”  (Let us remember that it wasn’t too long ago when the great Sojourner Truth*** posed the question, “Ain’t I a woman?” in a speech delivered during a women’s suffrage convention before slavery ended.)

With the weight of all that history, and with all of the next-to-impossible expectations of her from every corner of the country and the world, Michelle has handled her role as the quintessential cosmopolitan woman with the poise, dignity, and grace of the champion that she is.  (After all her husband is “the leader of the free world.”)  Nowadays, with consistently high approval ratings, Michelle has a specially constructed platform to show the world what America has been attempting to conceal (not quite so successfully) for all these hundreds of years – a beautiful, brilliant Black woman with savoir faire, conducting a satisfying relationship with her incredibly adept Black man, with whom she has normal, smart, good-looking kids, in a pressure filled situation (because Black people have always functioned under a great deal of pressure – it’s our norm).  And America and the world are the winners for it.  Michelle’s very presence strikes a strong blow against the White supremacist thought that plagues the globe.

So, when you beam and smile upon the President as he takes his oath of office for the second time, be sure you take a good, long look at the sister beside him, and smile at her, too, because she was instrumental, just as Black women have always been, in making this country a better place for all of us.  After all, she delivered Barack to the world.  The President has told us over and over that Michelle is “the love of [his] life,” that he “could not have done it without her,” and that she is his “rock.”  And if you do the research on them individually and as a couple, you will know that he speaks the truth.  They have assumed power together.

So, as we enter this second term, with Michelle Obama as the First Lady of the United States of America, let us:  remember who we are, recommit to loving ourselves, and put our crowns back on our heads.  Let us commit to better relationships with each other and with Black men, and to rebuilding our communities and saving our children from the clutches of a poor education, violence, and a rapacious prison industrial complex that wants to devour them.  After all, there are many Baracks and Michelles in our community.  Let’s save ourselves, as proud Black women (and help Black men save themselves), so we can save our children.

Again, Happy New You to you!


*On a list of the most admired women in the world for 2013, Americans chose Hilary Clinton, in her powerful position as Secretary of State, number one, and Michelle Obama was selected for the number two position.

**Patricia Roberts Harris was President Jimmy Carter’s Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.  Subsequently, Carter also appointed her Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare (now the department of Health and Human Services).

***In a moving ceremony in Emancipation Hall presided over by First Lady Michelle Obama, Nancy Pelosi (then Speaker of the House of Representatives) and Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, Sojourner Truth became the only African American woman to have a bust in her honor placed in the United States Capitol.  (see

If you want to read an extraordinary and concise book on the social and political history of Black women in the United States, Paula Giddings’ book, When and Where I Enter:  The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America is a great go-to resource.  Ms. Giddings is a Professor of Afro-American Studies at Smith College.

Also, historian Darlene Clark Hine is a scholar of Black women’s history and has written extensively about Black women.  She is a Professor of History and a Professor of African American History at Northwestern University.  In addition to her other publications, Dr. Clark Hine is the co-editor of a wonderful three-volume set entitled, Black Women in America, Historical Encyclopedia.  

“Our crowns have been bought and paid for, all we have to do is wear them.”  James Baldwin

“The kind of beauty I want most is the hard-to-get kind that comes from within – strength, courage, dignity.”   Ruby Dee


“I have heard the Bible and have learned that Eve caused man to sin. Well, if woman upset the world, do give her a chance to set it right side up again.”  Sojourner Truth, 1851

“There is a very real cultural war going on in this country right now and we’re all part of it.  People who have invested their life work in creating or constructing a certain vision of American history are not just going to lie back and die and say, ‘Okay, you’re right, you young Turks, just take it and go with it.'”  Darlene Clark Hine

“I am deliberate and afraid of nothing.”  Audre Lorde

Michelle Obama, official White House portrait.

Michelle Obama, official White House portrait. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


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