I forgot exactly where we were in Pittsburgh.
Maybe driving from the Target in East Liberty to the YMCA in the Mexican War Streets. Or, perhaps, at my wife’s grandmother’s house in the Hill District, eating smothered turkey burgers with smoked kale greens and washing them down with Pineapple Faygo. But I do remember who I was with: my wife and my 11-year-old niece, the oldest daughter of my wife’s sister.
More importantly, I remember who we were talking about (Michelle Obama), and I remember it dawning on me that my niece’s only point of reference for a first lady is Michelle Obama. As long as she’s been intellectually mature enough to realize that there is a such a thing as a president and a first lady, they’ve been black. She literally has no memory of a first family being anything else. For someone like me—who still thought as late as 2007 that the idea of a black president was too surreal to seriously consider—this is freaking insane.
Of course, when one attempts to predict what Michelle Obama’s single greatest legacy will be—the thing we reflect on and remember first when thinking about and assessing her term as first lady—there’s no shortage of viable and worthy contenders. For instance, one could cite that while her husband was the headliner, the rock star, it was Michelle whom America—black America particularly—collectively fell in love with first.
Her existence effectively granted us permission to put our eggs in the Barack basket. He was safe, and we were safe in his hands, because he was savvy enough to have her. And a vote for him became a vote to see her and her beautiful children in the White House, too. (If feeling particularly silly, you could even note that her marriage to the president provided immortal validation for all the middle-aged uncles who believe it’s cool to hoop with T-shirts tucked into tight sweatpants. Basically, if Barack could do it—and still have someone like Michelle in love with him—then Uncle Tommy could do it, too.)
My choice, however, would be the effect she’s had and will continue to have on black women and girls like my niece. How vital it’s been for my niece to have a woman who looks like her mom and her aunts be so prominent and protected. And how the ceaseless and baseless attacks on Michelle Obama’s looks and figure forced us to collectively bunker down and defend her, ultimately communicating to girls like my niece that blackness is worthy of guardianship and care.
I made this point in an essay I contributed to an anthology about Michelle, the final copy edit of which was sent to me for a last look in mid-July, a couple of weeks before the first lady’s then-iconic and now (sadly) ironic Democratic National Convention speech, in which she reminded America of our civic duty to be kind, to be just, to have integrity and to “go high” when “they” go low. It’s where she synthesized the grave responsibility of the office—something her husband respected and her candidate would also regard with appropriate reverence and awe—with the surreality of living in a house built by slaves. It was evocative without being too cloying and sentimental; sanguine and idealistic while steeply grounded in a reality engineered by America’s historical context. Her speech was a 14-minute-long distillation of everything the anthology intended to convey; eight years of life and legacy extracted and sublimated into one final testimony. It was why we loved her so damn much.
Indeed, the anthology was conceived of and completed several months before Donald Trump was elected president—an act so seismic, vibrational and calamitous that it bent and fractured time, reverberating and altering the past like some preternaturally destructive DeLorean. It’s still a bit too soon to do an accurate forensic assessment of how complete and panoramic the damage will be, but we do already know that his win spiritually and psychologically negated whatever racial, social and cultural gains we thought we might have made in the last eight years, and his administration seems poised and eager to do any- and everything possible to literally negate them.
Included in the batch of people, places, things and histories now transmuted is, unfortunately, what now exists as Michelle Obama’s most conspicuous legacy. The effect she’s had on women and girls—black women and girls particularly—will remain unchanged, as will our memories of her grace, her pliancy, her brilliance, her empathy and her relatability. The people inspired by her Just Move! Initiative will continue to be more mindful of their health and well-being and ways to improve it. And the countless publication covers she’s appeared on will not disappear from the physical and digital archives of those newspapers and magazines.
But when history looks back on her term as the first lady—while also mindful of the administration following her and those preceding her—I believe she’ll be regarded first as a statistical anomaly. A glitch. A figure from a time when America made a grave error, and actually seemed poised to live up to its lofty ideals and quixotic self-perception, and then immediately righted itself to the point of overcorrection. Not much different from a bank accidentally inserting a million dollars into a person’s checking account and then cleaning out the entire account—including the money already in there—when becoming aware of the mistake.
And they—and “they” in this sense could be citizens, historians, aliens or androids with sentience—will examine our data, will comb through America’s history and majesty and tragedy and hypocrisy, and they’ll know what many Americans have known for the past eight years; what the last three months and the 300 or so years before those last three months have been hell-bent on proving, and what the election has communicated—plainly, violently and unequivocally—to each corner of the world: that this country didn’t deserve her.
That this nation, so fearsome and fertile and massive and magnificent, was inhabited by small and silly people who allowed themselves to be ruled by fear and ludicrous phobia. That, in spite of themselves, they managed to allow this woman to stand for the nation, to serve it and represent it. And after almost a decade of attempting to prove that she didn’t truly belong—she and her husband and her family (all sufficiently American) were somehow un-American—committed an act of reckless self-sabotage just to find themselves right, destroying themselves to rectify what they believed was a fatal irregularity.
The irony here—which, depending on your mood, could be genuinely hilarious or abjectly harrowing (or both)—is that the idea that America didn’t deserve Michelle Obama is one on which both ends of the political spectrum can find a consensus. Unfortunately, the consensus would be due to far different interpretations of “deserve.” Either America didn’t deserve her because it wasn’t good enough for her or America didn’t deserve for her to “happen” to it because she wasn’t good enough for it.
Perhaps an extended explanation of this paradox should be in the footnotes of any anthologies or studies or biographies about her going forward. No need to confound and confuse the historians who will read them—already perplexed that the same nation that would elect a man like Donald Trump president somehow managed to do that while a woman Michelle Obama was still its first lady—any further.