The Meaning of Michelle: 16 Writers on the Iconic First Lady and How Her Journey Inspires Our Own

December 28, 2017
The Meaning of Michelle: 16 Writers on the Iconic First Lady and How Her Journey Inspires Our Own Book Cover The Meaning of Michelle: 16 Writers on the Iconic First Lady and How Her Journey Inspires Our Own
St. Martin's Press
January 10th, 2017
Veronica Chambers

Michelle Obama is unlike any other First Lady in American History. From her first moments on the public stage, she has challenged traditional American notions about what it means to be beautiful, to be strong, to be fashion-conscious, to be healthy, to be First Mom, to be a caretaker and hostess, and to be partner to the most powerful man in the world. What is remarkable is that, at 52, she is just getting started.

While many books have looked at Michelle Obama from a fashion perspective, no book has fully explored what she means to our culture. The Meaning of Michelle does just that, while offering a parting gift to a landmark moment in American history. In addition to a tribute to Michelle Obama, this book is also a rollicking, lively dinner party conversation about race, class, marriage, creativity, womanhood and what it means to be American today.

Contributors include: Ava DuVernay, Veronica Chambers, Benilde Little, Damon Young, Alicia Hall Moran and Jason Moran, Brittney Cooper, Ylonda Gault Caviness, Chirlane McCray, Cathi Hanauer, Tiffany Dufu, Tanisha Ford, Marcus Samuelsson, Sarah Lewis, Karen Hill Anton, Rebecca Carroll, Phillipa Soo, and Roxane Gay

(via NetGalley)


It’s hard to put into words how I feel about Michelle Obama. Reading this essay collection has reminded me of all the amazing moments I witnessed throughout her reign as FLOTUS. The first Black First Lady of the United States went through a transformation between 2008 and 2017 which was, at times, difficult to watch. Yet, throughout the entire ride, she has stood tall with grace, dignity, compassion, intelligence, and unwavering loyalty to her beliefs and her family. Reading The Meaning of Michelle: 16 Writers on the Iconic First Lady and How Her Journey Inspires Our Own reminded me of all those moments. Each of these 16 essays (plus the prologue and introduction) reflects on a different way in which Michelle Obama touched an individual. And through this, how she managed to influence, infect, and inspire a country.

She was a level-lifter. An aspiration. An ambition. The woman you’d want to meet if you planned on taking over the world, together. 

From 2008 through 2017 Michelle Obama became an American icon. Not only by being FLOTUS but because she somehow redefined womanhood for American women of all races and colors. The essays between these pages discuss how Michelle Obama affected the collective American and international consciousness on American women. Particularly American women of color. All these essays deliver a unique view of how Michelle’s position has affected the writer. Essays on race, class, marriage, art, food, fashion, fitness, education, womanhood, citizenship, and being true to yourself all lay between these covers. My own personal journey in relationship to Michelle Obama is reflected within fragments of these texts here and there. I can relate to all the words being said here on some level. But what astounds me the most is the differing perspectives and viewpoints which I am finding I can relate to!

As Mom-in-Chief, Michelle Obama could correct decades-long stereotypes of Black women as neglectful parents and money-grubbing welfare queens.

The authors of these essays are almost exclusively African-American women who are unabashedly in love with Michelle Obama. Reading their reflections on witnessing the rise of the Obama family to the White House is nothing short of remarkable. As a white woman, I know I can see who I am and what I believe in the fore of my country’s politics in almost every situation. For many of these authors, this was their first time having any sort of representation in this particular spot. The opening essay Michelle in High Cotton by Benilde Little describes how important this reflection is:

A dark-skinned, working-class Black girl marries a biracial, Black-identified intellectual equal who ends up becoming the leader of the free world.

This is the first of many comments about the physical and intellectual characteristics of Michelle Obama which opened doors and brought in the light for many. Little points out that Michelle Obama represents blackness and urban backgrounds while still being a pillar of strength not only as an individual but as a partner in marriage. Talk about a solid role model!

Black women know full well that our lives are nothing without the sisters who inspire us, pull our cards, make us laugh uproariously, and show up for every manner of celebration or rescue mission, depending on what is required.

With this strong start, our essayists cover the gamut. There is so much to learn from these pages, both about Michelle Obama and the affections and reflections she directly or indirectly caused in the essayists’ lives. We are treated to personal stories about the postponement of ambitions and dreams women often give to support their spouses. We better understand what it means to be a black woman and why Michelle Obama’s “flawlessly imperfect” ability to be herself was so critical to women of all colors. We are treated to the emotional anxiety and exactness required to prepare a state dinner. We begin to understand the hope the Obama presidency and first family gave our country, particularly towards a potential future where racial injustices are rare. The feelings of hope, pride, and empowerment radiate through these pages in an addicting pattern.

She has amanged to pull off a nearly impossible feminie feat: She is both liked and respected.

My favorite essays in this collection are:

  • Michelle in High Cotton by Benilde Little
  • Crushing on Michelle: Or the Unapologetic Power of Blackness by Damon Young
  • Lady O and King Bey by Brittney Cooper
  • On Being Flawlessly Imperfect by Tiffany Dufu
  • Cooking with Narrative by Marcus Samuelson

Not all these essays are perfect. A few felt… well, out of place. A bit less about Michelle Obama and more about the reflections Michelle Obama’s work, image, and presence affected in others. Many times the essays spoke more about the writer than the subject. But, that is to be expected in a collection such as this. I don’t want all the essays to speak to me– after all, I’m not the only voice in the room.

When you think about what she represents, it’s almost Mandela-esque.

Reading The Meaning of Michelle now, as we near the end of Donald Trump’s first year in office as President of the United States, is a bit bittersweet. This is certainly a walk down memory lane for me. There are so many ways in which Michelle Obama affected and inspired me personally! I loved getting lost in the hope and nostalgia during a time where I rarely can find such tied together, particularly when it comes to politics. But, closing these pages also remind me of the current state of my country. There is no one I currently feel is a role model for me in our political leadership. No one I even remotely look up to, let alone in the fashion I look up to Michelle Obama. But I have hope. That’s the whole point, isn’t it? Michelle Obama’s journey is hardly over. I cannot wait to see what she does next.

I received a copy of this collection from NetGalley and St. Martin’s Press in exchange for an honest review. Check out more about Veronica Chambers, St. Martin’s Press, and The Meaning of Michelle on their respective websites. 

What Do You Think?

  • Have you read The Meaning of Michelle? What are your thoughts on this collection?
  • How has Michelle Obama impacted your own life? In what ways?
  • Do you enjoy reading essay collections? What are some of your favorites?
  • Who are your political role models? Why do you look up to them?


  • Helen Murdoch December 29, 2017 at 10:24 am

    People have such a fascination with Michelle Obama and I really do think she was amazing for those 8 years setting an example for the country of how to be strong, intellectual, and graceful.

    • Jackie B January 5, 2018 at 12:10 pm

      She is completely fascinating! In the age we live in, with easy access to personal information and outlets for everyone to share their opinions soooo easily, it’s amazing that she got through unscathed. It’s so hard to be a public figure these days. I don’t know how she pulled it off. And continues to pull it off, for that matter!

      I can’t wait to watch her continue to make waves, even now that she’s out of the spotlight. Michelle Obama is one incredible role model.

  • Laila@BigReadingLife December 30, 2017 at 10:06 pm

    Representation matters, and this was the highest, most brightly lit stage in the world. Both the Obamas mean so much to people, but I can only imagine what it meant to a young African American child to see their leadership, intellect, and compassion for eight years. Your review makes me have complicated feelings! Sad for what we’re going through right now and hopeful that we can do better in the future.

    • Jackie B January 4, 2018 at 4:10 pm

      I have so many complicated feelings about this too, Laila! I have hope that this is just a bump in the road towards greater things. You know what they say, two steps forward, one step back! I hope we can see more diverse representation in all of the American political offices as time progresses.

      The essay collection focused a lot on personal reflection in a way which made me wonder– how do I personally relate to Michelle Obama? But this also made me consider Melania Trump. What is my relationship with her? Honestly, I barely see her visible anywhere. I know I can articulate my relationship to Michelle, but even as a white woman I don’t think I can to Melania. That almost makes me pity her…

  • Grab the Lapels January 1, 2018 at 11:51 am

    I noticed that you didn’t pick Roxane Gay’s essay as one of your favorites. I’m tired of Roxane Gay being asked to weigh in on everything. It’s dangerous to have one voice be “the” voice for all issues. Gay is incredibly smart and accomplished, but I feel like people are asking her to weigh in on everything, and she’s not an expert in everything. I was one of a few people who were really disappointed in Bad Feminist. As a composition teacher, all I could see were the wandering, unsupported ideas. Basically, her opinions are right because they’re her opinions in her book. I really loved Hunger, though. It was focused. She’s going to go down in history as THE feminist voice of our time, no matter how I feel about her ideas.

    • Jackie B January 5, 2018 at 12:19 pm

      While I enjoyed Gay’s essay, it wasn’t a new message or particularly interesting personal reflection for me to connect with. She wrote well, she had solid themes, but I honestly can’t say I remember what the focus of her essay was without looking it back up. Samuelson’s essay sticks out the most because he is reflecting on a single event and how food intersects so clearly with his experience in the White House. It was powerful.

      Now, I will admit, I haven’t read any of Gay’s formally published texts. I’ve read some of her short fiction on Atticus Review (I Did Not Marry for Love really struck me) and Wigleaf as well as some essays through the NYT and Guardian. I’m with you; I find that her ideas are unsupported. And for me, not particularly engaging. I don’t know what it is, but as I read more of her texts I’ll consider it.

      When I think of 21st century feminist writers, Gay is not the one who comes to mind first. I think of Margaret Atwood and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. But you might be right that she will be considered THE feminist voice of our time. That said, is we aren’t talking about writers, does RBG count? <3 her. I can come up with so many more feminists who aren't writers... Weird.

      What feminist writers would you recommend? I obviously need to be coming up with more names!

      • Grab the Lapels January 5, 2018 at 1:52 pm

        Notice your examples are all awesome but older women. Who will define OUR generation?? Definitely check out Lindy West. You can search her name on my blog. I think the reason you’re having trouble remembering the focus of Gay’s essay is because she rarely has one.

        • Jackie B January 5, 2018 at 2:30 pm

          I guess I didn’t realize that Roxane Gay was so close in age to us! I am absolutely AWFUL as estimating the ages of people. I did read Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman in 2016 and LOVED it. I hear she has some new books coming out; I’ll be reading those for sure.

          When I think of younger feminists the first to come to mind is Emma Watson, but I don’t think of her as a writer. Shame. She is always so articulate!

          • Grab the Lapels January 5, 2018 at 3:56 pm

            Roxane Gay is 40.

            Watson is a book reader, though, so I think she’s a good example, too. Other non writers would be Charlize Theron, Tyra Banks, and Reese Witherspoon. They all have feminist charities, movements, or ambitions.

            • Jackie B January 5, 2018 at 4:12 pm

              Those are all great names! But you’re right, as far as writing is concerned, Gay might be THE name. Now I feel like I need to read more of her works ASAP.

  • theorangutanlibrarian January 11, 2018 at 8:22 pm

    Very interesting! I had no idea these existed! Great review 🙂

    • Jackie B January 13, 2018 at 9:19 am

      I really enjoy reading essay collections, which surprises me. This is a newfound realization in my world. Have you read many essay collections? Any you would recommend?

      • theorangutanlibrarian January 13, 2018 at 1:33 pm

        That’s great! No I haven’t actually- not since uni and then I only read selected essays, not all of it. So no, sadly, I’ve nothing to recommend. But I hope you read more so I can hear about them!

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