A book review and interview with editor Veronica Chambers
You come across a box containing a small stack of 16 love letters tied together with a pale, pink ribbon. You sit in a comfortable chair, remove the ribbon, unfold the first letter and continue reading until you are spent with memories.
That was the feeling I got after reading “The Meaning of Michelle:16 Writers on the Iconic First Lady and How Her Journey Inspires Our Own” (St. Martin’s Press, 2017). This loving tribute to former FLOTUS Michelle Obama is filled with original essays written by Benilde Little, Brittney Cooper, Phillipa Soo and more, with a preface from award-winning filmmaker Ava DuVernay who sets the scenes for readers.
Author/journalist Veronica Chambers, author of “Mama’s Girl,” edited the book and wrote its introduction. “The Meaning of Michelle” celebrates the many facets of Michelle Obama, an around-the-way girl from Chicago’s south side who stood by her man all the way to the White House with family in tow and without losing her own shine.
How did you come up with the idea for “The Meaning of Michelle?”
Elisabeth Dyssegaard, my editor at St. Martin’s, and I would have lunch every six months or so. There was always a part of lunch when we would talk about Michelle Obama. It was like an “Michelle O appreciation moment.” About a year ago, we were having lunch and Elisabeth said, “She’s meant so much to us. Wouldn’t it be cool if we did a collection of essays that explored what she’s come to mean to America over the last eight years?” So that’s what we did.
How did you select the essayists and how many responded to your request?
We knew we wanted it to be a small jewel of a collection, so the aim was 15 writers. In the end, we ended up with 16. I wanted a mix of people who’d met the First Lady like Marcus Samuelsson, the acclaimed chef who cooked for the Obama’s first state dinner. And people who’d write about what she meant to them from afar, like Ylonda Gault Caviness.
Which love letter is your favorite and why?
I have no favorites! But I am especially fond of the essay by Alicia Hall Moran and Jason Moran. Their essay is about love, creativity, partnership and marriage. I don’t think we talk nearly enough about those things. I love Sarah Lewis’ essay where she says, “Race turns looking into work.” And she writes about the power of the visual images of Michelle Obama and how her beauty not only helped to broaden our nation’s view of beauty but also how it helped to course-correct some of the painful visual images in our nation’s past.
Damon Young’s (founder of the digital magazine, Very Smart Brothers) essay is great.
I’m a huge fan of Damon Young and I love how he wrote in his essay, “How could I not throw all of my chips in with a black man who had the wherewithal, the foresight, the wisdom and the game (yes, the game) to marry her? If he found a way to convince this amazing woman to accept his hand and have his children, he’s exactly the type of man I want to be my president.”
What do you want readers to grasp from “The Meaning of Michelle?”
That this book is about hope. It’s about the examples the Obamas set. It’s about starting where you are and reaching as high as you can in the moment. It’s about doing the work, but also about having fun.
Has Mrs. Obama responded about “The Meaning of Michelle?”