UNCG Campus Weekly

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Words of Michelle Obama, black feminist intellectual

Photo of Michelle Obama during a trip to AsiaMichelle Obama has broken new ground for the role of First Lady, according to a new anthology by two UNCG faculty members in Communication Studies.

Dr. Elizabeth J. Natalle, associate professor of communication studies, and Dr. Jenni M. Simon, instructor of communication studies, have published the anthology “Michelle Obama: First Lady, American Rhetor” with Lexington Press.

They presented chapters from the book at the Carolinas Communication Association annual conference in Charleston, SC, in October.

The book is a rhetorical-critical analysis of Mrs. Obama, tracing her development as first lady from president’s spouse to black feminist intellectual. Her public speeches – from the national conventions to a trip to Africa to her Let’s Move! and Reach Higher agendas to her eulogy of Maya Angelou – are the basis of the book’s analysis, they explain.

Natalle says readers will discover that Mrs. Obama is one of the most focused and accomplished first ladies in recent memory.

“I think she has also shown her intellectual strengths in a very independent way (we last saw this with Eleanor Roosevelt) that tells the American people that a first lady is not simply a repetitive supporter of the president or a person who is always the party line,” she said, in an email. “Rather, she is a real person with a persuasive agenda for the good of the American people.​”

“She has redefined motherhood and the work-life struggle so that everyday people can see how to strategize and be successful,” she added. “Mrs. Obama’s presence as both first lady and cultural icon requires us to find new research techniques and scholarly frameworks for analyzing the communicative effectiveness of first ladies. Hence, the book breaks new ground in showing how to do this kind of work.​”

Natalle offered an example of her rhetorical impact. “Certainly, her eulogy at the memorial for Maya Angelou is a significant turning point in her rhetoric because she demonstrated her persona as a black feminist intellectual. This had not been done before in her speaking.”

Simon notes that rhetoric and what we want from public speakers is changing in the United States. “Our expectations, our needs, etc. are being redefined, and Mrs. Obama is an example of a new type of American rhetor.”

“Mrs. Obama spoke to high school athletes on Signing Day in San Antonio,” Simon offers as an example. “At this speech, where academics is not the focus, the first lady was able to intertwine the narrative of personal success with academic success. Where the focus of the day may have been sports, she made it obvious that the two are compatible and important for personal growth.”

When asked their predictions for Mrs. Obama’s future,​ Simon replied, “I think Mrs. Obama is going back to Chicago. I think she’ll take up the reins in addressing the city’s issues with violence and continue her cause for girls and education.”

Natalle’s prediction? “She will probably continue her work with learning, community building and young people. She is a servant-leader in her leadership philosophy, and I just don’t see that changing once she leaves the White House.​”

By Mike Harris
Photo courtesy the White House