The first first lady to enter my consciousness was Rosalynn. I was 13 at the time. She was 50, the child of a farmer, the wife of a former governor, the mother of three. I could not relate to her, exactly—she was older than my mother and white and from a deeper kind of South than the one in Memphis where we lived. Still, I liked Rosalynn. She seemed quiet and gentle and down-to-earth, a nice enough lady to be doing whatever it was that first ladies did. Anyway, it had nothing to do with me.
After Rosalynn came Nancy: thin, chilly, glamorous; no relating there. On to Barbara, who seemed motherly and kind (this was before those Astrodome comments); she reminded me of my sixth-grade teacher, Mrs. Chenowith. Then Hillary: smart and capable and eager to do real work. By the time Hillary came along, I was old enough to understand that being a woman would play nearly as important a role in my professional life as being black, and so I watched Hillary with an interested eye. She was older than me and white, a first-generation feminist who grew up financially comfortable and secure. I still could not relate, precisely, but I was happy to see her kicking against the cookie-baking chains. After Hillary came Laura, the quiet Texas librarian. No doubt Laura Bush is more complex and accomplished than she has been portrayed, but to me she has remained a cipher.
Now comes Michelle Obama, first lady of the United States, a sister, a mother, a civil rights baby and accomplished professional, a speaker of truth. Feeling like you can relate to someone is not the best basis for picking a president, but it's pretty good for welcoming a first lady into your embrace.
Being relatable is, in fact, a key component of the job. Some of the nation's most successful first ladies—at least in terms of popularity and public perception—have all shared a certain quality of empathy that allows them to seem above partisanship, said presidential historian Carl Anthony. Michelle, he said, seems to have it.
"You can see that she makes herself accessible," he said. "She doesn't seek to establish or create some kind of mystique around herself."
Without compromising her tremendous personal dignity, Obama tells very personal stories about her life—her father struggling to provide for his family on a workingman's salary, her own efforts to balance the demands of work and family—that allow to her to connect with other, more-average Americans.
I picture her standing tall before the White House, welcoming the British prime minister. I imagine her girls skipping through the hallways of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue with their new puppy, stopping to giggle beneath the portraits of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. I envision Michelle in a bright red coat and pillbox hat (yeah, I know) waving from the stairs of her plane (what does the first lady fly when she's not with the president? Air Force Three? Pink Lady One?) after it's landed in South Africa or China or Brazil.
I can't quite catch my breath at the improbable beauty of it all.
Eleanor Roosevelt, a sharply contentious figure during certain periods of her husband's 12-year presidency, may be one role model for Michelle. She served as a kind of nurturer-in-chief during the depths of the Great Depression. When the aggrieved and ragtag World War I vets known as the Bonus Army descended on Washington in 1933 to demand, again, the federal payment due to them, it was Eleanor Roosevelt who went down to the streets to have tea and to listen to their complaints.
But Roosevelt's youngest child was 16 when her husband took office. When the Obamas enter the White House in January, on the other hand, it will be the first time since the Carters—and before that, the Kennedys—that a family with young children has occupied the premises.
Amy Carter, who was swarmed with press attention, was 9 when her parents entered the White House. Chelsea Clinton, who, at her parents' insistence, was largely off-limits to the media, was just shy of 13. The Obama girls, Malia and Sasha, are 10 and 7.
"And somehow having two of them makes them seem even younger," said historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. "It creates an image of youthful energy and vigor. Americans really took to that idea with the Kennedy family."
Obama has said that serving as "mom-in-chief" to her daughters, looking after their welfare and helping them adjust to the dramatic change in their lives and to their new status as first kids—with all the intensity of attention that status entails—will be her top priority.
Ann Stock, White House social secretary during the Clinton administration said that it is key to remember that the White House is first and foremost a house. That must be hard. After all, it is a house with six stories, 55,000 square feet of floor space, 132 rooms, 35 bathrooms, 147 windows, eight staircases, three elevators, five full-time chefs, and a tennis court, bowling alley, movie theater and putting green.
Nancy Reagan said the best thing about leaving the White House was being able to go out to dinner at a restaurant again. Bill Clinton—maybe quoting Harry Truman, maybe not—called the White House the crown jewel of the American penal system.
In trying to get a sense of what Michelle's new life might be like, I called Ann Walker Marchant, who was a communications adviser in the Clinton administration. She recalled for me a moment when she and her roommate, Capricia Marshall, the White House social secretary, received an urgent 4 a.m. call from the White House usher's office. Mrs. Clinton, it seemed, had risen early and gone to the kitchen to make some eggs.
"Everybody was freaking out," Marchant said. "'She's in the kitchen! She's in her bathrobe. Should we go in? What should we do?' One minute you're out there campaigning and then, all of a sudden, you're there and you want to make some eggs and people are making phone calls about it."
I love this story. Thinking of Michelle Obama as the center of it—the one making the eggs—makes me giddy.
Michelle Obama, the first first lady of African descent.
There are those who think this is a nice but somewhat meaningless fact, in a we-are-all-colorblind-now kind of way. Some, like historian Anthony, think the novelty of having a black first lady will fade as quickly as the novelty of having a Catholic first lady faded after Jackie Kennedy came to town.
"In probably less than a month, nobody will even pay attention to that anymore," he speculated. "In a way, the secret beauty of that is that it's the right way, the best way, the natural way to learn to not have preconceptions. It's a way for ignorance to be gently defeated."
Me, I'm not certain ignorance will be so quick to lie down and die. The caricatures of Michelle Obama as an angry, gun-toting, whitey-spouting Jezebel launched by certain segments of the population during the campaign show the country still has a ways to go on this issue.
But there is no denying that the election of Barack Obama—and the nation's acceptance of Michelle as first lady—is profoundly important in more ways than can coherently be articulated here. On Election Day, I did what I always do when I'm struggling to articulate the feelings inside my heart: turn to the great writers of the past. In this case, I dug out and opened my dog-eared copy of The Souls of Black Folks and read again the words of W.E.B. Du Bois, who gave voice to the "twoness" that so many African Americans have felt from the beginning of our time in this great land. Du Bois wrote that this "double consciousness" was a peculiar sensation with which to live: "One ever feels his twoness—an American, a Negro; two warring souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder."
With the election of Barack Obama, our double consciousness as African Americans is, stunningly and at long last, reconciled. Michelle Obama is as much a symbol of that reconciliation as her husband, maybe more so. When my daughter and little black girls all over the land look at photos of Michelle in the newspapers and on television for the next however-many years, they will know this much: This is America. And, yes, it has something to do with me.
Kim McLarin is a regular contributor to The Root.