30 Jan

Healing justice work: The legacy of Michelle Obama

May 4 2016, 6:30 pm, Plaistow tube station, Amina Gichinga and I sat on a brown brick wall, catching up on life, catching up to this moment. Amina was vying for a political seat in the Greater London Assembly as a candidate for Take Back the City. I met up with her to canvass for her seat, starting where we know best, by talking to people and finding out what matters to them. More important than promoting her movement, Amina wanted to make sure that every person we spoke to was going to vote.  This principled commitment to political change is what drew me to Amina and has kept me thinking about her since I met her five years ago, when we worked together on a community development project in Newham.

Here we were, two black women with Kenyan heritage, crafting a new political space that did more than pay lip-service to inclusivity and representation. We were creating new maps of identity simply by subverting the existing boundaries of who and how someone can belong, who and how someone can have a political voice and exercise it.

After a few hours of campaigning, the crowds simmered down, and we decided to head home. I thanked Amina for inviting me to share this moment with her and asked her how she was feeling. In a few quiet moments, she became emotional, a testament to the gruelling act of political campaigning and the grit required to withstand it all. Amina had the strength to be vulnerable, to recognise what she had accomplished. Irrespective of the outcome on May 5, this opportunity had changed her and no doubt every single person whom she restored the possibility of political change.

This is the powerful quality I noticed in Michelle Obama when reading Mariana Cook’s iconic profile of the Obamas, ‘A Couple in Chicago.’ Captured in 1996, 8 years before Barack and Michelle were thrust into the political spotlight following Barack’s speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, the interview reveals the parlay of resilience and vulnerability we have come to revere in Michelle. On the prospects of her husband’s future, Michelle shares, ‘There is a strong possibility that Barack will pursue a political career, although it’s unclear. There is a little tension with that. I’m very wary of politics. I think he’s too much of a good guy for the kind of brutality, the skepticism…But we are going to be busy people doing lots of stuff. And it’ll be interesting to see what life has to offer. In many ways, we are here for the ride, just sort of seeing what opportunities open themselves up. And the more you experiment the easier it is to do different things.”

Michelle does not second guess whether her husband will create a remarkable political career. She contemplates what she may have to compromise when he does create it and what that means for her boundaries of familiarity, mainly privacy, trust and love.

For a while, I was really scared for Michelle. Projecting my fears on to her, I was worried either the public scrutiny or adulation would engulf her. One day, she would make the awful mistake of being human and be bludgeoned with the heavy hammer of misogynoir. Worse still, she would be judged in a special court designed for those who are brave enough to enter political life; her identity, her nationality, her American identity shredded right in front of our very eyes.

With every media coverage leading up the 2008 elections, from Fox News’ reference to Michelle as ‘Obama’s baby-momma’, to that New Yorker cover of Michelle and Barack, I felt fiercely fearful for her because there was so much to rise above. Yet at the Democratic National Convention 2016, it was Michelle, not Barack, who stole the show in a speech which showed they had not only survived but thrived.

Reflecting on this fear, it was because I knew Michelle had the audacity to not only live but showcase black life. In a culture where black death is recorded, mis-recorded, examined, retweeted, and packaged for public consumption, Michelle focused her energy on a truer image of what it is to be alive and to be black.  She made it known that living was not outside our purview; we were struggling to stay alive but we knew how to live well.

Healing justice work

Her toned arms, once cultural signifiers of ‘the angry black woman’ persona,  have now gained the prolific status of what self-care looks like. The political undertones on both interpretations is not lost. In social justice movements, self-care is as political as direct action towards the issue being tackled. Patrisse Cullors, the co-founder of Black Lives Matters, refers to the BLM movement as ‘healing justice work’, social change through the ‘work of healing.’

Racial disparities in health outcomes still exist in America despite the gains Obamacare has made in reducing racial inequalities in access to healthcare.  When people talk about the impact of Obamacare, the genius of Michelle’s Let’s Move! Initiative is rarely referred to. Her agenda was an important strategy for preventive health care because she tackled the discourse of well-being outside the public health field. Health outcomes are not exclusively impacted by access to and quality of health care. Other factors such as income, housing and education inequalities correlate with health outcomes and Michelle used her platform to make health and fitness accessible to people in spite of these existing inequalities.

Michelle’s Let’s Move! Initiative is just as much about public policy as it about social justice because it seeks to make well-being accessible to everyone. Marcus Samuelsson, describes her campaign on nutrition as the ‘democratisation of food.’ All over America, there are now inspiring initiatives seeking to democratise well-being, such as the Black Girls Run movement and the Black Male Yoga Initiative (below):

Undoing, redoing, living and leaving history

Beyond democratising food, Michelle’s efforts to make the White House inclusive and nuanced in its reflection of America’s past and present, inspired people she worked with to do the same. Marcus Samuelsson was one of the chefs chosen to cook the state dinner when the Obamas hosted former Prime Minister of India, Manmohan Singh.  Samuelsson reflects that Michelle’s commitment to a nuanced (hi)story of America inspired him to craft a menu that captured the true narrative of the country. On the menu he created for that state dinner, which included okra and collard greens (at the White House!!), Samuelsson explains,

‘The migration story was very much at the heart of the menu I created for the state dinner. Cooking with a narrative is something that’s possible for every family, it’s as relevant for Sunday supper as it is for a state dinner. You can own that in whatever capacity you want. Let what you serve be a way of connecting: you cook and all of a sudden, you’re connecting to your college year in New Orleans, or now you’re connecting to your crazy cousin in California. Now you’re connecting to your auntie in Chicago. It’s cooking with a narrative, the way we keep telling our story. Feeding itself is pretty flat and boring, but eating with a spiritual compass and cooking with a narrative is what’s going to connect us, especially since our day-to-day life is so different from the way our parents and our grandparents lived.’

Samuelsson crafts his menus, using the map of memory (people, place and time), to reflect America’s complex story. In a similar manner, Lauret Savoy takes memory as a compass for navigating America. In her searing book, Trace: Memory, Meaning and the American Landscape, Savoy fuses geology, human geography and cultural history to rediscover America’s true narrative. Savoy contemplates, ‘Each of us is, too, a landscape inscribed by memory and loss…to live in this country is to be marked by its still unfolding history…From my circumscribed pinpoint, I must try to trace what has marked me. The way traverses many forms of memory and silence, of a people as well as a single person. And because our lives take place among the shadows of unnumbered years, the journey crosses America and time.’

In many instances, Michelle took this narrative of a nuanced and complex America, from the land, to the plate and served it in her speeches. Telling us she wakes up in a house that was built by slaves, Michelle is letting us know history does not exonerate itself just by the act of proclaiming it. Michelle is letting us know that living in America, living with America, is a Herculean task of undoing, redoing, living and leaving history.

From the Flint water crisis, to the racial disparities in cervical cancer death rates,  and the legacy of racist medical trials, these public policy failures point to the institutional memory of a country, that finds itself too old to embrace the possibility of change and too young to break free from the inevitability of history. Through her Let’s Move! Initiative, and her time as First Lady, Michelle tugged at what is possible in an America that allows itself to heal, by demanding it recognises why it is not healing.

Reversing the gaze: Controlling her boundaries of familiarity: privacy, trust and love.

Black women’s health is lauded in competitive sports but outside this public domain, it is sidelined in public dialogue. The gap between these two conversations often frustrate me. Why do we pronounce the black body when it is for labour but not when it is for living?

The black experience is a peculiar one. You are everybody’s favourite Vine, everybody’s favourite meme, everybody’s favourite cultural artefact; you are visible ad nauseam. However, you are still fighting for unconditional equality before the law, the media and Wikipedia. How to deal with it is a tough act. One can fade into invisibility by actively self-censoring their identity as Lauret Savoy learnt to do in her childhood, ‘I learned by the age of eight that hate could be spit wetting the front of my favourite, mom-made dress. Hate could be a classmate’s singing “never saw nothin’ as ugly as a nigger, never saw nothin’ as crummy as a nigger.” His eyes on me. I ran not just to feel the wind, but in hope it would blow away whatever it was about me that was bad and hate-deserving…I donned silent passivity as armor- avoided mirrors.’

To be a black First Lady is not the easiest position to navigate this double-edged sword of invisibility and hypervisibility. Michelle did this by protecting her boundaries of familiarity. Possibly one of her most powerful decisions was to invite her mother to live with them at the White House and in doing so, she turned the White House into her home.

She reverses the public gaze by responding to it with the power of someone who has consistently listened to her voice whether the stakes were low or high.   In her interview with Women’s Health Mag, she explains, “You have to learn how to just hear yourself talk and be comfortable with that . . . you should be able to talk about yourself for a good minute in a very upbeat way. I think that a lot of young women aren’t even encouraged to hear—physically hear—their voices. And as women, we carry those insecurities on.”

More so, Michelle gave her voice so much power by fuelling it with constant reminders of her principles and all the good that comes from sticking to one’s principles. She listened to her voice with resounding clarity because on many occasions, she had made choices which affirmed that voice.  As one of her Princeton classmates, Beverly Thomison-Sadia, recalls, “Michelle always arrived at her own opinion. It wasn’t the women’s position; it wasn’t the black position. Michelle would take all the information and process it through her experience, her beliefs, her value system, and she would arrive at the Michelle Robinson position or opinion.”

I recently attended a workshop by The Parliament Project, an organisation advancing women’s participation in UK politics. During the workshop, we discussed the challenges of running for political office, including one’s loss of privacy.  This is a huge compromise, one which I struggle with when someone suggests to me a career in formal politics. The thought of not being able to converse with strangers about deeply personal topics because I have relinquished the freedom that comes with anonymity. The thought of not being able to make mistakes. The thought of having to draw new boundaries around that young girl from South London, figuring it all out with questions, with books, with love.

Looking back at Mariana Cook’s interview, in the times that we are facing now, Michelle reminds us that yes there is so much to be afraid of because there is so much to fight for. But we will feel the fear and we will fight for it anyway.

See you soon, Michelle.

What is it that made you connect with Michelle? Message me, tweet me, or comment below!! 😉

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