As a presidency draws to a close, it is natural to consider the legacy it etches upon the pages of history. For the most part, a first lady’s legacy is a sidenote. There are a few exceptions, of course. Eleanor Roosevelt, Jackie Kennedy, and Nancy Reagan come to mind. I believe that Michelle Obama’s legacy will be one of the more notable of the modern era.
For better or worse, race plays a sizeable role in her legacy. She will forever be the first black FLOTUS, just like her husband will forever be the first (half) black president. Try as we may to fight it, our society is obsessed with racial identification.
I remember the first time I saw Michelle on TV and remarking that she was beautiful and looked like a younger and darker Sigourney Weaver. Before I could form an opinion of her, I had to find a white reference point. Also evident here is the male tendency to judge women first by their looks, then by their credentials and accomplishments. I consider myself an open-minded guy, but my biases were at work from the start. I’m not alone by any stretch. It surely helped Michelle to be classy and smart, but understand that a black American woman always has her work cut out for her.
This essay will surely awaken Twitter trolls and snarky commenters, as the hours that follow any article which praises Mrs. Obama are invariably filled with bigoted vitriol. Her politics aside, every American should be able to admit that Michelle is smart, strong, classy, engaging, and beautiful. Not only do millions refuse to admit it, they also become infuriated and outspoken when someone else points it out. Mrs. Obama never asked for the lightning rod strapped upon her back, but I can’t envision anyone accepting it with more grace than she has. Somehow, she manages to convert the negative energy the lightning rod attracts into something useful. I believe Michelle is able to do this because in addition to the metaphorical lightning rod, she also carries an enormous mirror. The mirror forces us to acknowledge the ugly aspects of American history, as well as our own biases.
There is an official in West Virginia (the state in which I was born) who still holds her position after publicly calling the first lady “an ape in heels.” She was placed on leave for a month or so until the dust settled after her racist comment, but then was quietly reinstated. While her organization is technically a private one, it receives about 2 million dollars per year in state and federal funding. West Virginia should be ashamed, and if it truly wants to shed the perception that it is “backwards,” firing this bigot would be a good start.
Despite the unfair assault, Michelle Obama continues to take the high road. If she is angered by any of the racist comments and viewpoints, she surely doesn’t show it. She and her husband have demonstrated a deep commitment to a smooth transition of presidential power. Her philanthropic project battling the epidemic of childhood obesity transcends race and gender. She has courageously taken on a major American health problem using elegant simplicity. She aims to spread knowledge regarding healthy nutrition, and promote the most effective but underutilized medicine in modern history – exercise.
I have two young daughters, and not a day goes by that I don’t thank God for the smart, successful doctor I married and the example she sets. I’m also thankful that in their formative years, my daughters got to watch and hear such a classy American first lady. Today’s young American girls are relentlessly bombarded with images and innuendo telling them that success is achieved by becoming a sex object. What our daughters really need are fewer underwear models and more Michelle Obamas.
Cheers and thanks to you, Michelle. May you continue to be the role model you’ve been for the last eight years.
Keith Pochick is an emergency physician and can be reached on Twitter @keith_pochick.
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