The Power of Michelle: How the First Lady Helps Black Women See Themselves

When I was a little girl my mom filled my toy box exclusively with Barbie dolls that were all hues ...

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When I was a little girl my mom filled my toy box exclusively with Barbie dolls that were all hues of black girl beautiful. Dolls with golden hair and sapphire eyes were curiously absent from my Barbie dream house. When I got older my mom told me, “What’s in front of you is what you’ll want to become.” I learned that my mother wanted me to be confident in my beauty rather than be tempted to pursue a warped definition of attractiveness.

Fast-forward to 2013 and magazines, blogs, and the 24-hour news cycle have replaced the toy box. Instead of aspiring to be like Barbie I now dream of advanced degrees, a brownstone in Paris, writing books, and a husband who values my beauty, inside and out. My aspirations are bigger and the stakes are higher.

Messages that decry my value as a black woman and elevate the status of whiteness are non-stop. Black womankind is reduced to a gyrating rump on prime time television, a cluster of conniving welfare queens with no ambition.

Where basketball wives' antics and pundits' advice about how to think and act threaten to cloud my vision, women like Michelle Obama have helped me see the light.

Despite criticisms about her “work," I believe our First Lady has advanced women’s interests in a powerful way. Simply by being who she is, where she is, Michelle Obama is disrupting reductive narratives about what it means to be a black woman in America today.

Her image has proven to be a weapon of mass inspiration in the battle to adequately portray black womanhood. Michelle has been featured on the covers of Vogue, Glamour, Newsweek, and Time  magazines. She has been photographed rubbing shoulders with the Queen of England, waving proudly to world class athletes at the Olympics, and standing graciously beside the leader of the free world at the G20.

Though she might not know it, the First Lady is an image activist, revolutionizing the definition of black womanhood for those outside of the race and serving as an influential archetype of possibility for those within it.

As fashion and media icon Michaela Angela Davis, the pioneer of image activism, would say, Michelle reps for “the girls.”

Davis writes in the article "MAD Free: Intimate Talk about Black Women's Image, Beauty, and Yes Honey, Power" that the girls are: "urban, sexy, stylish, smart" women of color who are "invincible" and all too often "invisible."

Michelle reps for the girls because she embodies the grace and poise of women like Jackie O. She reps for the girls because where Onassis was demure, Michelle is fierce and unapologetic, adopting a facet of powerful femininity that is akin to Beyoncé.

As my sister’s friend jokingly mused: “Michelle Obama is the love child of BeyoncĂ© and Jackie O.”

Davis makes another poignant declaration in her article “MAD Free." She writes that “black women with freedom of thought are the healing; we are the liberation."

I would add to her words by saying that black women who own the freedom to be themselves, are also the healing and the liberation.

Our First Lady’s glamour, warmth, wisdom, and accomplishments are simply liberating for me. Her projected ease with who she is has empowered me to be myself, to dream bigger, to start and to continue to strive for more.

Michelle is a 21st century race woman who appears to have taken Dr. Anna Julia Cooper’s wisdom to heart. Dr. Cooper famously wrote in 1892: “Only the black woman can say 'when and where I enter…the whole Negro race enters with me.’”

The First Lady’s power and prestige gives me the audacity to believe that I too can become powerful and prestigious.

For that, I’m eternally grateful.

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On Heteropatriarchy, Presidents, and Families

Assita Camara is a writer residing somewhere below the Mason-Dixon. She writes about culture at her blog The Afro-Modernist and crafts prose about culture, herstory, and life at her philosophie. You can follow her tweets about music, poetry, and technology at @assitawrites 

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