First lady Michelle Obama’s legacy cannot be written down. Her legacy is not stagnant and cannot be encapsulated solely in the accomplishments that are recorded on paper.
It is neither confined to the White House vegetable garden that she planted to launch the “Let’s Move” initiative nor limited to her continued support for girls’ education globally. It does not live in her degrees from Princeton University and Harvard Law School, and although her fashion has sparked both praise and critique, Obama’s legacy is not sewn into the hems of her dresses.
Rather, it breathes in the countless number of girls and women of color whom she has inspired and affirmed. Despite the criticisms and resistance she has endured as the first black first lady, Obama has taken it all in stride with grace, wit and composure — her rhythm never disrupted.
Obama leaves the White House the same way she came in — amid calls to change Washington. But through her legacy, it is evident that the first lady has forged a new path for what women of color can achieve.
Obama’s legacy is so much more than I will ever be able to put on paper, and I am excited to see how that legacy manifests in the lives of others, particularly girls of color. There are millions of children around the world, my little sister included, who have only ever known a black family to live in the world’s most powerful house.
For me, when I was a young teenager, even before President Barack Obama was elected, something particular struck me about Michelle Obama. I admired her powerful presence and the way she carried herself — commanding a room without dominating the space.
In addition to being one of only three first ladies to have a graduate degree and the first black first lady, Michelle Obama has consistently forged her own path in her role in the White House. At the United State of Women summit in June 2016, she explained, “I specifically did not read other first ladies’ books because I didn’t want to be influenced by how they defined the role. I knew that I would have to define this role very uniquely and specifically to me and who I was.”
She has an air of familiarity that I recognized from the most influential women in my own life: my mother, grandmothers and other women of color who have molded my own understanding of womanhood and black womanhood. With them, Michelle Obama shares a sense of self-assuredness, an awareness of how some perceive her and the confidence to be herself anyway.
Over the past eight years, Michelle Obama’s legacy has blossomed from this ability to unapologetically be herself, a quality the media often does not present as positive in women of color. Rather than lauding her innovative boldness in pushing the boundaries of a first lady’s role, critics have labelled her as an “angry black woman,” reducing her to a caricature to more easily discredit her.
Regardless, however, she has not allowed herself to be restricted by the expectations that others have imposed on her and instead dictated her own course.
Michelle Obama has embraced her own identities as a highly educated woman, a successful lawyer, a black person, a woman, a black woman, a wife and a mother. Michelle Obama has also demonstrated with poise that she is intertwined with many communities, including several that are neither frequently nor consistently represented on a national stage.
As Michelle Obama eloquently stated in her farewell speech, “That is what moves this country forward every single day: our hope for the future and the hard work that hope inspires. So that’s my final message to young people as first lady. It is simple.”
More than anything, those who have grown up concurrent to Barack Obama’s presidency have grown up on a message of hope, a hope that I believe, no matter what, will persist in generations to come.
SHOLA POWELL is a senior in the College.