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First lady could be boon for black girls

President-elect Barack Obama, in no small measure, carries the high expectations of African-Americans on his narrow but steady shoulders.

But what of the woman standing next to Obama, the one he called his "rock" and the "love of his life?" What do people expect of Michelle Obama, who will soon be the first black first lady of this land?

I asked three black professional women what effect she will have on our daughters, our race and this country.

"The same effect as Barack Obama," said Roszalyn Akins, a former Fayette County public schools educator and first lady of First Baptist Church, Bracktown. "Speaking as an educator, I see little girls saying, "Wow, look at her. Look at what I can be."

What they will see, as the months and years pass, will be a strong black woman who is not only intelligent and educated but also personable and beautiful. They will see a manner of dress and style they can model.

In other words, Michelle Obama won't have to dance half-naked in music videos to be a hero for young girls. Her style will change an image that has been around far too long.

As the wife of a minister, Akins has seen how her dress and carriage are modeled by other women in the church.

"You set the tone," she said. "Michelle will be setting the tone for how other African-Americans get excited about themselves."

Having a black first family in Washington will only help efforts at Bracktown, where the church has set up a boys' and a girls' academy that stresses not only education but also etiquette and self-esteem.

"Young girls will see a powerful couple who are on the same plane and they can aspire to have the same kind of life," Akins said. "They will see they don't have to settle. They can look at life differently in the selection of a mate."

The Obamas are an example of black families who aren't publicized as much as those headed by single women or who struggle in low-paying jobs to keep poverty at bay. The Obamas overcame those obstacles to live the American Dream.

Michelle Obama grew up on the south side of Chicago in a family that expected success and in which the children refused to disappoint their father, who worked daily despite having multiple sclerosis.

She graduated with honors from Princeton University and from Harvard Law School in 1988. She met her husband while working at a prestigious Chicago law firm, where he was an intern. That résumé alone would be impressive, but there is something more there.

"She exudes self-confidence and self-esteem, and her self-image is very high," said Wilma Peeples of Thomas-Peeples and Associates Inc., a counseling and therapy practice. "That persona will show other women, regardless of ethnicity, and girls in particular that they can do the same."

That visual is worth more than words. People will see Michelle Obama's work ethic, her determination and resilience, and her vision and mission, "which is far beyond a job or career," Peeples said. "She's always known she has a mission, and she didn't allow anything to get in the way.

"She also joined with someone else who had a mission," she said. "They have something they are supposed to carry out."

Peeples said a mission is more than a passion. We can be passionate about singing and not be able to carry a note.

"A mission is something I've been placed here to do," she said. "You have to figure that out. She will encourage others to think about their own purpose and mission."

Along with that image will be another that is not often addressed, said Deborah Keys, a certified family life educator. It is that of a successful black man in love with a black woman.

"As a black mother with black daughters," she said, "it was very heartening to see an intelligent successful black man choose a black woman for his wife. According to the stereotype, the mark of your success as a black man is having a white wife. It is a boon for marriage."

She said the Obamas will walk into the White House as an intact family, which flies in the face of yet another stereotype. "It gives our boys and girls something to aspire to," she said. "They may not all have his position, but they can all have his lifestyle."

Plus, she said, after telling young black girls for years that they descend from black queens, Michelle Obama can serve as an example of the closest thing we have to such royalty in the U.S.

"We talk about being queens, but she will actually be a queen," Keys said.

So along with selecting cabinet and staff members who will help steer this country in a new direction, Barack and Michelle Obama will have the unenviable task of reshaping how all of us have viewed the African-American culture in this country.

That's a pretty big job, one no one should be saddled with. But it is the job and responsibility that has always befallen a "first."

Will it be too much for the Obamas to uphold?

Peeples doesn't think so.

"When you come to that understanding, that you have a mission, to other people it may seem like a lot," she said. "But once you know what it is you are supposed to be doing, it is not a burden."

That is a good thing for the Obamas, and for all of us who are latching onto their star.

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