Embracing her African roots in a way her husband at times has seemed reluctant to do, first lady Michelle Obama yesterday told a gathering at a Washington summit for young African leaders, “The blood of Africa runs through my veins.”
“The roots of my family tree are in Africa,” the popular first lady said, as the crowd cheered. “My husband’s father was born and raised in Kenya. Members of our extended family still live there. I have had the pleasure of traveling to Africa many times over the years, including four trips as first lady, and I have brought my mother and my daughters along whenever I can.”
“The blood of Africa runs through my veins, and I care deeply,” Obama said, as she called the audience her “brothers” and “sisters.”
The occasion was the close of a six-week Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders, which brought 500 Africans to Washington, D.C. The first lady used much of her speech to talk about the status of women in Africa, the U.S. and around the world.
The White House is making women’s empowerment a theme in a Washington African leaders summit next week.
As the Huffington Post pointed out, the president did not mention his African roots during his own remarks to the crowd, bringing up his Kenyan father once in a response during the question-and-answer session. His Republican opponents over the years have frequently tried to use Obama’s African roots as a slur, with Newt Gingrich once attempting to slam him by claiming he had a “Kenyan, anti-colonial” worldview that was out of touch with reality.
The first lady said girls were being held back by traditional “attitudes and beliefs” that exist even in the United States, leading to issues such as the gender pay gap and an underrepresentation of women in leadership.
Men around the world needed to “look into their hearts and souls and ask if they truly view women as their equals,” she said.
“I am who I am today because of the people in my family, particularly the men in my family, who valued me and invested in me from the day I was born,” Michelle Obama said. “And as I grew up, the men who raised me set a high bar for the type of men I’d allow into my life—which is why I went on to marry a man who had the good sense to fall in love with a woman who was his equal, to treat me as such—a man who supports and reveres me, and who supports and reveres our daughters as well.”
Noting in her speech that 30 million girls and young women in sub-Saharan Africa are not attending school, too many of them are forced into marriage before puberty, and genital mutilation of girls is still common in some areas while rapists and human traffickers often escape prosecution, the first lady also made sure to highlight success stories.
She pointed out that in Rwanda, more than half of the legislators are women — “which, by the way,” she added, “is more than double the percentage of women in the U.S. Congress.”
“I don’t think it’s really productive to talk about issues like girls’ education unless we’re willing to have a much bigger, bolder conversation about how women are viewed and treated in the world today,” she said. “And we need to be having this conversation on every continent and in every country on this planet. And that’s what I want to do today with all of you, because so many of you are already leading the charge for progress in Africa.”