Presidents come and go, as President Barack Obama prepared to do in his farewell speech last night, and all of them have their haters. It’s to be expected.
The anger against and the degradation of Obama was worse than what other presidents have faced, and the increase in magnitude felt directly related to his race, but it was often possible for those who disliked Obama to express it as a dislike of his policies and to tell themselves that’s all it was. After all, those appalled by the acts of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush and Bill Clinton got mad, right? Fair enough.
But what, exactly, did Michelle Obama ever do to justify anyone’s hatred or disdain?
That’s not exactly the question addressed in “The Meaning of Michelle: 16 Writers on the Iconic First Lady and How Her Journey Inspires Our Own,” which is uniform in its positivity, if not the takes of its authors. But the question forms a backbeat to the reflections.
The book, released yesterday, was edited by a college classmate of mine, Veronica Chambers, who also wrote one of the essays. Many of the pieces are by black women. Many, but not all, are by fairly famous people, including “Hamilton” star Phillipa Soo, New York City first lady Chirlane McCray and chef Marcus Samuelsson.
The essays are most notable in illustrating that Michelle Obama has become not just a role model for many of the authors but almost an avatar. Her triumphs are theirs, but the slings and arrows she endures, they endure, too, or fear.
Obama is not a politician. The things she has fought for — higher education, physical fitness, nutritious eating and loving parenting — are inarguably positive. Yet the backlash against her has been, at times, furious.
“They called Michelle ‘an angry black woman’ in 2008 and that was a code I immediately understood,” Chambers said in a phone interview. “That’s what people say about me in a corporate setting when they want to invalidate me, even though I’m so soft-spoken. What it really means is, ‘She’s a bitch, and we don’t have to pay attention to her.’”
Obama has been called a man, a gorilla and, because she greeted her husband with a fist bump, a terrorist. She has been accused of being unladylike for showing bare, toned arms; of being shrill; of not supporting her husband because she speaks of him the way wives often speak about husbands, as unwilling to pick up his socks or absent-minded; and of not being “first lady-like.”
And not just by anonymous loonies on the internet, but by big shots on TV and in print.
Last month, 2010 New York GOP gubernatorial nominee Carl Paladino was quoted on his hopes for 2017 in a weekly Buffalo newspaper called ArtVoice saying of Michelle: “I’d like her to return to being a male and let loose in the outback of Zimbabwe where she lives comfortably in a cave with Maxie, the gorilla.”
Paladino is still a member of the Board of Education in Buffalo, where 67 percent of the students are minorities, and he is a huge player in upstate and Republican politics. He said he meant to email it only to friends. That implies his friends would be fine with it.
In its best essays, “The Meaning of Michelle,” is thoughtful, textured and evocative. For many black women, it will be a soothing reiteration of things they already feel and know about a woman they already love. For many others, it could be a fascinating window.
Michelle Obama, in an unbelievably difficult role, was practically perfect. Anyone who hates her should re-examine that feeling. Because the only thing she ever did “wrong” as first lady is be black.
Lane Filler is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.