For Michelle Obama, Becoming Ordinary is Extraordinary | Leading Like a Lady

Lesson: See the Unseen.

I used to wonder why God was invisible. At times it was hard for me to put stock in a higher power I couldn’t see but was supposed to exalt. 

Then at one Bible study, I found my answer in a story about how God revealed himself to Moses. He was allowed to experience God without fully seeing God, because “no one may see [God] and live” to tell the story.

Interesting to think about as I think about feeling invisible, a feeling most black people share. God symbolizes perfection and no person is near perfect. But, I wonder if there’s a power within us (the black people) making it hard for others to fully see us, lest parts of them are forced to die.

It was definitely a theme in the Netflix documentary “Becoming”, based on the memoir of the same title written by Michelle Obama, former First Lady of the U.S. The film includes clips of her book tour, the best and worst parts about being the first black family in the White House, and the conversations she had about it along the way with high school students.

Read the book Becoming with a 30-day free trial of Amazon Kindle.

So much can be unpacked from her trip to Chicago, where a student asks, “how did you…persevere through this invisibility [of being a black woman]?” In one sentence she wraps up the misunderstanding and miseducation of black people around self and worth constantly forcing us into microcosms of ourselves.

For black women, the misunderstanding involves the exhausted tropes of being too ornery to talk to, too nefarious (think “welfare queens”) to trust, or too ugly or average to be valued. Coupled with black girls misinformed about who they really are, or what they could be, and you have the recipe for ripping apart the soul.

Policy changes or laws aren’t enough to solve this. The plague cuts across economic class, ethnicity, or geographic region. I saw it in myself— a first-generation Nigerian-American in a middle-class home, taught to find her worth in marriage rather than ambition. And I saw it in the black girls I struggled to teach in the South Bronx because they never thought they were smart enough. Miseducation starts at home, where internalized self-hatred is inherited, passed down in the mocking or discouragement from elders nursing past trauma. 

The trauma comes from a world deifying the black child only after they’ve made it through hell. Black children have the undue pressure to prove themselves significant while navigating paths paved with the blatant oppression of slavery, heading down the road of “soft bigotry”, low expectations” and taunts to “pull yourself up by the bootstraps.” And like a cool glass of water you’d be hard-pressed to find in hell, there’s no grace for buckling under that pressure of trying but failing to hold on.

Michelle Obama’s response to that question— “my parents always made me feel visible”— would be triggering without the self-awareness she has to recognize her unique situation. The key point she portrays in her book and attitude is crucial. We need to feel seen, but it’s a need a lot of young black girls can’t find at home or anywhere else.

When I think about that and the past generations of young people (like me) who didn’t have a Michelle Obama, I mourn the missed opportunities to unlock all the potential we had within us. If the world continues to have its way, black girls can’t afford to be just “good”, and don’t deserve the right or resources to be “great”. It takes someone like Michelle Obama, self-aware in rooms where entitlement can deceive, to show us where our true greatness comes from.

As Michelle eloquently puts it, it’s in the stories rather than the numbers. I loved Michelle’s conversation with Elizabeth, a senior from Whitney M. Young High School in Chicago. So many young women like her worry their life amounts to nothing if all they achieve is survival. I taught so many girls like her who didn’t have the perfect GPAs or pre-collegiate careers but were busy earning the income that keeps their family afloat, caring for the grandmother or father that’s sick, or frankly just carrying the emotional baggage of an unstable home.

It cautions me to reconsider what I try to accomplish as a leader, and especially as a black woman. Michelle clues us into our true superpower— seeing worth in what the world finds ordinary. It’s monumental to have an accomplished black woman like her showing us that growing up in places like South Side Chicago can’t deny us access to the privileges of high society by default. But it’s even greater to have someone like her breaking the fourth wall of privilege that tells us otherwise. 

A world that immortalizes Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg (college dropouts) for pursuing their dreams, but demonizes black children who get lost trying to find theirs, needs to be called to account. There’s so much power in Michelle telling black girls it’s okay to unplug from the world’s expectations, to stop being a “box-checker” under its standards to discover and be seen for what they truly value.

The world underestimates or refuses to understand that. It’s clear from the stories in “Becoming” and from “ordinary” life. The truth is that, as imperfect and complicated as we are, black women pursue the greater good. We raise and nurture children. We protest the harm done to others. We use our talents to inject joy and excitement into the culture. But, as Michelle says, “we go through it alone; we don’t have backup, we don’t have support…” And then, when the world’s done taking and reclaiming what we give it as its own, we’re stripped to a script or statistics that are nowhere near the truth.

The truth about us is dangerous to the status quo…too dangerous to be seen. God bless Michelle Obama, with the rare luxury of people’s attention, to share this with black women and the world: “That story, with all the highs and lows and what seems so ordinary, and what seems like nothing to you – is your power.”

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