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Commentary: Let Michelle Obama's real self shine

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  • Angela Burt-Murray: Michelle Obama plans to care for her kids and new home
  • She says Michelle showed skill on campaign and her true abilities
  • Burt-Murray says some might feel threatened by her confidence and talent
  • She says new first lady shouldn't be pressured to hide her strengths
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By Angela Burt-Murray
Special to CNN
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Editor's Note: Angela Burt-Murray is the editor-in-chief of Essence magazine. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and two sons. Read veteran journalist Gwen Ifill's interview with Michelle Obama on Essence.com

Angela Burt-Murray says Michelle Obama shouldn't be pressured to hide her considerable ability.

NEW YORK (CNN) -- She's been clear about her priorities.

The self-professed Mom-in-Chief is focused on getting her family settled into a new home at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, buying a puppy, and enrolling daughters, Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7, in their elite new private school.

Admirable concerns and certainly ones that every mother, or father, would consider in the face of any move -- let alone a move to the most famous address in the world. But when you're discussing a woman as accomplished as Michelle Obama, you can't help but wonder: Can't there be more?

Perhaps, but for the nation's first black first lady, it won't be easy.

When black women initially met the statuesque double Ivy League-degreed hospital exec with coiffed hair and smart outfits, it was love at first sight: supportive spouse, loving mother -- the total package.

On the campaign trail, many journalists noted she was a gifted speaker, pulling in large crowds at solo events, capturing the attention of audiences for 40 minutes and more, without notes, even holding her own while sharing the stage with megawatt personalities like Oprah Winfrey and Maria Shriver.

For us she was instantly recognizable. She was a self-made six-figure sister who was like so many women in our communities -- leading church boards, chairing neighborhood programs, running the show at work -- as well as a reflection of the women we saw in our own mirrors. But for some whites, she was different, a bit unsettling. Not what they were used to. And then she made that infamous comment:

"For the first time in my adult life, I'm really proud of my country."

You could practically hear white folks saying, "Aha!" The sound bite heard around the world would be impossible for her to fully recover from, at least during the campaign. She was vilified -- labeled Mrs. Grievance and Angry Black Woman.

Like Michelle, Hillary Clinton was attacked for everything from her cookie-baking and Tammy Wynette comments to the national health care debacle she led during her husband's administration. The attacks on Michelle, though, were rooted in racist stereotypes.

There was the Fox News producer who dubbed her Obama's Baby Mama; the incendiary New Yorker magazine cover that featured an Afro-wearing, fist-bumping, Uzi-toting Michelle; the hunt for a videotaped panel that didn't exist, in which Michelle Obama was allegedly featured with controversial Minister Louis Farrakhan, talking about "Whitey" as if channeling 1970s TV character George Jefferson.

The Huffingtonpost.com ran a piece called "Why Do We White People Dislike Michelle Obama?" It was based on a New York Times/CBS News poll showing that 24 percent of white Americans had an unfavorable opinion of her.

Huffingtonpost.com later pointed out that they omitted the number of people who said they were "Undecided" (17 percent) or "Haven't Heard Enough" (37 percent) about Michelle Obama, but the negative perception had by then been encoded.

More recently, there was the misguided Salon.com essay by African-American journalist Erin Aubrey Kaplan about Mrs. Obama's behind, a piece that harkened scarily back to the story of Saarjite Baartman, the young South African woman who was brought to Europe in 1810 by an English surgeon so fascinated by her large bottom that he changed her name to Venus Hottentot and displayed her naked in cages in museums for more than five years. Seriously, people?

The attacks got so bad at one point that blogger Gina McCauley of Whataboutourdaughters.com said Michelle was becoming a "verbal punching bag." So she launched a Web site called MichelleObamawatch.com to keep track of every article, video clip and interview to mobilize her visitors to voice their concerns.

"Whether you support her husband or not," McCauley wrote on the site last July, "Let's be clear, any and every black woman who walks in her footsteps can expect the same treatment, so we might as well pull a Gandalf, draw a line in the sand and yell, 'Thou shall not pass!' "

White America may be trying to relax -- after all they really like her husband. Yet even after Barack Obama's decisive victory, it still seems that Michelle's team wants to dial down her fabulousness. And black women know why.

Allison Samuel's recent Newsweek cover story "What Michelle Means to Us" clearly articulates the double-edged sword she faces: "While every first lady -- and plenty of professional women -- walk the line between being confident and seeming like a bitch, African-American women are especially wary that being called 'strong' is just another word for 'angry.' "

It's the thing that many black woman face at their jobs -- the appearance of confidence and ability can be threatening to people. And so Michelle's smart outfits were replaced with sensible sweater sets. Her focus became military families and photo-ops of her packing supplies.

There's certainly value in Michelle Obama playing the traditional first lady role as she greets heads of state, travels the world meeting with foreign dignitaries, and continues her important work with military families.

But lest everyone decide that Mom-in-Chief is enough to keep her busy for the next four to eight years, Michelle has said in interviews that she and her family always try to get involved in the communities in which they live.

In Washington, which has some of the nation's worst high school graduation rates, and HIV/AIDS infection rates that rival African countries, there will be no shortage of issues for the new first lady to tackle.

Perhaps her team could take a bit of inspiration from the hit NBC series The West Wing. During the fictitious first term of President Jed Bartlett, played brilliantly by Martin Sheen, his administration is unable to achieve any of its goals because it tries to manage to the middle and not upset anyone. Ultimately, they decide to create the sort of change they campaigned on by letting "Bartlett be Bartlett."

Like most black women, I look forward to watching Michelle be Michelle, no matter what form that takes.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Angela Burt-Murray.

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