The following is from EBONY’s special commemorative issue on President Obama, which highlights the last eight years of an African-American First Family living in the White House. Information on how to purchase the issue is linked in the article.
Black love is Black power. It is solid gold—shimmering brightly and majestically—in moments of our deepest, darkest despair and also in moments of pure, unbridled joy. As African-Americans have moved from enslavement to freedom to migrating north, as we have marched from the streets of Selma, Ala., to the streets of Ferguson, Mo., and as we have lovingly cradled our children and celebrated our significant others, it is Black love that has carried us, healed us and granted us the courage to continue our fight for full liberation. How fortunate we have been, for the past eight years, to witness this kind of Black love and watch it fill the rooms of the White House because the Obamas brought it with them.
Each of us can likely recall our own special moment when we fell in love with Barack and Michelle Obama. Maybe it happened in 2008, after then-Sen. Obama clinched the Democratic nomination for president. As the soon-to-be first couple marched gleefully out onto that stage in Denver, Michelle Obama looked deeply into her husband’s eyes and gave him a fist bump. Watching the Obamas drown out all the noise in the room and affirm one another so sincerely made us not only thrilled about the future of American politics, but also excited about the outlook for Black love. There stood two brilliant souls—each a powerhouse in his and her own right—committed to each other and the journey into the White House, together.
Or possibly, that moment came during the 2015 China State Dinner where the First Lady, looking completely flawless in a black Vera Wang gown, dotingly adjusted her husband’s bowtie as he proudly poked his chest out. The president looked as though he knew he owned the entire world that night, not because he was the commander-in-chief of the United States, but because he was lucky enough to have a woman like Michelle Obama by his side.
Indeed, President Obama knows that his success is tied to his wife’s love and encouragement, just as much as it is the result of his own hard work. During a 2011 appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show, the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize winner made sure to tell Oprah, and the world, of his love. “I couldn’t have done anything that I’ve done without Michelle … not only has she been a great first lady, she is just my rock. I count on her in so many ways every single day.” It has been refreshing to watch the two work as partners during the Obama presidency, and even before then when he was a senator with the audacity to hope.
In a recent essay, the POTUS acknowledged that long before his White House run, his wife had to figure out how to juggle a family and career in ways that would have never been required of him. “I’ve seen how Michelle has balanced the demands of a busy career and raising a family,” he wrote. “Like many working mothers, she worried about the expectations and judgments of how she should handle the trade-offs, knowing that few people would question my choices.” In that same essay, President Obama also said that, as he looks back, he realizes that while he helped with parenting, “it was usually on my schedule and on my terms.” Moreover, he conceded that, “The burden disproportionately and unfairly fell on Michelle.” We appreciate that the president recognizes and understands the sacrifices that the first lady made so he could realize his vision and hope for a better America, and we are even more delighted that his ideas are growing about gender roles and how those expectations can make even the most loving, high-achieving romantic partnerships challenging.
Finding that work-life balance, surely, was tough for Michelle Obama, but she confessed in a Good Housekeeping interview from 2010 that once Malia was born, being a mother became her number one priority. “For me,” she declared, “mothering is the thing I enjoy most in my life. I own that.” She went on to say during that conversation: “There are many facets of me, but I feel like I have a responsibility as a mother first because they didn’t ask to be here. I need to make sure I am doing what I think I need to do for these girls, to make them whole and healthy human beings. That’s my first job, and it will hold true for the next.” As many Black women struggle with feelings about being wives and working moms, the first lady reminds us that we can craft our own roadmaps to matrimony and motherhood, and find understanding partners who can commit to navigating those roadmaps with us, side by side.
Mostly, we love the Obamas because they show their love in addition to being vocal about the hard work it takes to make a marriage thrive. Of course, we’ve been privy to many sweet and awe-inspiring photos of the couple cuddling during one of their date nights out, or as they’ve casually flirted around the White House, but they are clear with us that marriage is more than those lovable moments. When asked what other couples can learn from their marriage, the FLOTUS has argued, “Even the best of marriages require a lot of work—even if you’re married to your soul mate who has very few flaws.” She added, “Building a life with a person other than yourself, and raising kids and dealing with all of the bumps and the bruises and the joys and the pains that go along with life, that creates the natural state of marriage, and it’s a challenge.”
Regardless of the work, Michelle Obama urges young couples to keep going, and to remember why they fell in love in the first place. Even after watching her husband navigate such a difficult presidency, she has said, “when people ask me whether being in the White House has changed my husband, I can honestly say that when it comes to his character, and his convictions, and his heart, Barack Obama is still the same man I fell in love with all those years ago.”
Yes, the Obamas give us relationship goals, but not in the faux, celebrity sense. While navigating politics, vitriol, two kids and a very public life, the first couple has shown us what mutual respect looks like in love, and how that love can strengthen and grow. The president more than fulfilled his campaign promise of hope. He and the first lady also reminded us to love.
Josie Pickens is a griot, cultural critic and professor of English at Texas Southern University.