Fear of an Intelligent Black Woman
The FLOTUS Speaks
If history were accurate, we’d come to regard Michelle Obama’s term & speech, as one of the most impactful in the role as FLOTUS. I pulled a few of my favorite quotes from the commencement speech at Tuskegee University on Saturday.
On the history of black soldiers:
Just think about what that must have been like for those young men. Here they were, trained to operate some of the most complicated, high-tech machines of their day — flying at hundreds of miles an hour, with the tips of their wings just six inches apart. Yet when they hit the ground, folks treated them like they were nobody — as if their very existence meant nothing.
Now, those Airmen could easily have let that experience clip their wings. But as you all know, instead of being defined by the discrimination and the doubts of those around them, they became one of the most successful pursuit squadrons in our military. They went on to show the world that if black folks and white folks could fight together, and fly together, then surely — surely — they could eat at a lunch counter together. Surely their kids could go to school together.
On the struggle to self educate:
Just think about the arc of this university’s history. Back in the late 1800s, the school needed a new dormitory, but there was no money to pay for it. So Booker T. Washington pawned his pocket watch to buy a kiln, and students used their bare hands to make bricks to build that dorm — and a few other buildings along the way.
A few years later, when George Washington Carver first came here for his research, there was no laboratory. So he dug through trash piles and collected old bottles and tea cups and fruit jars to use in his first experiments.
Generation after generation, students here have shown that same grit, that same resilience to soar past obstacles and outrages — past the threat of countryside lynchings; past the humiliation of Jim Crow; past the turmoil of the civil rights era. And then they went on to become scientists, engineers, nurses and teachers in communities all across the country — and continued to lift others up along the way.
On legitimacy as a person of color:
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?
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. 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 onstage 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.”
And of course, Barack has endured his fair share of insults and slights. Even today, there are still folks questioning his citizenship.
On self direction:
Now, some folks criticized my choices for not being bold enough. But these were my choices, my issues. 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.
So I immersed myself in the policy details. I worked with Congress on legislation, gave speeches to CEOs, military generals and Hollywood executives. But I also worked to ensure that my efforts would resonate with kids and families — and that meant doing things in a creative and unconventional way. So, yeah, I planted a garden, and Hula-Hooped on the White House Lawn with kids. I did some “mom dancing” on TV. I celebrated military kids with Kermit the Frog. I asked folks across the country to wear their alma mater’s T-shirts for College Signing Day.
And at the end of the day, by staying true to the me I’ve always known, I found that this journey has been incredibly freeing. Because no matter what happened, I had the peace of mind of knowing that all of the chatter, the name calling, the doubting — all of it was just noise. It did not define me. It didn’t change who I was. And most importantly, it couldn’t hold me back. I have learned that as long as I hold fast to my beliefs and values — and follow my own moral compass — then the only expectations I need to live up to are my own.
Transcript excerpts taken from The Root.