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An inspirational icon

On the Edge

On The Edge
Áine Ryan

IT was so appropriate that Michelle Obama’s last public address was on Friday, January 6 last: it was not only the Christian Feast of the Epiphany but also here in Ireland, Nollaig na mBan (Women’s Little Christmas). Wasn’t the United States’ outgoing First Lady’s dignity, sense of integrity and vision of hope so affirming and refreshing in the pandemic of Trumpitis that has infected our airwaves for the last two months?    
Speaking in the east wing of the White House, she was clearly emotional as she said that being First Lady has been ‘the greatest honour’ of her life. In an obvious reference to the incoming president, Donald Trump, she observed: “Our glorious diversity — our diversities of faiths, and colours, and creeds — that is not a threat to who we are; it makes us who we are.”
“So to the young people here and the young people out there: Do not ever let anybody make you feel like you don’t matter or like you don’t have a place in our American story because you do, and you have a right to be exactly who you are,” she said passionately.
Initially a rather reluctant political spouse, Michelle’s sincerity and articulacy had in the final months of the deplorable Clinton-Trump campaign made her into a media star, with widespread calls for her to run for the presidency in four years time. But her disdain for the partisan politics of Capitol Hill and all its machiavellian machinations means that she has declined, so far anyway, to be seduced by such a high-profile position.
Refreshingly too is the fact that Michelle Obama continues to celebrate the narrative of her humble beginnings which espouses each citizens’ – no matter what colour or creed – right to equal opportunity, particularly through the leveling corridors of education, a key priority for her during her eight-year tenure in the White House.    
Accessing university
BORN on January 17, 1964, into a working class family in south Chicago, Michelle’s generation was the first to attend college, studying law at the prestigious Princeton and Harvard Universities.  
During last week’s speech, she recalled : “The hope of folks like my dad, who got up every day to do his job at the city water plant, the hope that one day his kids would go to college and have opportunities he never dreamed of. That’s the kind of hope that every single one of us — politicians, parents, preachers, all of us — need to be providing for our young people, because that is what moves this country forward every single day.”
With palpable emotion, her concluding remarks urged the audience to ‘[lead] by example with hope, never fear’.
Michelle Obama only has to go back four generations to discover slavery in her family. Her paternal great-great grandfather, Jim Robinson, was a slave on the Friendfield Plantation in South Carolina, where some of her extended family still lives. The abomination of slavery is five generations back on her maternal side, with her great-great-great grandmother, Melvinia Shields, a slave in Georgia. Indeed, records have shown that Melvinia’s first son, Dolphus T Shields, was bi-racial, born into slavery but also the son of his master. (Watching the movie ‘Twelve Years a Slave’ last week on RTÉ, sometimes from behind a cushion, brought the horrors of that system of brutal apartheid into real focus.)   

Equal society
ISN’T it no wonder then that Michelle Obama embraces an equal society? Isn’t it so empowering for women all around the world that she showed such subtle but inspiring intelligence and leadership in her role as First Lady? One never felt she was speaking from a script written by a career mandarin whose modus operandi is to manipulate public opinion. Indeed, this was put into stark – and cartoonish – relief, when Melania Trump plagiarised one of her speeches during the presidential campaign.
Back here on this tiny island of Ireland, wouldn’t it be so refreshing if our female politicians shone an enriching light through the murkiness of the body politic. It is farcical that one of the top stories last week was that Government Chief Whip, Regina Doherty, is ignored in the corridors of Leinster House by her constituency colleague, Deputy Helen McEntee. In a much-publicised interview, Doherty told The Irish Times on Thursday last, the eve of Nollaig na mBan: “She would walk past me in the corridor and wouldn’t even blink her eyes.”
Frankly, I couldn’t care less.