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From Princeton to Tuskegee: Michelle Obama's 30-year Race Journey

In her address to the graduates of Tuskegee University, Michelle Obama would finally wade into the topic of race after seven years as First Lady.

In her address to the graduates of Tuskegee University this weekend, it was remarkable that Michelle Obama would finally wade into the topic of race after seven years as First Lady of the United States.

What is perhaps more remarkable is what her remarks represent: a 30-year journey that began when she was a college student, and the realization that for her survival and sanity, defining herself was more important than allowing others to define her.

Obama took the stage at Tuskegee—the historically black college founded by a former slave and site of the training ground for the nation’s first black Air Force pilots—in an atmosphere and a moment already thick with the weight of race, and also of the legacy of achievement in the face of long odds. The college is less than 100 miles from Selma, where hundreds marched for the right to vote for millions of disenfranchised black Southerners 50 years ago, the milestone marked by her husband, the nation’s first black president.

The deaths of black men at the hands of police highlighted by cities like Ferguson and Baltimore that have dominated headlines for several months were also on the minds of Obama and those in the audience. Earlier this month, President Barack Obama signaled that racial equality would be one of his priorities when he leaves office in less than two years.

On Mother’s Day weekend, Michelle Obama took on a protective role, gently warning the graduates, fueled by the passion of their shared experience:

“Because here’s the thing—the road ahead is not going to be easy. It never is, especially for folks like you and me. Because while we’ve come so far, the truth is that those age-old problems are stubborn and they haven’t fully gone away. So there will be times … when you feel like folks look right past you, or they see just a fraction of who you really are.

The world won’t always see you in those caps and gowns … Instead they will make assumptions about who they think you are based on their limited notion of the world. And my husband and I know how frustrating that experience can be.”

But she also offered advice to the graduates who—as she had—would inevitably encounter the sting of racism as they went through life: “Throughout this journey, I have learned to block everything out and focus on my truth. I had to answer some basic questions for myself: Who am I? No, really, who am I? What do I care about?”

Discussing race on a college campus was ideal for Michelle Obama. It was three decades ago that she first publicly wrestled with the complex topic and what it would mean for who she would become.

In 1985, “The Color Purple” premiered on the big screen, and on televisions across the country, “The Cosby Show” portrayed the ideal middle-class black family and became an American icon. Ronald Reagan was president, and crack cocaine was ravaging urban centers.

That same year, Michelle LaVaughn Robinson faced the same crossroads as all college students, unsure of what lay ahead. But she was also confronting the anxiety of living as a black person in white America. In her senior thesis, titled, “Princeton-Educated Blacks and the Black Community,” Obama wrote:

“I have found that at Princeton no matter how liberal and open-minded some of my White professors and classmates try to be toward me, I sometimes feel like a visitor on campus; as if I really don’t belong. Regardless of the circumstances underwhich I interact with Whites at Princeton, it often seems as if, to them, I will always be Black first and a student second. These experiences have made it apparent to me that the path I have chosen to follow by attending Princeton will likely lead to my further integration and/or assimilation into a White cultural and social structure that will only allow me to remain on the periphery of society; never becoming a full participant.”

She then asked, “Is it possible that other Black alumni share these feelings?”

Though as First Lady, Michelle Obama has graced the covers of more than a dozen American magazines and is a favorite on late-night television, 30 years ago, she felt like an outsider, preparing to enter a society that she feared would never fully accept her.

At Princeton, Obama found herself in a unique setting. Over four years, she had experienced the peculiar evolution of a black undergraduate thrust into a climate of extreme white privilege and emerged changed in ways that surprised and challenged her. Seeking insights to the road ahead, she looked to those who had trod her same path, surveying hundreds of black Princeton alumni about their experiences.

In her thesis, Obama wrote, “My experiences at Princeton have made me far more aware of my ‘Blackness’ than ever before.” In the years since, she has questioned her love for America—and seen her country question its love for her.

First lady Michelle Obama gives a thumbs up after walking out on stage just before delivering the commencement address at Tuskegee University on May 9 in Tuskegee, Alabama.Brynn Anderson / AP

Addressing the Class of 2015 at Tuskegee on Saturday, she echoed this sentiment, telling them:

“Potentially the first African American First Lady, I was also the focus of another set of questions and speculations; conversations sometimes rooted in the fears and misperceptions of others. Was I too loud, or too angry, or too emasculating? Or was I too soft, too much of a mom, not enough of a career woman?

Then there was the first time I was on a magazine cover—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.

And all of this used to really get to me. 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.”

Regardless of the circumstances underwhich I interact with Whites at Princeton, it often seems as if, to them, I will always be Black first and a student second.

She was viewed as black first on the campaign trail, and her fears that she might remain on the periphery of society in her career crept into her thoughts that she and her husband’s blackness may keep them outside of the White House. In 2015, she has come full circle, by leaning on her faith and charting her own path—not only as a black woman, but as a mother, wife, lawyer and now First Lady of the United States.

It is an understanding that she came to on a journey that took her from a skeptical undergraduate to reluctant campaign wife to one of the country’s most beloved First Ladies with a higher approval rating than her husband—and a path that, for her, seemed even more unlikely thirty years ago than his history—making campaign.