Michelle Obama stood in front of hundreds of black faces on Saturday and told them something they may not have expected to hear. “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,” the first lady said in her commencement address to the graduating class at Tuskegee University, a historically black institution in Alabama. “Was I too loud, or too angry, or too emasculating?,” she bellowed, echoing the racist stereotypes of black women she has had to try and gingerly avoid since being thrust into public life.
Obama has delivered at least eight university commencement speeches since becoming first lady. And four of those were delivered at historically black universities and colleges (HBCU). But the one at Tuskegee marks a shift in her personal narrative. Michelle isn’t holding back anymore. This is her racism real-talk moment. This was her FOH speech.
When she spoke to students at HBCUs in the past, Obama referred to present day racism obliquely, resting on the racism that built this country, her emphasis on how far we’ve come. In 2011, at Spelman College, Michelle told a story of the all women’s college founders who were dissuaded from their mission to establish a college for black women. “The thought of an African American woman learning to read and write was, to so many, laughable at best, an impossibility at worst,” she said.
Speaking at Dillard University in 2014, the first lady warned students of the challenges facing black youth. “The high school graduation rate for black students is improving, but it is still lower than just about any other group in this country,” she said. A problem, she insisted, that needed fixing.
Obama did pull from her own life to inspire students. “See, my parents didn't go to college, but they were determined to give us that opportunity,” she said at her speech at Bowie State University.
But reflections of personal hardship ended there. The White House, an emblem of freedom and democracy, ironically trapped its current occupants. By avoiding discussions of racism, Michelle Obama was able to stave off mutiny.
That was then.
The first lady spoke on Saturday of the first time she was on the cover of a magazine, a less than savory story. “It was a cartoon drawing of me with a huge afro and machine gun,” she told the crowd. “Now, yeah, it was satire, but if I’m really being honest, it knocked me back a bit. It made me wonder, just how are people seeing me.” Her honesty and vulnerability pull back the curtain on life as the first black first lady.
“Or you might remember the on-stage celebratory fist bump between me and my husband after a primary win that was referred to as a ‘terrorist fist jab,’” the first lady remembered. “One said I exhibited ‘a little bit of uppity-ism.’ Another noted that I was one of my husband’s ‘cronies of color.’ Cable news once charmingly referred to me as ‘Obama’s Baby Mama,’” she said summing up the unfortunate nicknames of her first ladyship.
Michelle Obama’s newfound candor isn’t without the signature Obama hope talk. After many sleepless nights wondering what people thought of her she told Tuskegee students she needed to reassess. “I realized that if I wanted to keep my sanity and not let others define me, there was only one thing I could do, and that was to have faith in God’s plan for me,” she said. “ I had to ignore all of the noise and be true to myself — and the rest would work itself out.”
The Obamas seldomly discussed racism in the president’s first term. His response to the death of Trayvon Martin remains his most memorable acknowledgement: “If I had a son he’d look like Trayvon,” he said.
But now that the president is gearing up for the last year of his second term, his administration is beginning to discard careful language and obfuscation. And that includes Michelle.
The president and first lady started having frank discussions about their experiences with American racism in a People magazine interview last December and since then, they haven’t held back. "I think people forget that we've lived in the White House for six years," Michelle told People in response to the assumption that she hasn’t had to deal with racism in the White House.
And that was just the tip of the iceberg.
The speech Michelle Obama delivered—in the confines of the historic black Alabama university erected to advance black people—was the first lady’s own personal racism real-talk coming-out party.
And what a banger it was.
Collier Meyerson is a reporter at Fusion with a focus on race and politics. She lives in Brooklyn.