Through her combination of cunning, empathy and resilience Michelle Obama embodies the blue steel level of revelation that’s central to the blues itself and to the tragic optimism of Americana at its best. Even though she is from Chicago, the urban blues capital, and her husband has the same birthday as Louis Armstrong, it is doubtful that she knows much about the music beyond what dribbled into Motown. Even so, the first lady shares with Armstrong the genius of feeling that distinguishes her.
As a woman of wide and subtle intellect, Michelle Obama remains far from the icy and simple-minded idea of womanhood in a dark skin. There is nothing simple about this lady at all, which makes her more than a bit refreshing.
During the campaign, she seemed visibly intimidating to people who expected someone closely resembling those they had seen trading hot or cold inanities with Barbara Walters. She was too tall, too dark, too smart, too eloquent, too confident and two willing to make it plain that neither women nor mothers nor families are actually as respected in our culture as conservative Republicans would lead us to think.
An actual Don Juan whom I know said that while Michelle Obama might not actually be beautiful, the lady becomes beautiful whenever she speaks. She is further proof that undeniable intelligence and sensitivity bring a fresh level of attractiveness to any woman and provide any man willing to look with another definition of beguiling. Uh oh: There it is.
Our collective humanity was affirmed when she unabashedly wept during the Democratic Convention as Joe Biden described losing his wife. The tears were big and copious but seemed quite real in that Obama showed no embarrassment and displayed none of the melodramatic mugging common to so many of the bad actresses in high-profile public life. Biden’s memory of sorrow had broken her heart and that was that.
It was much more human than the toned down Michelle who opened the convention in a different key from the saucily indignant, self-deprecating, witty and almost imposingly sharp-minded woman who helped wake up this nation to the presence of a barely known version of the Negro. She was not Oprah Winfrey or any other popular version of a black woman often seen in the media. So much of her was extra but not in an unfamiliar way to those with backgrounds similar to hers.
At the same time, Michelle Obama is much more than the superficial assessment of being a “real” sister or “too real,” which is usually attached to some sense of pathology and deprivation. Every background contains stupidity and evil, and no one seeking to understand the troubles and the mysterious aspects of human beings should ever forget those facts of life. It is quite clear that this is not a bitter woman, and it is just as evident that she has forgotten nothing. She embodies that quality of deep Americana essential to what got us through slavery and all of the tribulations that followed it until the votes were counted on Nov. 4, 2008.
She is both brilliant and down home, free of the solitary confinement of ethnic nationalism and low expectations for the nation. Like her husband, Michelle Obama embraced the deathless presence of the bitter and the sweet in both human life and our national history. That embrace retooled American patriotism and established a maturity that was not expected in our time of protracted adolescence and overstatement.
Above all else, the first lady has done everything exactly her way, never seeming to hide her heart behind a pit bull exterior, which is the crucifix of the contemporary female for whom respect arrives with far more regularity when the tool used to beckon it is a cold, cold bark.
The lady Obama is a true hero to women because she has always been able to express the depth of her substantial regard for everything that contemporary women do right now, from the professional world to the equally complicated world of motherhood.
That the first lady has accomplished this without looking up to one or down on another is an example of something revolutionary in its naturalness. It calls for an expanded vision of modern female life outside of the rating system imposed by feminist ideologues. This woman understands well that each direction in life is a choice, and the right to choose has to be redefined beyond abortion alone, since the quality of our civilization is underlined by everything from the world of work to the demands of marriage and parenthood.
Doubtless, Michelle Obama is a woman and a partner with whom her husband has had to deal conceptually and concretely every measure of the way. She even went so far in an early interview to claim that becoming president would be a piece of cake because Barack had already learned how to handle her. Hence, we learned that they had decided together upon a mutual quest and took into consideration all of the details meant by that mutual decision. If he was running, so was she and so were their girls, whose lives they were both responsible for bringing as much humanity as possible. Look out now.
This resulted in something that we had not seen before. Not only had the man thrown his hat into the ring, but from the very beginning, his wife had been right there next to him, always giving personal girth and vitality to the particulars of his political vision. During the campaign, she was so powerful on the stump that she became known as “the closer.” And America leaped over hurdles of stereotypes to embrace this half-caste guy from Hawaii and this South Side Chicago gal with the same emotion it once had reserved for Fred and Ginger or Mickey and Judy, because they had traversed impossibly glamorous or demanding universes in which their grace and spark were the answers to the troubles of the world.
Perhaps what makes Michelle Obama so truly extraordinary is how ordinary she seems simply because the first lady reminds us of all of those remarkable women from the South Sides of so, so many places, north and south, east and west. If it was called for, they knew how to bring it. If we lacked morale, they knew how to serve it on a hot plate that wouldn’t burn but didn't fail to inspire. When you saw them coming, you knew the heart and the brain of the world were within communicative range.
Because of all of those women, so ordinary in their civilized impulses, we experienced visceral proof that life offered far more than its inevitable wounds. We were grateful to them for helping us know exactly what Michelle Obama knows and continually acknowledges: They are everywhere, always have been and will not stop coming.
Stanley Crouch is a New York writer.