Open Book/Open Mind
“The Meaning of Michelle”
Authors Benilde Little, Veronica Chambers, Ylonda Gault Caviness
Sunday, Feb. 10, 4 p.m.
Montclair Public Library, 50 South Fullerton Ave.
All free reserved seats have been taken. However, unclaimed seats will be released to the standby line in the cafe area at 3:20.
By GWEN OREL
There’s no question that people are interested in Michelle Obama. Her autobiography “Becoming” was the best-selling hardcover book of 2018, and is currently No. 1 on the New York Times’ hardcover nonfiction and combined print/ebooks nonfiction lists.
2017 saw the release of “The Meaning of Michelle,” a volume of 16 essays about the former First Lady, edited by Veronica Chambers, and including Montclair writers Benilde Little and Ylonda Gault Caviness.
To celebrate the book’s release in paperback, Chambers, author of “Bitch in the House,” and a former senior editor at The New York Times Magazine, will interview Little and Caviness on Sunday at the library at 4 p.m..
Chambers’ upcoming book about Beyoncé, “Queen Bey: A Celebration of the Power and Creativity of Beyoncé Knowles-Carter,” will be available at the event.
How did this project begin?
Chambers: It was suggested by Elisabeth Dyssegaard, my editor at MacMillan. We began
in January 2016, did it really quick, and it came out in January 2017. I was thinking of it like a dinner party: if you were having a dinner party and wanted to talk about what she meant, what would you say?
I chose the authors. Benilde is someone I’ve admired for such a long time. She’s so gifted at talking about the subtleties of class and race. Yolande has such a strong voice, anything she writes, long or short, just jumps off the page. There is a chef memoir with Marcus Samuelsson, who cooked the first White House state dinner. He had a relationship with Mrs. Obama. Phillippa Sou was in the original cast of “Hamilton.” It was a mix of people who admired her, as well as people who’d had the opportunity to interact with her.
I put together a research pack of articles for every writer, and brainstormed ideas with them.
We [originally] thought the real big book would be about Hillary Clinton being the first female President of the United States. When it came out in January, it wasn’t a goodbye book, it was a “goodbye, and oh what a surprise” moment. It went on to become one of Time Magazine’s top 10 nonfiction books of the year, along with [Hillary’s] “What Happened” and Tina Brown’s “Vanity Fair Diaries.”
Our little love letter to Mrs. Obama became much bigger.
Little: When Veronica called and asked me, I immediately said yes, and I had a few months to write it. In many ways my essay wrote itself. I feel a connection (as many
women do), a similarity in family values to Michelle. I grew up the product of striving working/middle class parents in Newark who very much stressed education, community activism and black pride in a neighborhood very much like Michelle’s South Side [Chicago] one. I’m very proud of my essay; deciding to write it was easy. I’ve known Veronica for about 30 years and I’d worked closely with her at Essence (she was my assistant). I know her ability, her intellect and knew anything she was working on would be done at the highest level. I love the way her mind works.
What is the impact of Michelle Obama on race, being American? Is it different for black people and others?
Chambers: What’s really powerful and interesting, and what you see in the book, is that she’s come to represent a sense of American womanhood. It’s not that she transcends race, she never leaves it behind.
I was a fellow at Stanford when the book came out. They pretty quickly developed a minicourse on Michelle Obama. I went to speak to the course. There were over 100 students, half female, half male, [age] 18 or 19, and mostly not African American.
Michelle Obama had been First Lady since they were 10 years old. When I said “she was different from other First Ladies, they said, “What do you mean?”
As we move forward, there will be a whole generation of people for whom she is the template for womanhood in America. To see a black woman on the steps of the White House, the most important landmark of leadership in our country, and it’s her home, says something about belonging, acceptance, excellence.
Everything you might put on that space changes because she’s in it. For me she represented a world of possibility. She’s a bridge between the Civil Rights Era and what our future will be with race in the 21st century. Her lifetime spans that, and she’s still getting started.
Little: It’s hard to say at this point what Michelle Obama’s lasting impact will be — she has a lot of life left and things to achieve, but in terms of her as the first African American First Lady, she’s given the country, the world, a view of a black American woman in full, not a stereotype. She’s warm, down to earth, smart, accomplished, a loving daughter, mother, wife; just like so many unseen black women. It’s an image many Americans, many people throughout the world, have never seen. She’s changed the ideas some (many) people have had about who black women are.
For us as black women, yes, for most of us, we’re just proud of her. It’s like, “Go Michelle, do your thing.”
She reps all of us — at least that’s how my friends and everyone I know, feel about her. I can’t speak to what she represents for white men, but for all my girlfriends white, Asian women, she’s also “everything” to them; they love her. She’s the best friend in our imaginations.
Ylonda Gault Caviness, “We Go Way Back,” from “The Meaning of Michelle”
My girl does not suffer foolishness. She will graciously oblige but, with a knowing look, I
can tell that she is not here for simple-minded queries into her intrinsic strength, her mother wit, or her straight-up truth.
I saw it back in 2007, when 60 Minutes’ Steve Kroft asked if she feared for her husband’s safety as a presidential candidate, Michelle Obama looked dead in the camera: “The reality is that as a Black man, Barack can get shot at the gas station.”
Translation: “Please. We all know what time it is.”