“By her telling, even living at the world’s most prominent address has not erased the sting of racial misunderstanding. In recent weeks, Mrs. Obama has talked of “insults and slights” directed at her husband and caricatures that have pained her. It all “used to really get to me,” she said,” adding that she “had a lot of sleepless nights” until learning to ignore it. But she said she realized that she and her husband had a responsibility to rewrite the narrative for African-Americans.
“That’s a burden that President Obama and I proudly carry every single day in the White House,” she told the graduating seniors of King College Prep High School on Tuesday, “because we know that everything we do and say can either confirm the myths about folks like us — or it can change those myths.”
Mrs. Obama has often been open about personal experiences and race in speeches that went unnoticed by the news media, but rarely more so than in the speech at Tuskegee, where she recalled the New Yorker cover depicting her with a large Afro and an assault rifle. “Now, yeah, it was satire, but if I’m being really honest, it knocked me back a bit,” she said. “It made me wonder, just how are people seeing me.”
She noted that a fist bump with her husband was referred to as a terrorist fist jab. “And over the years,” she said, “folks have used plenty of interesting words to describe me. 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.’ ”
It bothered her. She wondered what people thought of her and feared what her daughters would think. “But eventually,” she said, “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. I had to ignore all of the noise and be true to myself.”
Brian Johnson, Tuskegee’s president, said it was powerful for graduates to understand that the president and first lady felt the bite of stereotypes. “I think they somehow thought that they were immune to that,” he said. “To hear her poignantly and practically share those experiences, more than I’d ever heard her, I think it deeply moved the audience.” Representative Terri A. Sewell, an Alabama Democrat who was a year behind Mrs. Obama at Princeton University, said the speech was profound. “While we no longer have segregated lunch counters, the reality is we still have racism in America,” she said. “To acknowledge that does not mean one is playing the race card. I felt she was being very honest and humble and authentic.”