Nearly 10 years ago, Barack Obama revolutionized modern American politics when he announced his campaign for the presidency. The freshman senator from Illinois and his family soon shot to national, then international, fame for their eloquence, grace, and sociocultural awareness. But along the way, millions of people subjected the Obamas to harsh criticism and even discrimination. In particular, one quote from the future First Lady during the relatively early days of the campaign trail prompted a firestorm that followed her all the way to the White House. This early Michelle Obama quote from 2008 would be much better understood in the context of 2016, and Obama herself would undoubtedly have some interesting thoughts on it today.
Michelle spoke on behalf of her husband at a campaign rally in Wisconsin in February 2008:
What we have learned over this year is that hope is making a comeback. It is making a comeback. And let me tell you something — for the first time in my adult lifetime, I am really proud of my country. And not just because Barack has done well, but because I think people are hungry for change. And I have been desperate to see our country moving in that direction, and just not feeling so alone in my frustration and disappointment. I've seen people who are hungry to be unified around some basic common issues, and it's made me proud.
This quote was taken somewhat out of context, with the singular focus on Obama's assertion that she had never been really proud of her country before. Part of the backlash sprang from her perception at the time — emblematic of the "angry black woman" stereotype. She was one of the first black women in history to have this level of power, attention, and influence, and many saw her use of that status as a bully pulpit.
She only recently opened up about how that prejudice made her feel — misunderstood, defensive, and sad. "That was one of those things that you just sort of think, dang, you don't even know me, you know?" she told Oprah Winfrey during her last one-on-one interview in the White House. "You just sort of feel like, Wow, where did that come from?"
Thankfully, much of the country has come a long way over the last nine years, partially thanks to the Obamas themselves. Their frank, if somewhat sparse, comments about the effect of race in their lives have opened a new space for discourse and critical thought. These days, it's easier to understand, as a privileged person, why Michelle Obama would say this. She grew up on the South Side of Chicago and scraped and fought for everything that she earned, watching and sometimes experiencing the debilitating effects of individual and institutional racism. That can cultivate a deep disappointment in your society, though Michelle Obama always managed to channel that into good works. Of course, if you're a person of color, none of this was all that surprising to you nine years ago either.
It seems that an appropriate follow-up question almost nine years later is whether Michelle Obama is still proud of her country. The answer probably isn't precisely what it would be if the presidential election had ended differently. And over her husband's two terms in office, some of the ugliest aspects of the United States' cultural and political landscape were brought into stark, unflattering light.
Yet the Obamas' time in office was still characterized by social growth and change that reflected the message of hope they spread during their campaign. Much of their work has helped equalize the nation and should continue to build on itself. Michelle Obama may still feel that disappointment now, but hopefully, it's smaller than it was a decade ago.