Michelle Obama has indisputably captured the admiration of so many in the last eight years. For African Americans, especially, she is #goals—our most brilliant, poised, grounded, funny and patently put-together. Veronica Chambers, who sprinkles literary jewels in conversation like Biggie drops bars, has edited and compiled a series of essays on the first lady entitled, The Meaning of Michelle: 16 Writers on the Iconic First Lady and How Her Journey Inspires Our Own (St. Martin’s Press; on-sale January 10, 2017).
The book features essays from 16 of our most celebrated writers, essayists, artists and cultural shape shifters including Ava DuVernay, Benilde Little, Damon Young, Alicia Hall Moran and Jason Moran, Brittney Cooper, Ylonda Gault Caviness, Chirlane McCray, Cathi Hanauer, Tiffany Dufu, Tanisha Forde, Marcus Samuelsson, Sarah Lewis, Phillipa Soo, Rebecca Carroll, and Roxane Gay.
Below is a conversation with Chambers on The Meaning of Michelle, which will be published days before our first Black First Family officially leaves the White House. [Edited for length and clarity.]
#OneObama: What prompted you to do this project now?
Veronica Chambers: My editor and I would have lunch every couple of months and we would just always have this Michelle Obama appreciation part, saying things like, “Oh my God, did you see the Let Girls Learn thing? Did you see the James Corden video? Did you see this?” Then she said to me, “Don’t you think it would be great to put together a collection of essays?” At that point, I thought there’d been so many books, but she said, “None really quite like this. It’ll be a moment when they’re leaving the White House, and this moment of appreciation for the whole time.” I thought, “That sounds really interesting.” Then I started making a list of dream contributors, and from there it was pretty exciting. Because it wasn’t a big anthology, it was like putting together a list of the ideal dinner party. Could I have Ava Duvernay? Damon Young from Very Smart Brothers and Roxane Gay? I’m fan-girling Michelle Obama and I’m fan-girling the writers as well.
#OneObama: Were there any surprises on what writers wrote about? Did they get to choose?
Veronica: Everyone got to choose what they wrote about. There are just so many pieces that I love in this book. I loved Jason Moran and Alisha Hall-Moran‘s conversation about marriage and creativity in partnership, especially through the lens of the fact that they’ve met the Obamas several times. Jason is the director of Jazz at the Kennedy Center. Alisha starred on Broadway in Porgy and Bess. And so for them to say, “Okay, we’re in a creative marriage, they’re clearly in a creative marriage. What does that mean for us?” I love that because I think for all the great things that we do have out there, including Blackish, which is everybody’s favorite,
I don’t think we talk enough about black love and what it takes for people to work together to achieve their dreams. I don’t think we can have enough of those conversations. That was very powerful and important to me, as one example.
#OneObama: Was everyone who contributed to the book Black?
Veronica: No. Cathi Hanauer famously edited The Bitch in the House anthologies, which were huge best-sellers. There’s a new one called, The Bitch is Back. She’s just someone who I think has always been part of an interesting conversation about women, work, balance, marriage, motherhood and so I asked her to be a part of it because I love reading her writing and I like her style.
#OneObama: What about the contributions from men? Anything surprise you there?
Veronica: Damon Young is just genius hilarious and he’s just so warm. He was, for me, just a big hug. Then Marcus Samuelsson, everyone knows him as a chef, but one of the things that I really appreciated about what he brought to the conversation was he talked about the Obamas through the lens of Africa and what it means for young African girls to see someone like Michelle Obama, whose family has real roots to the continent. I mean, we all do, but you know what I mean. Also because Marcus is so savvy about social media, he also spoke really intelligently and in an interesting way about what it meant for her to be a first lady in the age of Twitter and Facebook, where there are no do-overs and everything goes around the world in 30 seconds. Honestly, no other first lady has had technology moving as fast as she has, and she’s not only dealt with it, she’s owned it. It’s just yet another thing to admire about her … like there was a shortage of it.
#OneObama: Do you think the book would have been different given that we now know the results of the 2016 presidential election?
Veronica: Honestly, I don’t think we would have made a different book but I do feel that somehow the book has become more precious. The reviews have been really nice, which has been lovely, and one website listed it as “One of 10 books to get you through the first year of the Trump administration.” I think the way the book is being received is different but I don’t know if we would have made a different book.
#OneObama: Have you ever met Michelle Obama?
Veronica: I have never met her. I have never met her and … It’s funny. I cannot believe eight years have gone by and I haven’t met her. But it’s okay. Honestly I just feel like, to have someone who looks like her, who shares so much of the DNA of our experience, has meant so much to me that honestly, a picture would be nice. I would I have liked to gone to the White House when they were there, but those momentary moments really pale in comparison to the impact she’s had on my life. I feel like she’s modeled this thing of how to be a grown up woman and how to own it. How to be concerned but also care for yourself and all those things. I just feel like I got a lot from a distance and so I’m good with that.
#OneObama: What do you think that the legacy of the Obamas will be?
Veronica: For me, the legacy of their time in the White House is one of excellence and grace. We all have known that thing of having to work twice as hard to get half as far, and then you saw these two people enter the White House and they worked so hard but they got so far and they did so much. I consistently feel that, we as black Americans have so much to teach America and the world and I feel like that’s what they did. I would say their greatest legacy is not as the first Black president or the first Black first lady. I would say the legacy is being one of the finest, the most excellent presidents. One of the finest, the most excellent first ladies. That, and they defined the role in their own image; and blackness was a part of it, and that culture was a part of it, but so was everything else that they brought to it. And that’s why this present political moment and the past few years of campaigning have been so infuriating to me.
Because at the end of the day, the narrative of black America is one of creativity, imagination, excellence, intelligence. That’s what we are and the Obamas exemplified that. I think that history will remember that and remember it well.
#OneObama: What, in fact, is the meaning of Michelle for you?
Benilde Little, who I call our Edith Wharton, her essay about authenticity is huge. If I had to say it in one word, the meaning of Michelle is authenticity. That being true to yourself, the holding your head up high, [personifying] the James Baldwin quote, “Your crown was bought and paid for long ago. All you have to do is wear it.” All of that, I think, comes through in the book.
In a way not dissimilar to Jackie Kennedy, Michelle Obama has been an incredible role model because you can look at her and you can get what you need. If what you need is to lighten up, you can look at the mom dancing and the singalong karaoke with James Corden. Being a Black woman shouldn’t have to be all strength and the guise of seriousness, and she gave us the permission to be humorous in that way. Like Zora Neal Hurston’s quote, “I love myself when I’m laughing and then again when I look mean and impressive.” I think there’s that mix there. The gravitas and the sense of the lightness. That, to me, is the meaning of Michelle. Being able to hold both of those in a modern sense is amazing.
Veronica Chambers is a prolific writer and the author of the critically acclaimed memoir Mama’s Girl. A contributor to several anthologies, including the bestselling Bitch in the House, she’s been a senior editor at the New York Times Magazine, Glamour and Newsweek. She is currently a JSK Knight Fellow at Stanford.