I had just poured my first pineapple mimosa when I learned that I would be meeting the former first lady of the United States.
“Michelle Obama wants to have brunch with us,” Alex, our book club’s social media manager announced at brunch.
At least, I think she said that at some point. The actual announcement is a blur of dropped open mouths, gasps, muffled screams and hand grasping under and across the table.
“Wait,” I said, as I nervously gulped my mimosa, “Is this real?” I poured another glass.
The short version of the story is that we won a sweepstakes contest sponsored by Crown Publishing for tickets to her book tour promoting her new memoir, Becoming. But then something else magical happened: Mrs. Obama had actually seen our love letter and invitation to join our book club, HTX Book and Brunch, which we had posted on Instagram months before.
On the way home, I kept replaying the announcement. I was going to meet Michelle Obama. Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama. From the South Side of Chicago. Princeton and Harvard Law graduate. Wife to former President Barack Obama. Mother to Malia, Sasha, Sunny and Bo. Push-up master. Gardener extraordinaire. My forever FLOTUS.
Before I knew it, I was sobbing. In my head, there was a picture of election night in 2008 with Mrs. Obama on the stage with her husband in all her Blackness that moved me to tears.
While some entertained a national debate about our first Black president’s racial ambiguity and ethnic identity, there was no questioning Mrs. Obama’s Blackness. And Black women and girls everywhere could take one look at the sway of Mrs. Obama’s hair, the arch of her eyebrows, the purse of her lips, her cheekbones and smile, and know that she had just given us permission to see ourselves in a way that we never had before.
Mrs. Obama would not be book club as usual. Becoming was not merely a justification for a few stolen moments of self-care leading up to brunch. Rather, it is a living, breathing account of the woman who gave many of us permission to be ourselves in every moment of every day.
Let me run this down for you: throughout her eight years in the White House, I saw my first lady affectionately love on her Black husband in public, wear sleeveless ensembles in style and pride, rap about going to college, dance to “Uptown Funk” at the White House, roll her eyes (jokingly or not, we may never know) at the speaker of the House, and maintain her integrity in the face of unending criticism and vicious attacks on every aspect of her life, including her husband and children.
In those same eight years, I earned my bachelor’s degree as a single mom and then chose to pursue graduate education at a predominantly White institution in the South. I earned a master’s degree and a doctorate before going on to earn a tenure-track position in the academy. Every step of the way, I experienced fierce opposition and counternarratives; folks would scold me for how I wore my hair, how I walked and how I talked, or how my eyes sometimes rolled to the side. Often, people tried to make me feel as if I couldn’t exist in my multiple worlds at once, being reminded from every side of what Black women, or mothers, or academics, or young professionals should or shouldn’t do or be.
But, I had Mrs. Obama. Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama. From the South Side of Chicago. I am almost embarrassed to admit how many times I caught myself overcome with tears at the mere thought of meeting her.
And I wasn’t the only member of our group who was feeling emotional. Several other women shared how they were moved to tears while reading, or listening to, Becoming. As a group of women all becoming unique versions of ourselves in various phases of life, we each responded to something different.
We marveled at how Mrs. Obama’s book spoke in deeply personal ways to each of us, whether it was confirming our curiosity about marriage counseling or affirming the sense of accomplishment that comes along with ordering the groceries for dinner, picking up cleaning supplies from Target, and managing to grab a cheeseburger to actually eat on your lunch break as a young professional or working mom.
While I read about the former first lady’s first fight with a grade school mean girl or her desire to remind people she was from the South Side upon her arrival at Princeton, I teared up as I turned the pages of my book, recalling my childhood fights at the bus stops heading to and from schools where teachers held strongly to preconceived notions about who I would become.
When you work skillfully for years to emerge from the shadows of the stories others have written for you, people tend to wonder why you would want to embrace anything about that part of your life: Why wear high-top Nikes when you can afford designer pumps? Why wear gold hoops when your colleagues prefer diamond studs? Why listen to Cardi B when her lyrics are loaded with less-than-perfect grammar?
And there on those pages, in the behind-the-scenes stories of the First Lady we came to love, was the answer: because it is simply who I am. As Mrs. Obama has said often while discussing her book, having pride in your story is crucial to who you are becoming. Her stories are our stories, and they matter tremendously.
These were the stories lurking in my head as we anxiously awaited Mrs. Obama’s arrival at Grace’s last Saturday.
So this is what it’s like to meet Mrs. Obama: She walks in the room, looking as flawless as ever, and for a moment you forget to breathe. Or, at least you think you do because you are actually shrieking in joy and gasping for air. She hugs you and then pulls up a chair to the table. She listens to your questions and responds with such sincerity that tears form in the corner of your eyes. Her answers are brilliant. She is so unbelievably authentic that at times it feels like you are looking at a reflection of yourself. Just when you think you will begin weeping at the magnitude of it all, she says something hilarious and you are overcome with laughter.
We learned that as a child, Mrs. Obama’s favorite book character was Pippi Longstocking because she identified with the character’s quirkiness, strength and independence. She cautioned our group of 18 (largely made up of young professionals) to “have a hustle” and plan our exit from unfulfilling careers, as she did in her own life when she decided she no longer wanted to be a lawyer.
And, she gave us poignant dating and marriage advice: Single Type A women need to “chill out” when it comes to bending to the pressures that society puts on us to get married and have children. We should never want to get married for marriage’s sake because, at the end of the day, marriage is just hard. After all, she’s just now at a place where she can remember all the reasons why she fell in love with Barack Obama; but, for a while in her marriage, she told us she simply didn’t like him at all.
At some point during brunch ― after we had chatted about marriage, dating, travel and grief ― I was able to ask her a question about the current political climate. I told her that I was moved by her transformation in the book from a political skeptic to a woman who fiercely supported her husband in pursuit of the highest office in the country, while actually believing he could make a difference.
I had believed then, too, I said. President Obama was the first president I cast my ballot for. However, whatever sense of hope he had instilled during his time as president had quickly dissipated at the hands of our current administration and its never-ending political saga.
I asked, “How do we, as educators and women with our own skepticism in the current U.S. political system, find that sense of hope and latch on to it strongly enough to share it with others as we brace ourselves for what will certainly be another historic election?”
Her expression became more serious and after a brief pause, she responded: The America that you see on TV is not the America that I know, she said.
That truth is evident in how she made it through writing the most difficult chapter of her book, chapter 13, in which she details the punches she took from the press while campaigning for the Iowa caucuses. Those stories had not gotten to her because she was out on the trail, meeting Americans and learning more about the true nature of this country.
Most Americans are decent, she said as she looked me straight in the eye. People are more alike than different, she continued. Most Americans don’t buy into the lie that President Obama was born in Kenya, or whatever. They want honesty and change and unity. That is the America that we live in. It’s not as bad as you think it is, she told me.
There was no reason for her to butter us up with political fluff ― the room had been cleared of all press and, outside of a few members of her staff, it was just us girls. Although I had not quite believed her rapid transformation after Iowa while reading her book, in that moment, I believed her. It dawned on me that if Michelle Obama had seen the best of this country, she’s certainly seen the worst. And she still believes. Shouldn’t I?
Moments after we posed for our official photo, Mrs. Obama was swiftly escorted out of the room. Now, sitting around with our leftover bread pudding on the table, we finally had a moment to reflect on what had transpired. I hugged another book club member, and we cried.
I knew that in the span of a two-hour brunch, something had budded inside of me. Something that had started budding while reading Becoming, seeing parts of myself in a woman who had played a huge role in changing the trajectory of our nation. A woman who, like me, got into grade school fights, made a couple of mistakes in dating, and secretly enjoyed watching reality shows and HGTV.
It was a sense of hope ― the unshakeable hope that she had carried with her into the White House and around the world, that had infused the pages of her book, and that she had laid out on the table over brunch. A hope that is needed now, more than ever, I believe, in order to rise above the darkness and trauma we’re currently experiencing in America and truly believe again.
Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama. From the South Side of Chicago. Our forever FLOTUS. The newest member of our book club had just changed our lives in a book club meeting that was anything but usual. And I couldn’t be more grateful for the gifts she has bestowed upon us simply by being exactly who she is.
Felicia Harris, Ph.D, is a freelance writer and assistant professor of communication studies at the University of Houston-Downtown. You can find out more about her writing and research at theblackgirlmovement.com.
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This article originally appeared on HuffPost.