Dancing FLOTUS: Free Library panel to discuss Michelle Obama's impact on life, culture

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Michelle Obama dancing with Ellen DeGeneres.

She did more than break the mold - she broke the job.

She sang and she danced. She danced with Ellen DeGeneres. She danced "Evolution of Mom Dancing" with Jimmy Fallon. She danced with little kids from here to India. She did car karaoke with James Corden, sang "Signed, Sealed, Delivered I'm Yours," and joked about how her husband was in the White House - or at least "he better be, that's where he said he was."

And could Michelle Obama Ever. Dress. Up.

At 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, author Veronica Chambers will be at the Free Library of Philadelphia to discuss her new book, The Meaning of Michelle: 16 Writers on the Iconic First Lady and How Her Journey Inspires Our Own. She'll lead a panel that includes three of her contributors: novelist Benilde Little, mezzo-soprano Alicia Hall Moran - who is bringing along guitarist Thomas Flippin - and Damon Young, columnist for GQ.com and editor-in-chief of VSB (verysmartbrothas.com).

Celebrated but no 'celebrity.' She was deft and capable, the panelists say, in her serious duties. Young praised her speech at the Democratic National Convention last summer: "She managed to distill all the racial, social, and political dynamics of her husband's presidency, what it was like for her and her family living in the White House. . . . That speech was like a perfect snapshot in 24 minutes, encouraging, concrete. She was herself, but also political, and also gave a serious, compelling speech."

She also embraced pop culture - but she was not a "celebrity" in the most popular sense. "This was not the 'Beyoncé effect,' " says Chambers. "Her thoughtful, strategic influence had an effect very different from that of celebrities. She was modeling what it means to be a grown-up woman, a woman who is strong but not by the numbers - she's not a stick figure."

Moran, who has sung for and visited with the Obamas several times, says Michelle Obama has made her way "with essentially no script in hand." She does not "tune in to Victorian cues" and yet maintains a sense of the appropriate, the values of womanhood and motherhood, of being relatable, of caring for children, of being "just folks."

Black woman, black hair, black body (remember all that talk of her well-toned arms?): Novelist Little says Michelle Obama both represented and resisted. "The white gaze hasn't shaped her," says Little. She is "rooted by her black South Side neighborhood," as President Obama mentioned in his farewell address on Tuesday. "Her narrative," Little says, "is not defined by her Ivy League education, talismanic for many. Her self-worth, like mine, is rooted in a stable black core."

Lots of people liked that, and lots didn't. For some, the shock was too much. Race and gender were involved. Little says "the criticisms of her and Hillary come from people who just aren't ready to accept a woman in full."

Performances. This woman was aware, as Chambers says, "that every gaze was on her," and she was ready to use it.

"I perform from my soul," says Moran, "but the sheer audacity of the Obamas - their audacity to believe the country was ready for them, or their audacity not to care - was then and is still the most spellbinding performance I've ever witnessed."

Chambers says the much-bruited FLOTUS wardrobe was part of her self-fashioning - but it also had a business/culture side. A study by David Yermack published in the Harvard Business Review showed that couturiers she favored enjoyed a surge in stock value of $2.7 billion during the Obama years. If she wore your dress, it was worth about $38 million to you.

She stressed diversity in her designers, wore clothes by Tracy Reese, Duro Olowu, Isabel Toledo, and Maria Pinto. "She chose carefully," Chambers says, "because she knew there would be an effect. And there was. People bought online when they saw what she was wearing."

Nor was the dancing just dancing. "She was breaking out of a prototype of the Strong Black Woman," Chambers says. "It's limiting, doesn't let you be yourself." The dancing FLOTUS was nothing less than a new definition of freedom. "She was showing flexibility in power: 'I don't need to be serious and strong all the time to be truly serious and truly strong.' " Little says the dancing "shows she's authentic - you like to dance, feel like dancing, then dance." Again, it's startling: "We're not used to seeing people in the public domain . . . be who they are."

And the impact? "I felt a new license to explore my professional ambitions," says Moran. Chambers mentions her 9-year-old daughter, who has known only this first spouse: "She is a brown girl who believes you can be a first lady, go to Harvard, and do the Hustle in Cambodia if you want."

A picture coalesces of nothing less than a cultural intervention, woven subtly but with purpose. Little says it was about "opening up society for everyone to live a fuller life." Moran, aware some will debate the point, says, "Who else can say that in the world right now, their marriage and career represent the literal height of the societal development of their ethnicity?"

Chambers says, "Tuesday will be an amazing night. We'll sing, talk about class, the black elite at Martha's Vineyard. . . . We will tear it up at the Free Libe."


 

 

DISCUSSION

The Meaning of Michelle: 16 Writers on the Iconic First Lady and How Her Journey Inspires Our Own. Author Veronica Chambers, with Benilde Little, Alicia Hall Moran, and Damon Young. 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Free Library, 1901 Vine St. Admission: Free. Information: 215-567-4341 or www.freelibrary.org