Book Review: Michelle Obama-inspired ‘Courage is Contagious’

by Jordan McDonald | 11/10/17 12:00am

An ode to former first lady Michelle Obama, “Courage is Contagious: And Other Reasons to be Thankful for Michelle Obama” takes on the task of memorializing and honoring the legacy of Obama as a cultural icon through a collection of written reflections. The book’s editor, Nick Haramis, compiled essays by actors, writers, fashion designers, activists, high schoolers and others in order to participate in the process of unpacking the Obama family’s legacy in America and the significance of Obama’s navigation of the first lady position. 

In the words of Lena Dunham, whose essay opens the collection, Obama “fully and completely rejiggered our notion of what a first lady could and should be.” She is a figure whose image and actions could easily be the subject of a much longer work detailing the implications of the first African-American first lady and all her specific political engagements, with issues spanning from American health to the educational access of young women and girls around the world. But this collection diverts from such a template, instead opting for a personal and accessible narrative of Obama. It is a narrative which considers her not only in the context of what she has done, but also as who she has shown herself to be and what she represents to the American people.

My favorite essays were those written by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Janet Mock and Tracee Ellis Ross. All of the essays in the collection contain special anecdotes and reflections, but these three exemplify the importance of Obama as a public figure and as a woman and do so with particular care given to the intricacies of the black female experience in the United States and what it meant when the first lady of the nation was, in fact, a black woman. 

An acclaimed Nigerian author, Adichie approaches Obama both as she was seen and as she presented herself, engaging with the racial and gendered politics that informed her public perception as well as Obama’s own reluctance to take on the position of first lady. 

As first lady, Obama was in many ways called to mold her image into something more palatable to the American public’s conception of what a wife and mother should be as well as how a first lady ought to exemplify those characteristics for the nation. American caricatures of black femininity, particular those depicting black women as abrasive, emasculating and invulnerable, were imposed upon her actions in the limelight and were used by many to discredit and delegitimize her claim to the position. 

Despite this, Obama actively challenged the American people to reflect both personally and on the country’s history throughout her time in the White House, remaining forthright about what she considered the nation’s shortcomings and sins. At the 2016 Democratic National Convention, she unapologetically proclaimed that “every day I wake up in a house built by slaves.” 

In her essay, Adichie writes that “[Obama] is a descendant of slaves ... ambivalence should be her birthright.” And yet, Obama is not an ambivalent figure in American politics; rather, her brand of patriotism is informed by a critical engagement with the American past and present, and a strong interest in its future. 

Transgender rights advocate and writer Mock wrote about the sense of familiarity many Americans found in Obama. An African-American who calls Hawaii home, Mock felt a special connection with Barack Obama due to their shared backgrounds, but found herself drawn to Michelle Obama as “one of the visible black women in the world.” Her perseverance and presence welcomed many Americans who had “been told we did not belong,” offering them a sense of inclusion in the American vision, “with [Michelle Obama’s] invitation she seemed to be saying that this house ... belonged to us.” 

Michelle Obama’s decidedly collectivist and futurist approach to engagement with the American public is emphasized in Mock’s citing of Michelle Obama’s own words that demanded that we “build a country worthy of [our] boundless promise.” A woman whose place in history is still being grappled with, Michelle Obama’s legacy is one which Mock reflects upon intently, calling attention to the ways that she opened up the White House to American people and worked to secure a space for those who would come after her. 

“She made it clear that when she, as a black woman, entered that historic space, she may have been the first to be let in, but that it was her duty to ensure that she would not be the last,” Mock wrote. 

Ross articulates Michelle Obama’s significance as one which represents the “ripening” of a woman into her true self under public scrutiny and the ways that such a honest self-presentation called into question preconceptions about what a first lady is and what a black woman can be. Ross reflects on Michelle Obama’s inner strength as rooted in her undeniable humanity rather than an imagined superhumanity. Exploring Obama’s resilience while facing criticism and opposition, Ross writes that “the more the wind whipped around her, the sturdier she became.” Her essay is a kind of love letter to Michelle Obama, a woman whom Ross credits with challenging the painful stereotypes of Black women that persist. Ross names Michelle Obama as a figure who made it possible for her character on ABC’s “Black-ish,” a mixed-race black female doctor and mother of five, to become plausible in the American imagination. Michelle Obama’s real-world demonstration of her full personhood and complexity allowing for other representations of thoughtful, joyful and layered black women in American entertainment, too. The collection of essays culminate in Ross’ encapsulation of Michelle Obama’s impact: “to have her name prefaced by two things that are rarely associated with black women — ‘first’ and ‘lady’ — well, it shattered everything.”