In 2008, hell froze over and Barack Obama was elected the first black president of the United States. The country had a hard time reckoning with a black man being the leader of the free world, but it seemed more challenging to some at the time to accept the black woman at his side.
While campaigning with Barack in 2007, Michelle Obama was called an “angry black woman,” a label put upon black women by mainstream American media and even more by mainstream American history. “That was one of those things where you just sort of think, ‘Dang, you don’t even know me,’” she told Oprah Winfrey last week in an interview looking back at her time as first lady. "You just sort of feel like, ‘Wow, where’d that come from?'”
And, really, where did it come from? For better or worse, Michelle shares her husband’s even-keeled temperament. They don’t show anger. Take, for example, her answer to the vitriol of Donald Trump’s campaign: “When they go low, we go high,” she told attendees of the Democratic National Convention in July.
I wish Michelle didn’t have to go high when racists, bigots, and sexists went low, but that’s one of her responsibilities as first lady. But in her eight years in the White House, she found a way to be herself and quietly subvert stereotypes and expectations. And we’ve got the year-by-year receipts right here of Michelle being her best self.
By the time her official first lady photo was taken, Michelle had appeared on the cover of Vogue and at the president’s first congressional address in sleeveless dresses. Her first lady photo, of course, also showed off her bare arms, causing “uproar” and “controversy.” After that, there was no shortage of trend pieces about her “long, muscular” arms (and what they meant), and all of us became extraordinarily jealous of what we’d come to call those “Michelle Obama arms.”
It was the campaign that defined her eight years as first lady. Michelle not only took on reducing childhood obesity, but challenged white perceptions of the black body by placing hers front-and-center in viral dance routine videos.
And here’s one of those viral dance routines. Michelle showed the world she could really move when she visited a Washington DC middle school as part of her Let’s Move! campaign.
During her appearance at the Democratic National Convention, Michelle opened up and spoke of her personal life, her upbringing, and the early days of her relationship with Barack, when the president was young and broke and courting her. It was the first time America realized Barack wasn’t the only orator in the family.
Michelle, like Barack, showed her allegiance to black communities often through action and not words. One of those times was when she attended the funeral of Hadiya Pendleton, a Chicago teen who was shot and killed. In 2012, Pendleton, who was 15 when she died, performed at the president’s inauguration with her high school marching band. “Hadiya Pendleton was me, and I was her,” Michelle said while attending a fundraiser in her hometown of Chicago where she pleaded with community leaders to take action against gun violence. “But I got to grow up and go to Princeton and Harvard Law School and have a career and family and the most blessed life I could ever imagine….And Hadiya? Oh, we know that story.”
In a dance routine on Jimmy Fallon to promote “Let’s Move!”, Michelle broke down the evolution of mom dancing and really earned her “mom-in-chief” title.
It took a while for both Michelle and Barack to speak publicly about racism, but by 2015 Michelle was speaking plainly and boldly about the racism she had been a target of. “As potentially the first African American first lady, I was also the focus of another set of questions and speculations; conversations sometimes rooted in the fears and misperceptions of others,” Michelle said in her keynote address at Tuskegee University, a historically black college in Alabama. “Was I too loud, or too angry, or too emasculating?” she asked rhetorically, referring to the racism she experienced.
Right before she wowed us again with an electrifying speech that served as the highlight of the DNC, the first lady took some time out to sing her favorite tunes and remind us of how effortlessly charming and down to earth she has been for the past eight years.
Collier Meyerson is a reporter at Fusion with a focus on race and politics. She lives in Brooklyn.