As usual, Michelle Obama stole the show. The former first lady returned to the White House to unveil the official Obama portraits that will forever hang on its walls, and she used the special occasion to deliver remarks that hit the perfect tone.
“For me, this day is not just about what has happened,” she said last week. “It’s also about what could happen because a girl like me, she was never supposed to be up there next to Jacqueline Kennedy and Dolley Madison. She was never supposed to live in this house. And she definitely wasn’t supposed to serve as first lady.”
All over the world, you could hear young girls and women, particularly those of color, cheering.
She referenced the sentiments of her “hope and change” spouse in saying, “if the two of us can end up on the walls of the most famous address in the world, then, again, it is so important for every young kid who is doubting themselves to believe that they can, too.”
Now, whenever the former first lady speaks simple truths, a few trolls find fault with her words, seeing in them victimization, not the obvious celebration intended by the speaker. But then, those naysayers were the ones who never appreciated the style and class the Obamas brought to the people’s house while navigating the uncharted role of “the first.”
Michelle Obama’s speech was not about how bad we were but how far we’ve come, and isn’t that something Americans can point to with pride?
The first Black president and first lady — an inspiration for so many who had felt left out — are merely ammunition for those who insist on fighting a “culture war” they feel they’re losing.
Already, the event seems as though it happened not days but ages ago. Indeed, the fact that this White House reception was years late served as proof that not even a ceremonial ritual can be nonpartisan. It is traditionally the job of the sitting president and first lady (or first gentlemen in the future, maybe) to preside over the presentation of their predecessors’ portraits. For the Trumps, unsurprisingly, it was another chance for the petty to win.
It’s not that Donald Trump doesn’t care about the better man and better president who came before. Trump devoted a chunk of his recent Pennsylvania speech to former President Barack Obama. “He’s so popular. They say he’s so handsome. Oh, Obama is such a great speaker,” Trump said in describing how he imagines people speak of Obama, all while getting creepily close to fan-boy language.
It’s that the Obamas’ existence and historical significance trigger the former president and those who want to return to a mythical time when the marginalized “knew their place,” which certainly was not on the walls of the White House.
Cultural pushback is a rebellion against acceptance and inclusion, of minorities earning a place in the best jobs and schools, of LGBTQ youth who speak their truth and refuse to be shoved into a shame-filled closet, of the teaching of the realities of American and world history long hidden in sanitized versions of the past, despite knowing the facts will come to light no matter how many books are banned or libraries defunded.
Culture can be as simple as the former first lady proudly wearing braids in the White House, in the same year the House passed the Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair Act, or CROWN Act, which would ban race-based hair discrimination at work, federal programs and public accommodations.
That small step forward, in this case approval of the right to wear your hair as it grows out of your head, could not escape the scorn of legislators such as Republican Rep. Lauren Boebert of Colorado, who, when voting “no,” labeled it “the bad hair” bill, hurtful words that are easy to brush off as witless nonsense when the former first lady sees you.
It was those Obama touches that made many smile: Barack Obama calling his wife “fine” and her calling his remarks “spicy,” an exchange both familiar and amusing, especially to many African Americans.
During his time in office, you could be critical of President Obama’s policies and priorities while appreciating the barriers he and his wife smashed through. They suffered offensive and ridiculous slights, and you never saw them sweat.
I find it astounding how many complaints from the right that center on so-called culture issues come down to these touches, anger because what? They’re not in on the joke, as though setting the narrative for most of this nation’s history was not enough?
“Father Knows Best” and “Leave It to Beaver,” with their placid surfaces hiding suburbs that in reality were kept legally and violently all-white, are in the past, along with the TV depictions of the kinds of homes that were often maintained by the Black women who could not live next door.
When Michelle Obama is captivating an international audience relieved at her temporary White House return; when Compton, Calif.-raised Serena Williams is being hailed as the Greatest of All Time on the tennis court and off; when Disney’s live-action “Little Mermaid” is a sweet-voiced Halle Bailey sporting red locs; when the talk of this week’s Emmy Awards ceremony is veteran actor Sheryl Lee Ralph’s pristine a capella rendition of “Endangered Species” by Dianne Reeves and inspirational call to action crediting show creator Quinta Brunson, followed by Lizzo’s speech and stunning red dress and 20-something Zendaya showing there is nothing she can’t do, there is no denying Black women are bringing it.
I’m not getting carried away here, not when there are no Black women serving in the Senate, though former California Sen. Kamala Harris as vice president now serves as that body’s president. Democrats Val B. Demings in Florida and Cheri Beasley in North Carolina are among those hoping to change that.
But cultural representation is powerful, and it is exhilarating to see the range and depth of it, all the way to the White House, despite, I admit, a twinge of disappointment that not all see it as America fulfilling its long-delayed promise and becoming better because of it.
I’m willing to place a bet, though, that when visitors to Washington tour the White House, there will be a certain portrait with the longest lines, crowds waiting to see the one-of-a-kind first lady smiling elusively.
In an American culture war, there is no turning back.
Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. She is host of the CQ Roll Call “Equal Time with Mary C. Curtis” podcast. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.