On Saturday, Michelle Obama gave an inspiring 30-minute commencement address at Alabama’s historically Black Tuskegee University. (She was also given an honorary degree, which she accepted resplendent in a fancy robe, in case you were wondering.)
She opened with an evocative history of the ways in which the school’s Tuskegee Airmen — the first African-American military pilots during World War II — were mistreated because of their race. Indeed, her speech was most notable for how it candidly called out the effects of racism, both in American culture and in the Obamas’ own lives.
Here are a few of the most memorable messages FLOTUS conveyed in Saturday’s remarkably personal speech.
Everybody has hard times and self-doubt (yup, even her).
Michelle Obama acknowledged that she’s faced all kinds of challenges throughout her career — especially when her husband began campaigning for president. Though all female politicians deal with obnoxious questions, as a Black woman, she faced, well, significantly more.
"As potentially the first African-American first lady, I was also the focus of another set of speculations," she recalled for the graduates. "Conversations sometimes rooted in fears and misperceptions... Was I too loud, or too angry, or too emasculating?"
She remembered being discouraged by the vitriol spouted at her from seemingly every corner, from being dubbed “Obama’s Baby Mama” on cable TV to having her self-confidence derided as "uppity-ism." But, she persevered, because, well, duh — she had to. "To succumb to feelings of despair and anger only means that, in the end, we lose," she reminded the appreciative crowd.
Staying true to who you are is what's most important.
FLOTUS may be the most powerful woman in the country, but she’s also human. Which means she’s not immune to self-doubt: "I didn’t start out as the fully formed first lady who stands before you today," she told the Tuskegee grads. And, she remembered being, at times, utterly flummoxed by all the shade being thrown her way. "I had a lot of sleepless nights, worrying about what people thought of me," she revealed.
What got her through was faith: "I had to ignore all of the noise and be true to myself — and the rest would work itself out." She knew she and Barack’s mission was way more important than the idiotic ranting of a few dumb naysayers, and she was right (as usual). We’d say things worked themselves out pretty well for the Obamas, whose success is hard-won — and well deserved.
Racism isn't going away, but that doesn't mean we can stop fighting it.
Obama didn’t shy away from describing the ongoing hardships today’s African-American millennials must confront. Having worked their butts off for their diplomas won’t make the new Tuskegee grads exempt from intolerant attitudes and years of entrenched racism, she noted, just as being the first lady hasn’t spared her.
"The world won’t always see you in those caps and gowns," she said. "[People] will make assumptions...based on their limited notion of the world. And my husband and I...both felt the sting of those daily slights throughout our entire lives — the folks who crossed the street in fear of their safety; the clerks who kept a close eye on us in all those department stores; the people at formal events who assumed we were the 'help.'"
Feeling perpetually doubted, shunned, misunderstood, even feared takes a heavy psychological toll, Obama said; it can trigger feelings of "isolation" that are "rooted in decades of structural challenges... And, those feelings are playing out in communities like Baltimore and Ferguson and so many others across this country."
The answer? To do the opposite of hopelessly throwing in the towel. Instead, Obama encouraged listeners to organize, and to vote. "When we pull ourselves out of those lowest emotional depths, and we channel our frustrations into studying and organizing and banding together, then we can build ourselves and our communities up," she said. "If you want to have a say in your community, if you truly want the power to control your own destiny, then you’ve got to be involved. You got to be at the table. You’ve got to vote, vote, vote, vote... That's the way we move forward."
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