I don’t think I remember seeing a First Couple as publically affectionate as Barack and Michelle Obama. The Reagans, both Bushs, the Clintons—their interactions seemed mildly affectionate at best, at worst, detached. But the Obamas, they hold hands in public, engage in playful banter, dance at White House events and smooch on “kiss cams” at sports games. And whether it’s a knowing eye contact or Michelle ragging on Barack’s big ears, interaction between them feels genuine. The Oval office may have tempered some of their PDA, but it looks like the Obamas share a true love.
But as beautiful couple as the Obamas are, their love isn’t simply about their fondness for one another. The idea of romantic love tends to be reduced to a fuzzy feeling, a state of romance. But we often overlook how transformative it can be to look at love as a deliberate and mindful action; love as a choice. In M. Scott Peck’s seminal bestseller The Road Less Traveled, he defines love as a verb.
“Love is as love does. Love is an act of will—namely, both an intention and an action,” Peck writes. “Will also implies choice. We do not have to love. We choose to love.”
As we think about POTUS’s legacy in his last days in the White House, having the first Black president isn’t the only significant thing about the Obama presidency. Part of his larger legacy is his relationship with Michelle, with his family, and his embrace of Black Love as a political act.
Black love as a political act is more than love between two people who happen to be Black. It’s a protest in a society subsumed in pervasive anti-blackness—whether in housing or education, health care or criminal justice. Choosing to love and be loved by another black person comes at a cost, since choosing otherwise is likely to make their lives and their children’s lives better socially and economically.
Based on studies and statistics, any individual black person’s personal and generational interests are better served if they did not marry another black person. Given that both black men and women make less on the dollar than their white counterparts, marrying each other puts them and their children at a relative economic disadvantage. So Black Love, at its essence, is political in ways other intra-racial love is not.
So when we talk about Barack’s time as POTUS and Michelle’s as FLOTUS, we need to acknowledge how seeing the first black First Family inspires black youth, not just in terms of what occupation they may aspire to, but what life choices they can make.
“I think when it comes to Black kids, it means something for them to have spent most of their life seeing the family in the White House look like them,” Mrs. Obama said in the October 2016 issue of Essence magazine. “It matters … And as a mother, I wouldn’t underestimate how important that is, having that vision that you can really do anything—not because somebody told you, but because you’ve seen and experienced it. I think that will be a lasting impact on our kids.”
The Obamas are models of “black excellence” in that both partners meet the expectations of excellence. It’s important to talk about Michelle’s individual popularity, grace, strength, and intellect. But it’s equally important to talk about how Barack, an accomplished and ambitious man whom she saw potential in, was not intimidated by Michelle’s higher position when they met.
In 1989 Barack worked under Michelle as an intern at a corporate law firm in Chicago. Michelle remembers Barack being broke, with a busted up car when they started dating. But though he may have been struggling when they met, he didn’t start with “nothing.” As a Harvard-educated lawyer his potential was tangible. Michelle saw firsthand the goals Barack was moving towards, and his work as a community organizer. Like her, he eschewed the comfortable, conventional life that an Ivy League education promises for the struggle of community work (a sacrifice that obviously paid off in the end). Barack piqued Michelle’s interest as a “good-looking, smooth-talking guy,” but he proved to her that he wanted to make the same type of impact in the world as she did.
People have tried to make “ride or die chick” in Black history a redeemable concept, but the trope more often than not asks black women to assume a subservient place in the patriarchal power structure. There are ways that patriarchy, including that practiced by black men, demands a level of excellence from black women, while allowing themselves to be mediocre. The Obamas combat that idea on many levels.
If we want to frame Michelle as the “ride or die” wife, we have to think critically about how black women are asked to lower their standards (financial, educational, or otherwise) more than other women (and sometimes they’re seen as more desirable if they do). The Obamas were able to facilitate each other’s growth without Michelle lowering neither her expectations of herself nor of the man she would share her life with.
In fact, this becomes even clearer when you learn that Barack was actually opposed to the institution of marriage while they were dating. Even Barack Obama, the quintessence of black male excellence, at first wanted Michelle to just be “wifey.” What if Michelle was “okay” with that? What if Barack decided to stand firm in his objection to marriage?
Based on what we know about Michelle and the positive impact she made on Barack, its not farfetched to surmise that if the above were the case, not only would there be no “Obamas,” but Barack would not have grown into the man he became, and America would still be waiting for its first black president in 2016.
Marriage is a personal choice that involves a myriad of smaller and larger choices. But even though Barack did not marry Michelle for “political reasons,” marrying a black woman, and marrying that black woman, had a very real, positive affect on his political career. Yes, he came back to Chicago work with the community, but let’s keep it 200, he came back to be with Michelle. So really, it was Barack who was “ride or die.”
The Obamas facilitated greatness in each other. Barack helped Michelle gain an insider understanding of the game and war of politics, and his presidency gave her a large platform for work surrounding women and girls’ education, health, and civil rights. Michelle helped Barack form a more transformative sense of self as a man, as a black man, and even as a feminist. Their affection towards each other is a reflection of the trials and triumphs they have blazed through—together.
No relationship can be perfect, but the Obamas are a paradigm for what Black Love can look like, and how powerful that choice can be.
Joshua Adams is a writer and arts & culture journalist from Chicago. He holds a B.A. in African American Studies from the University of Virginia and a M.A. in Journalism from the University of Southern California. His writings often explain current and historical cultural phenomena through personal narratives.