When Nina Simone hollered “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, she was rallying the cry for black pride and Civil Rights during a very turbulent period in American history. Little would have Simone realised that about a thousand miles away in Chicago, Illinois, a six-year-old Michelle Obama was living her early life, unaware that she would someday be the first African-American First Lady of the USA. A role model and inspiration to millions of girls around the world, Michelle too had to jostle with discrimination – both racial and gender – while making her way up the world.
Hailing from a black migrant family on the south side of Chicago, Michelle grew up in a period of history which was still coping to accept the Civil Rights movement and gender equality. So as a black woman, in spite of her talent, hard work, and ambition, Michelle had to battle immense odds to carry forward. But she never gave up on her dreams! She never allowed the ebbs and flows of politics, racial segregation, and lack of opportunities come in the way of her merit. Right from an early age, she knew she wasn’t entitled or privileged, and hence, she had to really fight to earn her name.
Unfazed by the hurdles life threw at her, this South Chicago girl persevered and steadily rose from her career in law to work as a city administrator and later community-outreach worker. Today, her life is a saga of struggle, fortitude, and excellence and a shining example for African-American women.
So, on Michelle’s 54th birthday, we take a look at her life right from her childhood, and the lessons we can learn from her faith in humanity.
This old adage may seem like a cliché, but it is far from it. If it was easy to become successful, the world wouldn’t be raving about it. To reach the top of the mountain you have to brave the climb and overcome challenges on the way. From a traditional middle-class upbringing, Michelle Obama had a tough childhood, given her father’s battle with multiple sclerosis. Her father always insisted upon the importance of hard work, and his fight against the degenerative disease was an early example of perseverance and grit for Michelle.
She learned early on that she had an immense precipice to conquer. But she always believed she had the wherewithal to push herself through the tough times. She believes, “There is no magic to achievement. It’s really about hard work, choices, and persistence.”
Talking about the spirit of never giving up, she states confidently, “You may not always have a comfortable life and you will not always be able to solve all of the world’s problems at once, but don’t ever underestimate the importance you can have, because history has shown us that courage can be contagious and hope can take on a life of its own.”
Very often, we are ridiculed on the basis of how we look, how we speak, and how we connect with others. Instead of feeling small about oneself and feeling disappointed in front of the challenges of life, one should always have self-belief. It’s all about our outlook, our perspective on life that builds our foundation during the tough times. For example, Michelle is a cum laude from Princeton and received her Juris Doctor from Harvard Law School, both prestigious Ivy League Colleges where she worked tirelessly to prove her own worth. But even when she started her legal career, she faced daily reminders of subtle racism.
Even during her time in these colleges, she often felt more of a visitor than a student, as she was hardly able to connect with others. This played a pivotal role in Michelle working in public service and assisting the Mayor Of Chicago in 1991.
Having been constantly bogged down by these issues, she knew she had the potential to limit the sufferings of others from her community, who perhaps weren’t as privileged as her. She grabbed on to that opportunity and worked towards moulding and uplifting society, and became a thought leader. Of course, such perseverance is not an easy task, and it needs an enormous amount of grit and determination. But Michelle teaches us how to overlook these little nuances of struggle and come out stronger than ever before. After all, if she can do it, all of us have the ability to do it too, in our own little ways!
America is definitely a land of multiple realities. Everyone creates their own reality, depending on which strata of society they hail from. That being said, the ill-treatment met by women is pretty much prevalent in every society, every country. Women have always have had a tough time competing with men, be it in terms of identity, job, wages, or gender equality. But what differentiates us is our own way of rising above this and believing in our dream, stronger in the face of dejection. What matters perhaps, in the end, is also the hope that we give to others.
Dealing with this issue, Michelle clearly states, “The difference between us and them, between you and success, is not that you never fail, but it’s how you recover from those failures – is that you keep getting up time and time again. You figure out what you did wrong, and then you make it right. I say that to my kids every day.”
It doesn’t matter who you are – each of us has the power to make a difference, to give something back to our society, to make a change. Michelle always did that, in whatever role she was capable of. She strongly believes that “In my own life, in my own small way, I’ve tried to give back to this country that has given me so much. That’s why I left a job at a law firm for a career in public service, working to empower young people to volunteer in their communities. Because I believe that each of us – no matter what our age or background or walk of life – each of us has something to contribute to the life of this nation.”
Unfortunately, quite often, many dismiss the power of a single voice. Michelle debates this logic with the belief that, “You don’t have to be somebody different to be important. You’re important in your own right.”
As Michelle herself has struggled a great deal to be educated and faced a lot of competition, she knows the value of education. It was the reason why in 2015, she launched the ‘Let Girls Learn’ Initiative, through which she encouraged Americans to pursue higher education after high school and earn their identity and confidence through higher education. In 2017, in her quest to provide education to American teenagers, Michelle chose 16-year-old Indian-American Swetha Prabakaran to serve on the inaugural Student Advisory Board of her education campaign called ‘Better Make Room’.
Apart from these little lessons that Michelle endows, she has also been quite vocal about causes ranging from migrants and women abduction to domestic violence and racial abuse. Her support has helped shape a valid and relevant discourse on these concerns. She never allowed the past traditional trajectory of previous First Ladies in the White House to make her a conformist. Even today, when Barack Obama looks back at his tenure, he publicly praises the pivotal role that Michelle played in making him the man that he is today. For sure, this former First Lady will continue to inspire us in the coming years in her own ways!