My father says my grandmother knew Barack Obama was going to win the election. “She called it,” he tells me. That was like her — to know things before they happened, to have faith in things that the rest of us weren’t sure about, to be the calm in a relentless, unwavering storm.
Until I sat down to write, to reflect on her, I didn’t remember any of that. I simply recall that she was “tickled pink” when it happened. There was a flurry of phone calls and text messages, a collection of photos my sister sent of our mother drinking champagne in a purple ball gown on our living room couch. I asked how my grandmother must’ve felt. “Tickled pink.”
At that point, the cancer hadn’t sprouted in her ovaries or sucked the weight from her limbs. At that point, she may have very well thought, like I did, that she would live forever.
Before my grandmother died, my cousin told me she was giving us each a fur stole. Days later, I pulled mine out of the plastic Marshalls bag and examined it: five glassy-eyed foxes sewn together, their 50-year-old fingers and toes dangling over my lap.
At the time, I felt like a vulture picking over my grandmother’s things. I didn’t want to accept the gift. It felt like admitting she was dying.
My grandmother didn’t talk to me much about what I liked to do or about what I was thinking, but she listened a lot. She knew what my favorite dessert was. She knew that even though I was shy, I was talkative. She knew I loved fashion.
For an opinionated young woman whose voice is small, dressing up is like a megaphone. For a woman whose color and class make her invisible, a gravity-defying hat, glittery clip-on earrings or a pelt with a dozen little legs give her the gift of visibility.
My grandmother’s name was James Annie. She was born in Senatobia, Mississippi and her parents were sharecroppers. She and her sisters all had male first names because their father thought those names would make them strong. She hated being called James and asked that she be referred to as Annie, but I thought her name was beautiful and, even though he may have been misguided, I thought her father was right.
She was one of the strongest people I’d ever met.
Annie was tall, dark-skinned and thick. She had a white, gap-toothed smile and short hair. She never went to high school. She’d become a mother several times over by the time she was my age. She didn’t take medicine — not even Advil when she had a headache. She rarely complained and I never saw her cry. I’d hear her thanking God from her kitchen when she faced challenges.
Her name meant something, even if it was just that she was born with an expectation of invincibility.
My grandmother was not considered beautiful by mainstream America, but she liked the way she was. And that was one of the strongest things she ever did.
It is only now, after a black family has lived in the White House for eight years and a black woman, as tall and unwavering as my grandmother, has been first lady, that young women of color around the country are realizing how little those mainstream standards matter. If beauty only looks one way, if women only have one role, who is Lupita Nyong’o? Who is Taraji P. Henson or Viola Davis?
I didn’t know it when I watched her parade through Washington, as confident and unapologetic as my grandmother or my aunts, in her chartreuse leather gloves, that Michelle Obama’s presence, alone, would mean something.
Having visibility means something.
There is not a moment or speech or White House event that Mrs. Obama attended as important as her visibility. That she carved out space for herself, rather than changing to suit the environment she was placed in, is incredibly meaningful. Facing the world with courage and confidence though you may be taller than standard, darker than standard, curlier than standard, curvier than standard (or all of the above), isn’t only part of life, it’s living.
As a result of Mrs. Obama’s visibility, it is becoming less and less remarkable for a black woman to wear an expensive fur, to know that she is beautiful, to believe that she is as worthy of acclaim as the women she sees in the media, because at least one of those women looks like her.
It’s no coincidence that in recent years, black women have been making the “big chop” and going natural, practicing body acceptance, embracing and applauding one another for their melanin.
We are brave enough to exist in our skin because she has had the guts to exist so visibly in hers. It takes guts to flaunt your style when merely baring your arms is deemed shocking. It takes guts to sit down for an interview in a Gucci gown the weekend after a story breaks referring to you as an “ape in heels.”
There is audacity in hope, Mrs. Obama told Oprah, quoting her husband, in that December interview, but there is also audacity in buying yourself a fox stole, a hat, declaring yourself beautiful and believing in the future, even though the past may be filled with sadness.
After my grandmother’s funeral, I paged through a family album and found pictures of her, standing in her impeccable living room, hands folded, wearing the fur she would give me. She was surrounded by her sisters, dressed up, ready to go somewhere.
The gift that my grandmother gave me is so similar to what Michelle Obama has given our country. I know what it looks like to love myself.
Lead photo by JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/ via Getty Images; inserted photo by Doug Mills-Pool/Getty Images.