“The Meaning of Michelle: 16 Writers on the Iconic First Lady and How Her Journey Inspires Our Own,” Edited by Veronica Chambers, Illustrated. (220 pages. St. Martin’s Press. $24.99.)
Who will Americans miss more, Barack or Michelle Obama? He needs her, it’s become clear, the way ivy needs an oak. As this estimable couple shift into private life, others may need her as well, and lonely eyes will increasingly turn in her direction.
Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama is all of 52. She has, you suspect, a memoir to write. And after that? Whether or not she ultimately enters politics, her every move will be political in a way it has rarely been for most of this country’s first ladies.
She will be watched for lessons in how to speak for certain values, in how to behave, in how to live a meaningful and expressive and nondull life. The most interesting things she has to offer might be in front of us.
A new book, “The Meaning of Michelle,” collects essays from 16 writers, many of them African-American women, about what it’s been like to witness Michelle Obama in the White House. “Witness” is the correct word. The first thing most of these writers admit is that they’ve been unable to take their eyes off her.
This is because, first of all, she so resembles them. Novelist Benilde Little, in her essay, notes Obama is entrancing, partly because she is “a dark-skinned woman without ‘classically’ beautiful features and no social provenance.”
Damon Young, editor of digital magazine VSB (Very Smart Brothas), suggests that while Obama’s hair is full and stylish, it is not what is commonly and perversely referred to as “good hair.” He writes: “It was black hair, the type of hair that communicated to us all that she knew what her ‘kitchen’ was, was very well acquainted with the nap, and had a back-and-forth relationship with hot combs.”
Chirlane McCray, first lady of New York City, describes meeting Obama and simply “looking up in awe at a whole lot of tall and gorgeous.”
Many of the contributors to “The Meaning of Michelle” linger upon Obama’s toned upper arms. At least one of them, this book’s editor, Veronica Chambers, admits to waking before 5 a.m. two days a week to try to get guns like that herself.
Tanisha C. Ford, an associate professor at the University of Delaware, considers the political implications of those arms. While Jackie Kennedy also wore sleeveless frocks, she writes, “her milky arms were read as lithe and petite, nonthreatening.”
Conservative pundits found Obama’s arms too masculine, Ford writes, and this fixation allowed them to “have a conversation about the whole of her body and the ways in which it was out of place in the White House.”
In what might be the finest essay here, Sarah Lewis, an assistant professor at Harvard, writes about the overlapping meanings of what it means to gaze at a public figure, and to be gazed upon.
“Authenticity is not an achievement,” she writes. “Yet authenticity does take effort if you are upending centuries of history with your mere presence. It takes work to let people stare, wonder, probe and prod to determine the veracity of your life.” Obama performed an odd sort of service, Lewis writes, by “donating her body to the nation’s gaze for constant assessment for us all.”
Several of the writers in “The Meaning of Michelle” assess Obama’s initiatives while first lady, especially her work to understand and prevent child obesity. Many seem more impressed by her work as a mother.