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A collection of essays celebrating the influential former first lady, by an array of acclaimed contributorsand with a foreword by Lena Dunham
Michelle Obama’s legacy transcends categorization. Mrs. Obama was not only our first black first lady; she was President Obama’s equal partner in marriage and parenthood and a tireless advocate for women’s rights, education, healthy eating, and exercise. Her genre-busting personal style encouraged others to speak, to engage, even to dress as they wished. In an extension of his popular T, The New York Times Style Magazine feature, Nick Haramis has assembled nineteen essays from prizewinning writers, Hollywood stars, and political leaders—all of whom have been moved and influenced by Mrs. Obama’s extraordinary example of grace in power.
Here are original testimonials from Gloria Steinem, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Alice Waters, and Charlamagne tha God, among others. Presidential biographer Jon Meacham supplies historical perspective. Actress Tracee Ellis Rosssuggests that Mrs. Obama “provided an antidote to all the false representations of black women that have inundated us for centuries.” Anna Wintour and designer Jason Wu celebrate the former first lady’s impact as an international fashion icon. Two ninth-grade girls—one in training to be a boxer—talk about how Mrs. Obama has emboldened them to be themselves.
Here are some of the many facets of Michelle Obama as she continues to inspire us, a stirring reminder that the best of America once lived in the White House, embodied in one authentic, inclusive, and courageous woman.
Advance praise for Courage Is Contagious
“Courage Is Contagious reminds us of the fortitude, brilliance, grace, humility, compassion, and humor of a woman we were so crazy lucky to have serve as first lady. This is an exceptional celebration of a most exceptional American.”—J.J. Abrams
“The first lady planted a powerful new knowledge inside of each of us. When you read this book you realize it’s still in there and always will be.”—Miranda July, author of The First Bad Man and No One Belongs Here More Than You
“The diversity of the voices in Courage Is Contagious captures perfectly why Michelle Obama is so remarkable. If we can all see our best selves in her so vividly, how can we really be that different from each other? This glorious little book will give you goosebumps as it takes you on a journey celebrating one of the most important people alive.”—iO Tillett Wright, author of Darling Days
Under the Cover
An excerpt from Courage Is Contagious
Chef, Author, Food Activist
When I was a child, my parents planted a victory garden in our New Jersey backyard. That garden was responsible for my fundamental taste memories: sun-warmed strawberries, beefsteak tomatoes straight off the vine, sweet corn on the cob. It allowed our family to eat well, of course, but it gave us so much more than that; the garden connected us with nature and the seasons, helped us understand where our food came from, let us work the land and provide for ourselves and others. My parents were inspired to build their own garden because of Eleanor Roosevelt, whose victory garden on the White House lawn led to the planting of 20 million other victory gardens all around the United States when so much of the country’s food was needed for the war effort. I grew up knowing that that was the sort of power a garden at the White House could have.
At some point after I opened Chez Panisse and became involved in the food movement, I started writing letters—rather fruitlessly—to presidents and first ladies about the idea of replanting one. I plagued Bill and Hillary Clinton about a White House garden for years and was a little appeased when Hillary planted tomatoes in a small plot on the roof. But tomatoes relegated to a rooftop weren’t the fullest realization of what I’d envisioned: a lush garden of vegetables and fruits and herbs, flourishing out on the White House lawn, a public testament to our country’s agrarian roots and the profound, paramount importance of real food, even when it’s not a wartime necessity.
When I first met Michelle Obama in Chicago, early in 2008, during Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign, I seized the opportunity to tell her my idea for a White House kitchen garden. She listened seriously, thoughtful and present as she always is, and agreed that a garden would send an important message to the country about how we should feed ourselves and our children.
Though I felt hopeful after talking to Michelle, I was resigned to the inevitable bureaucracy that can slow down the simplest White House initiative. But I had underestimated her singular resolve and strength. A mere two months after Barack Obama took his oath of office, she and twenty fifth-graders from the local public elementary school broke ground on a thousand-square-foot organic kitchen garden—right out on the South Lawn, where everyone could see it.
Those pictures of Michelle digging in the garden with the elementary school students inspired people around the globe, just as Eleanor Roosevelt’s effort had spurred Americans to plant their own gardens during World War II. From the day she broke ground, Michelle Obama welcomed children into the construction and upkeep of the garden. She admitted she hadn’t been a gardener herself, but saw the possibility of changing not only the way her own children ate, but the way all American children ate, and dived in headlong. She understood that children are brought into a new and healthy relationship to food when they experience the slow, patient joy of working the soil, planting a seedling in the dirt, watching it flower and fruit through the seasons, then harvesting and cooking it when it is at the peak of ripeness. When kids have that experience, eating real food is as simple as falling in love.
The garden was just the first step in her pioneering Let’s Move initiative. With intelligence, warmth, and humor, she confronted eating habits that had strayed from real food and were supported by the food industry and unhealthy school lunches. In the meantime, her garden grew in size and scope and beauty. And what a joy it was to watch it evolve over the course of eight years. Fruit and vegetable varieties multiplied, crops emerged in the garden from all over the globe—heirloom tomatoes, tomatillos, amaranth, Tuscan kale, Thai basil, anise hyssop—and the children and Michelle Obama planted Thomas Jefferson’s heritage varietals of lettuce from Monticello. She had beehives installed in the garden and the honey harvested was used for a homebrew of White House honey ale. Some of the food grown there was used to feed the First Family or served at state dinners and receptions, and great quantities of fruits and vegetables were donated to a Washington, D.C., program that cooks healthy meals for the homeless. The food from the garden became a metaphor for the values of the First Couple, from welcoming guests to helping neighbors in need.
Her vision extended well beyond the boundaries of the White House plot. In her final year as first lady, she took a nationwide garden tour, visiting schools and community programs around the country, and helped expand the idea of what a garden could be: gardens in truck beds, on rooftops, and suspended in air; gardens that included teaching kitchens where children learned to cook the vegetables they had grown; gardens so fecund that students held regular farmers’ markets to sell their produce. Without Michelle Obama, the vital dialogue, so long overdue, now taking place at the intersection of food, health, agriculture, and the environment, would not exist. Since I started writing those letters decades ago, I always thought I understood how powerful the symbolism of a White House garden could be. But Michelle Obama’s White House garden was so much more important than I could have imagined: It was a living, growing representation of the bounty and generosity and diversity of the United States—and of her own large-hearted, far-seeing vision for the future of food in this country.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
She had rhythm, a flow and swerve, hands slicing air, body weight moving from foot to foot, a beautiful rhythm. In anything else but a black American body, it would have been contrived. The three-quarter sleeves of her teal dress announced its appropriateness, as did her matching brooch. But the cut of the dress scorned any “future first lady” stuffiness; it hung easy on her, as effortless as her animation. And a brooch, Old World–style accessory, yes, but hers was big and ebulliently shaped and perched center on her chest. Michelle Obama was speaking. It was the 2008 Democratic National Convention. My anxiety rose and swirled, watching and willing her to be as close to perfection as possible, not for me, because I was already a believer, but for the swaths of America that would rather she stumbled.
She first appeared in the public consciousness, all common sense and mordant humor, at ease in her skin. She had the air of a woman who could balance a checkbook, and who knew a good deal when she saw it, and who would tell off whomever needed telling off. She was tall and sure and stylish. She was reluctant to be first lady, and did not hide her reluctance beneath platitudes. She seemed not so much unique as true. She sharpened her husband’s then-hazy form, made him solid, more than just a dream.
But she had to flatten herself to better fit the mold of first lady. At the law firm where they met before love felled them, she had been her husband’s mentor; they seemed to be truly friends, partners, equals in a modern marriage in a new American century. Yet voters and observers, wide strips of America, wanted her to conform and defer, to cleanse her tongue of wit and barb. When she spoke of his bad morning-breath, a quirky and humanizing detail, she was accused of emasculating him.
Because she said what she thought, and because she smiled only when she felt like smiling, and not constantly and vacuously, America’s cheapest caricature was cast on her: the Angry Black Woman. Women, in general, are not permitted anger—but from black American women, there is an added expectation of interminable gratitude, the closer to groveling the better, as though their citizenship is a phenomenon that they cannot take for granted.
“I love this country,” she said to applause. She needed to say it—her salve to the hostility of people who claimed she was unpatriotic because she had dared to suggest that, as an adult, she had not always been proud of her country.
Of course she loved her country. The story of her life as she told it was wholesomely American, drenched in nostalgia: a father who worked shifts and a mother who stayed home, an almost mythic account of self-reliance, of moderation, of working-class contentment. But she is also a descendant of slaves, those full human beings considered human fractions by the American state. And ambivalence should be her birthright. For me, a foreign-raised person who likes America, one of its greatest curiosities is this: that those who have the most reason for dissent are those least allowed dissent.
Michelle Obama was speaking. I felt protective of her because she was speaking to an America often too quick to read a black woman’s confidence as arrogance, her straightforwardness as entitlement.
She was informal, colloquial, her sentences bookended by the word “see,” a conversational fillip that also strangely felt like a mark of authenticity. She seemed genuine. She was genuine. All over America, black women were still, their eyes watching a form of God, because she represented their image writ large in the world.
Her speech was vibrant, a success. But there was, in her eyes and beneath her delivery and in her few small stumbles, a glimpse of something somber. A tight, dark ball of apprehension. As though she feared eight years of holding her breath, of living her life with a stone in her gut.
Eight years later, her blue dress was simpler but not as eager to be appropriate; its sheen, and her edgy hoop earrings, made clear that she was no longer auditioning.
Her daughters were grown. She had shielded them and celebrated them, and they appeared in public always picture perfect, as though their careful grooming was a kind of reproach. She had called herself Mom in Chief, and cloaked in that nonthreatening title, had done what she cared about.
She embraced veterans and military families, and became their listening advocate. She threw open the White House doors to people on the margins of America. She was working class, and she was Princeton, and so she could speak of opportunity as a tangible thing. Her program Reach Higher pushed high schoolers to go further, to want more. She jumped rope with children on the White House grounds as part of her initiative to combat childhood obesity. She grew a vegetable garden and campaigned for healthier food in schools. She reached across borders and cast her light on the education of girls all over the world. She danced on television shows. She hugged more people than any first lady ever has, and she made “first lady” mean a person warmly accessible, a person both normal and inspirational and a person many degrees of cool.
She had become an American style icon. Her dresses and workouts. Her carriage and curves. Toned arms and long slender fingers. Even her favored kitten heels, for women who cannot fathom wearing shoes in the halfway house between flats and high heels, have earned a certain respect because of her. No public figure better embodies that mantra of full female selfhood: Wear what you like.
It was the 2016 Democratic Convention. Michelle Obama was speaking. She said “black boy” and “slaves,” words she would not have said eight years ago because eight years ago any concrete gesturing to blackness would have had real consequences.
She was relaxed, emotional, sentimental. Her uncertainties laid to rest. Her rhythm was subtler, because she no longer needed it as her armor, because she had conquered.
The insults, those barefaced and those adorned as jokes, the acidic scrutiny, the manufactured scandals, the base questioning of legitimacy, the tone of disrespect, so ubiquitous, so casual. She had faced them and sometimes she hurt and sometimes she blinked but throughout she remained herself.
Michelle Obama was speaking. I realized then that she hadn’t been waiting to exhale these past eight years. She had been letting that breath out, in small movements, careful because she had to be, but exhaling still.
Author, Transgender rights, Activist
As I waited in line for a bathroom outside the Vermeil Room of the White House, Jacqueline Kennedy, painted in a floor-length peach gown, looked down at me from the wall, and I wondered if the other trans, queer, and bi women in line with me felt as out of place as I did. We were from across the country and were considered the next generation of LGBTQ leaders, all under the age of thirty, by the Obama White House. Together with Michelle, we toured the East Wing, we listened to policy roundtables, and we ate barbecue with Vice President Joe Biden and Dr. Jill Biden.
Growing up in Hawaii, I’d never imagined that my writing as a trans woman of color would open doors for me in Washington. That I was waiting to use a ladies’ powder room in the residence of America’s black first family, who had invited me here, felt like make-believe. Just two weeks before, I’d been curled up next to my boyfriend on a well-worn loveseat in our 400-square-foot Manhattan apartment, watching Michelle Obama speak at the 2012 Democratic National Convention. She’d hypnotized me in HD, as I watched her vouch for her husband—like me, an African-American who called Hawaii home. She smiled, she quipped, she was sincere. Casting off the constraints of first lady–hood in the brightest of colors, she wore a sleeveless A-line dress made of shimmering silk jacquard and designed by Tracy Reese, a similarly hued African-American woman.
I noticed how much more comfortable Michelle was on that stage than she had been in 2008—speaking to the audience, to me, as if I were her most trusted friend. Now we knew her—as well as we could know one of the most visible black women in the world—and she seemed willing to hand over her most private, genuine self.
She told us how “worried” she was when we all first met in 2008. How fearful she had been about life at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, built by slaves, and its potential to isolate her from the people she and her husband had vowed to serve. But instead of being overwhelmed by her new life, she leaned into it and made the role of America’s first lady all her own.
Over the years, I have cackled and cried as she rapped about college education; surprised Americans on a White House tour; promoted vegetables with her viral Vine, “Turnip for What?”; and danced with Virginia McLaurin, a 106-year-old woman who said of the occasion, “I thought I would never live to get in the White House. And I tell you, I am so happy. A black president! A black wife!”
Michelle spoke it plain. Her gift was her ability to address the truth of the matter, and I always believed her—probably because she was not a politician, because she was doing unpaid labor, because she was investing her talents in a country that had often made her feel as if she would never measure up, never truly belong simply because she was a black woman.
Courage Is Contagious
And Other Reasons to Be Grateful for Michelle Obama