Go, Tell Michelle - African American Women Write to the New First Lady
Compiled and Edited by Barbara A. Seals Nevergold and Peggy Brooks-Bertram
Published by State University of New York Press, Albany
Copyright 2009 State University of New York

On November 11, 2008, one week after the election of Barack Obama to the presidency of the United States of America, two women, Barbara A. Seals Nevergold and Peggy Brooks-Bertram, sent out a call to their black sisters. The call was for letters to the new First Lady, Michelle Obama, with the idea of presenting them in book form. Hundreds of responses poured in through November and December of 2008. The result was this volume of one hundred letters from women the world over, from all walks of life and across the economic spectrum, from students, academics, mothers and senior citizens.

Many of the writers recount personal memories of episodes in their own lives which make this election especially meaningful. Ms. Brooks-Bertram recalls visits in her childhood from her Aunt Lillie in Richmond, Virginia to their home in Baltimore. During hard times Aunt Lillie would bring provisions and stories. As the food was prepared, they would hear family history going back to the slavery times of her grandfather. On one summer visit to Richmond, young Peggy witnessed the fortitude of her aunt in the face of adversity that she sees exemplified in Michelle Obama:

I had felt it first hand. I was with Aunt Lillie on summer vacation when a white bus driver told us to get up from our seats. We weren't far enough behind the white line that divided Black from white. He said we could not have two seats, even though I was too big to sit on her lap. He demanded that we go to the back and stand. Aunt Lillie refused. Egged on by other white passengers, the driver came to our seats and threatened to throw us from the bus. Aunt Lillie never budged. He shouted obscenities. Aunt Lillie shouted back. "I been baking pies and cakes for white folks to eat all morning. I'll be washing your pissy bed sheets tonight. And right now we gonna' be sitting in your white seats 'til we get off." With my heart racing and fear nearly choking me, Aunt Lillie turned my head to the window. We rode home silent but seated...

When I learned that your mother might join you in the White House to care for your girls and to support you in this awesome job, I was ecstatic. Young people can always use a second mother. It reminded me of my Aunt Lillie coming to support my mother during difficult times. As First Lady, you will definitely be in exhilerating but difficult times. I am writing this letter for my Aunt Lillie.    Peggy Brooks-Bertram

The overwhelming spirit of all the letters is one of joy, celebration and shared pride in the achievement of one of their own, in having an African American woman as First Lady of The United States of America. Many of the messages are poems. All are clearly written from the heart. They speak of the institutional memory of the time when their ancestors were brought to America, captured, in chains and forced to work to feed and care for the people who enslaved them. They howl at the torment their ancestors felt as their children were sold away from them. And yet the idea emerges that all of that was in preparation for this day, when one who shares these memories, who has faced the daily indignities imposed on their people, could be elected to lead us all.

...you represent my heritage, my tradition, my hopes as a descendant of those who were enslaved. ... Some of those who have inspired me are: Yaa Asantewaa,...Harriet Tubman,..Ida B. Wells,...Aretha reminding us to require respect; Shirley Chisolm...; my mother, Thelma Biggers Redd...    Shirley A. R. Lewis

Going back through the annals of African American history, the vision of the past has come to light...Remember, your ancestors are with you. They will continue to be your guide and your strength.   Debra M. Johnson

Understanding that as U.S. citizens we are connected by Indian lands, a constitution and a series of institutions that have the potential to take us to the greatness those founding men, who I've never called "fathers," envisioned only for white folks.   Mary E. Weems

Read this book! If you are a white male who thinks he has an intellectual understanding of how African Americans feel, both about their past and their hope for their future, read it to begin to understand this in your gut. In her poem "We Stood There," Tracy S. Bailey of Myrtle Beach hit close to home for me as a fellow South Carolinian. She is writing about Michelle Obama's ancestors who were enslaved near Georgetown, South Carolina by people like my ancestors:

We stood there, we two, transported from another time, another day,
And watched as they carefully settled into their tiny boats
Stroke after measured stroke taking them to tend the rice
To hell
To the killing field

Read this book! If you think your country has made a vast mistake with this change in political and cultural direction, read it to at least feel part of the hope this event has brought to an important segment of the population, and of how their past has affected you, even if you don't realize it.

On November 4, 2008, the world witnessed the impossible. The United States of America with its history of discrimination elected a Black President. A Black President, who has a name that does not sound American. A Black President, who was elected by a majority of white people...
The American people should be proud to have overcome the deep differences in your society and lifted the heavy historical background that has weighed you down for generations.    Kadidia V. Doumbia

Read this book! If you are an African American woman, read it to share in the joy and celebration  of your sisters.

When I look at you I see me...
I see my sister...
I see my mother...
I see my sista friend...
Through you so many of us see ourselves
Lori Jones

By the way, I LOVED YO' RED AND BLACK ELECTION NIGHT DRESS! I know you took a lot of flack for wearing it but I thought it was supa-dupa-fly!    Karima Amin

You and your beautiful family are what we have yearned for! You are hope, light, promise--flesh and blood that says yes, African American women can be proud, gentle, graceful and grace filled, intelligent, strong but compassionately positive role models.   Cynthia A. Bond Hopson

Read this book! It can not help but to bring joy and hope to any heart by sharing the joys and hopes expressed in these letters. As Janeen Ceparano Wilkins says:


Barbara A. Seals Nevergold and Peggy Brooks-Bertram are co-founders of The Uncrowned Queens Institute for Research and Education on Women, Inc., at University at Buffalo, State University of New York. More information is available at Uncrowned Queens.

Note: Excerpts from "Go, Tell Michelle" are with the permission of the publisher.

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