I knew former President Barack Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama would attend President Joseph Biden’s inauguration. But I did not expect to feel all of the feels watching them enter and the deep inhale I took as they made their way to their seats. The memories I had of their time in the White House came right back to me. They showed up for Biden as they showed up for us during their years serving as president and first lady — as Barack and Michelle, not as former president and former first lady, but as friends to a man who they call family.
Their smooth entrance, their confident swagger, their wardrobes…it was all there for us to see, for us to remember what we had in them. And as videos surface of former President Obama as he addresses the nation during the 2016 change of power, I’m reminded that we still very much need the Obamas to stick around. Their very presence, even if I can only feel it through my television or experience their words through old speeches or their memoirs, gives me hope. It is the “when they go low, we go high” mentality, and when there is a reason to speak out, our former First Lady Michelle Obama steps up.
The word legacy has been top of mind for me this week as we remembered Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and said goodbye to a president who wasn’t up for the job. Michelle Obama’s legacy constantly begs me to question what kind of legacy I will leave for my own children. What kind of mark will I make on this world?
When I see Michelle Obama, I see myself in her: the drive, the loyalty, the love and devotion to her partner, the belief that we will overcome, and the awareness that every word and every move we make matters for reasons much bigger than ourselves. As Black people, we’ve been taught that we are always being watched; president or not, first lady or not, all eyes are on us. Not only is she a Black woman, but she is a woman who understands what it means to bring others up with you, to not forget those who are working hard to make it.
Her legacy will shine on as we move ahead as a country, and I will forever be following their steps. Of course, there is great honor in being the first at anything, but the first to become a Black president and a Black first lady should give us all hope. It should provide us with the opportunity to pause and reflect, the ability to recognize how far we’ve come as a country to have elected this particular family into the White House twice.
During her commencement speech at The City College of New York in 2016, former First Lady Michelle Obama said, “I watch my daughters — two beautiful, Black young women — head off to school, waving goodbye to their father, the president of the United States, the son of a man from Kenya who came here to America — to America for the same reasons as many of you … to get an education and improve his prospects in life.” We know as Black people that obtaining an education has always been our ticket out and the Obamas remind us by their example, and through Michelle’s work as First Lady in the educational sphere, to never forget that.
It’s so easy to get caught up in the swag factor that the Obamas possess, but we must look past that and at who they are. Michelle Obama has left us with the ability to take a look at the roadmap she helped us to see more clearly: how to help others, how to show up as our best selves even on the most challenging of days (like leaving eight years of hard work to someone who had zero experience — can you imagine that?) And yet, she (and her husband) still rise up in the face of discord and lies. They rise to meet the mistreatment and struggle they face with poise and calm. They speak in ways that all people can hear, no matter one’s race, gender, or plight in life.
The legacy that Michelle Obama and Barack Obama leave at our doorsteps even as they no longer reside in the White House is that our words matter. Even during the evening inauguration events for President Joe Biden, when Barack Obama stood with former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, I could feel the emotion in his words through my television. As challenges will continue to come our way, we must remember to always go high when they go low, as we get to work as mothers, warriors in the fight against COVID-19, and human beings.
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