In a poignant commencement speech given at Tuskegee University, Alabama, First Lady Michelle Obama revealed that her faith in "God's plan for me" gave her confidence amid misconceptions regarding her ethnicity during the 2008 White House campaign. Because of her experience, Mrs. Obama encouraged graduates to also "have faith in God's plan for you."
In her speech delivered on May 9th, Mrs. Obama discussed Tuskegee's history and referenced Robert Robinson Taylor, who the first African-American architect, and Dr. Boynton Robinson, a leader of the American Civil Rights Movement in Selma, among others.
"The story of Tuskegee is full of stories like theirs - men and women who came to this city, seized their own futures, and wound up shaping the arc of history for African Americans and all Americans," she said.
She recalled a time when "the Army chose Tuskegee as the site of its airfield and flight school for black pilots."
"Back then, black soldiers faced all kinds of obstacles. There were the so-called scientific studies that said that black men's brains were smaller than white men's. Official Army reports stated that black soldiers were 'childlike,' 'shiftless,' 'unmoral and untruthful,' and as one quote stated, 'if fed, loyal and compliant.'"
While the university's history "isn't perfect," Mrs. Obama emphasized that "the defining story of Tuskegee is the story of rising hopes and fortunes for all African Americans."
"I've experienced a little bit of it myself," she said. "You see, graduates, I didn't start out as the fully-formed First Lady who stands before you today. No, no, I had my share of bumps along the way."
Mrs. Obama recalled one instance, during her husband's 2008 presidential campaign, when she was on a magazine cover for first time, she recalled, "... It was a cartoon drawing of me with a huge afro and machine gun."
"Now, yeah, it was satire, but if I'm really being honest, it knocked me back a bit. It made me wonder, just how are people seeing me," she said. "Back in those days, I had a lot of sleepless nights, worrying about what people thought of me, wondering if I might be hurting my husband's chances of winning his election, fearing how my girls would feel if they found out what some people were saying about their mom."
She added, "But eventually, I realized that if I wanted to keep my sanity and not let others define me, there was only one thing I could do, and that was to have faith in God's plan for me."
In concluding her speech, Mrs. Obama urged students to also find comfort in God's perfect plan. "And if you rise above the noise and the pressures that surround you, if you stay true to who you are and where you come from, if you have faith in God's plan for you, then you will keep fulfilling your duty to people all across this country."
This is not the first time Mrs. Obama has addressed issues of race. Speaking at poet Maya Angelou's memorial service in June of 2014, she talked about her journey "through lonely moments in ivy-covered classrooms and colorless skyscrapers...through long years on the campaign trail where, at times, my very womanhood was dissected and questioned."
"The First Lady's speech was candid, personal, heartfelt, even blunt on the issue of race," said NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt. "[Mrs. Obama offered a] powerful message to graduates."