Hold up for a second.
Did Michelle Obama just momentarily transform herself into a black woman poetry scholar on y'all? Yeah she did. I mean, people will say that she was simply providing a tribute at the Maya Angelou memorial. But I've been studying literary scholarship long enough to know when I see someone practicing poetry exegesis.
While many commentators, including Bill Clinton and Oprah Winfrey, highlighted Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Obama chose to concentrate on how Angelou's poem "Phenomenal Woman" inspired her. She opened by noting that the first time she read the poem "I was struck by how she celebrated black women’s beauty like no one had ever dared to before." Obama went on to note that:
In that one singular poem, Maya Angelou spoke to the essence of black women, but she also graced us with an anthem for all women, called for all of us to embrace our God-given beauty, and oh, how desperately black girls need that message. As a young woman, I needed that message. As a child, my first doll was a Malibu Barbie [audience laughs] that was the standard perfection. That was what the world told me to aspire to. Maya Angelou and her words lifted me right out of my own little head.Angelou's words sustained Obama, she said, on "every step of my journey, through lonely moments in ivy-covered classrooms and colorless skyscrapers." During her time on the campaign trail with her husband, Obama noted that “At times, my very womanhood was dissected and questioned.” Yet, she found strength in Angelou’s words, which “carried a little black girl from the Southside of Chicago all the way to the White House.”
How uncommon to hear such a prominent national and international figure like Michelle Obama talk about how a poem inspired her as a black girl and black woman. Public figures are often prompted to speak in generalities. But here Obama was speaking of herself as "black girl" and "black woman" needing and taking a "message" from a black woman poet.
Obama was practicing a worldly mode of black poetry criticism. She was discussing how the poem made her feel and carry herself over the years.
• Elevating Phenomenal Black Women poems
• Maya Angelou, Eugene B. Redmond, and me