Let’s be really honest: the angry, sassy Black girl stereotypes that pervade every inch of American society aren’t about all Black women. No, those tropes are only reserved for urban girls, the city chicks. You know the ones who have friends named Laquisha and maybe is herself a LaToya or a Ryesha. During a different era they were named Michelle.
Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama may be everything for most Black women but she means all that much more to the young girls and grown-ass women from her native South Side of Chicago; Harlem, New York; Southeast DC; North Philly; South Central L.A. and all the hoods in-between. She is the one who came from parents who didn’t have fancy degrees. There was no girl scouts. There was “put your hands on your hip and let your backbone slip” fun, double-dutch and skating. You were already lucky enough—with great sacrifices mind you—to go to college and maybe get an advanced degree. But First Lady of the United States—who could or even would ever dream that?
Nancy Reagan, Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush may be well-known, but Jackie Kennedy was, until now, the iconic image of the First Lady of the United States. Over fifty years later, Natalie Portman is being rewarded for her portrayal in the Jackie biopic. And now a little brown girl from rough and tough Chitown was going to dethrone Jackie Kennedy, whose mother was a socialite? First ladies overwhelmingly do not hail from urban metropolises. Betty Ford and Hillary Clinton may have been born in Chicago but neither were raised in Chicago. And they were absolutely not Black girls who grew into accomplished Black women.
A First Lady is presumed to be delicate, fragile. She has, with the exception of Eleanor Roosevelt and Clinton, been a helpmate, not a partner. But Michelle Obama couldn’t help but be a partner. She is the rose that burst out of concrete. She was driven long before she met that goofy guy with the then funny name, Barack Obama. She had to be.
Just going to high school required dedication and determination. How else could she be on a bus at six in the morning to make the hour-long ride to Whitney Young Magnet High School? Even today it remains the third best high school in all of Illinois, according to U.S. News & World Report. But being there was no haven, though. Black girls from the hood weren’t encouraged. In the 1980s, young Black girls in cities like Chicago were, to hear the media tell it, destined to become welfare queens. And although Michelle LaVaughn Robinson traveled far from that path, she still had haters, doubters really, even among those who should have been rooting for her.
In 2013, speaking to Bell Multicultural High School students in Washington, D.C. the First Lady recalled responses to her then-biggest goal to attend Princeton. Never mind that her brother Craig Robinson had already paved the way and been accepted there, because, of course, urban Black girls weren’t seen as nearly as capable as boys from the hood.
“[S]ome of my teachers straight up told me that I was setting my sights too high. They told me I was never going to get into a school like Princeton,” she shared. “I still hear that doubt ringing in my head. So it was clear to me that nobody was going to take my hand and lead me to where I needed to go.”
So she did what all those city Black girls who are determined to make it do. “[W]hen I encountered doubters, when people told me I wasn’t going to cut it, I didn’t let that stop me—in fact, I did the opposite. I used that negativity to fuel me, to keep me going.”
As First Lady, “gorilla” was among the most popular thrown at Michelle Obama. But do you think any of it has stopped her? When she showed up for Black Girls Rock last year, little Michelle LaVaughn Robinson knew she rocked too. For all those who caught her at Maya Angelou’s funeral the year before, there was no mistaking that she was talking to herself, that little girl who few affirmed.
“The first time I read “Phenomenal Woman”, I was struck by how she celebrated black women’s beauty like no one had ever dared to before. Our curves, our stride, our strength, our grace. Her words were clever and sassy; they were powerful and sexual and boastful. And in that one singular poem, Maya Angelou spoke to the essence of black women,” she noted.
“And, oh, how desperately black girls needed that message. As a young woman, I needed that message,” she admitted. “For me, that was the power of Maya Angelou’s words–-words so powerful that they carried a little black girl from the South Side of Chicago all the way to the White House,” she later beamed.
Make no mistake, getting to the White House is hard enough, but coming from the South Side of Chicago made it all that more unlikely. Those nice, agreeable country girls seem to get all the love. Growing up in the city of Houston, for example, doesn’t seem nearly as scary as Chi-Raq. Michelle Obama didn’t sing or dance either. She didn’t win any beauty pageants. She banked on her intelligence and insured it with sheer determination and hard work. Nobody but she willed it to be. And not even a concrete cage of invisible walls could keep her down.
For every sassy chick with her hand on her hip, there is Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama. Black women all over may indeed love her but maybe no one more than us South Side of Chicago Black girls who have had to go high when everything around us was hell-bent on keeping us low. There are not enough thanks for the beautiful urban girl roar of Michelle and I love her fiercely for it.
Ronda Racha Penrice is a freelance writer living in Atlanta. She is the author of African American History for Dummies.