The White House
Office of the First Lady
Remarks by the First Lady After "The Trip to Bountiful" Screening
South Court Auditorium
4:19 P.M. EST
MRS. OBAMA: Hello! (Applause.) Well, hello there. Yay, yay, yay! You guys rest. Sit yourselves down. Welcome to the White House -- or the building across the street from the White House. (Laughter.) It’s the same thing. I am so glad you all could join us as we celebrate African American History Month. And I want to thank Valerie for that introduction and for everything she’s doing to have our backs and to take care of stuff in this country every single day.
I also want to give a big shoutout to all the college students here from schools in and around D.C. and Baltimore. Yay to all of you. (Applause.) You’re working hard, right?
MRS. OBAMA: Getting the grades, right?
MRS. OBAMA: That’s all I’m going to say. (Laughter.) Very proud of you all.
And I would also like to recognize all of you representing some of our country’s leading women’s organizations. And, as Valerie said, thank you for being here today and working so hard to get folks signed up for health care over these past few months. This is a little bit of a reward for your hard work, right? Just a little something.
And finally, I want to thank our special guests that are here with us -- Michele Norris from National Public Radio, as well as the cast of “The Trip to Bountiful.” Blair Underwood -- ah! (Laughter and applause.) Vanessa Williams -- the men go, ah! (Applause.) Keke Palmer, my girl. (Applause.) And of course, the one and only Cicely Tyson. (Applause.) Yes, indeed! I told Ms. Tyson I’m trying to be like her when I grow up. (Laughter.)
This is so exciting. It is a wonderful movie, and I am so thrilled that we had the opportunity to show it here at the White House. And I had the pleasure of seeing the Broadway play last summer in New York with my girls, and we were blown away by this story of persistence and hope and the ties that bind us all together.
It’s a story that makes us think back to the house we all grew up in, right; the things that our moms and dads, grandparents used to say to us, the path that all of us have taken to come here and be who we are today. And nowhere does that sense of home come through more clearly than in Ms. Tyson’s moving portrayal of Carrie Watts. That was a lot of dialogue, that was a lot of monologue to remember. I can barely remember what I’m supposed to do the next hour. (Laughter.) Impressive.
This was a role Ms. Tyson had been waiting to play for decades, and it’s a role that helped her win a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play -- and that’s in addition to all the other Oscar nominations and the three Emmys that she’s already won. But Ms. Tyson’s story is about so much more than honors and accolades. It is really about character -- can we say that again, young people -- character and determination. And it’s about breaking barriers not just for herself but for all of us who are blessed by her legacy.
Ms. Tyson grew up in the New York City tenements, and her father was a carpenter and her mother cleaned houses. And as a child, Ms. Tyson sold shopping bags on the street to help her family get by. And after she graduated from high school, she took a job as a secretary, and then pursued modeling and acting. But this was the early ‘60s, and there weren’t many roles for black women -- still a challenge today. So Ms. Tyson took whatever parts she could find.
Two of the first characters she played on stage were prostitutes. And soon after, she was offered a third role -– again, as a prostitute. But this time Ms. Tyson said no, because she believed that playing only those types of roles was demeaning not just to her but to black women everywhere. And as she later said -- and these are her words -- she said, “When I became aware of the kind of ignorance that existed, I made a very conscious decision that I could not afford the luxury of just being an actress. I decided that I had some very important things to say, and that I would say them through my work.” She said, “There are people who wave banners and picket,” she said, “my platform happens to be my work.”
Now, just hear that, young folks, for a while, as you start pursuing your opportunities. There is more to your life than just pursuing your own work. So much of what we all do will impact everyone who follows us. So in the decades that have followed Ms. Tyson, she has used her work to carry that banner forward, even if it meant waiting years between roles until she found one that was acceptable to her. But, as we all know, make no mistake, she found those roles. They found her. It was undeniable. She’s won accolades for her portrayals of strong, resilient women like Harriet Tubman, a sharecropper’s wife, Kunta Kinte’s mother in the famous miniseries “Roots” -- we all know “Roots,” we all gathered round to watch “Roots” -- (applause) -- and now, Carrie Watts.
And that’s truly what we are celebrating this month –- those who moved us past ignorance with their wisdom and perseverance, those who demanded more from the world around them, and those who reached for higher standards through their life’s work, whether that’s as a movie star like Ms. Tyson or the millions of folks out there like Carrie Watts -- folks who did their work in a classroom or in a congregation or around the kitchen table.
Because it is that slow, grinding work of progress that all too often, like Bountiful itself, goes unnoticed, almost forgotten. But we will never forget, right? Because, as Carrie Watts says from in front of her old house at the end of the movie, she said, “We’re all a part of this. We can never lose what it’s given us.”
And that’s what African American History Month is all about. It’s about honoring those who came before us. It’s about resolving to do our part to live up to that example. So let us all resolve today to do just that. But let’s do that every day, not just February. (Laughter.) There’s a lot of days in the year, let’s just keep doing it.
And we are counting on our young people -- let me just say for a moment -- to take up that mantle. So in order to do that, you all have to be right. You have to have your stuff together. You have to be clear of mind and clear of heart. You’ve got to be educated, because we’re counting on you. We’re not going to solve these problems in our lifetimes, but we’re going to pass them on to you. So that’s why we’re so proud to have you here, and so proud to have you be a part of this conversation.
So I’m going to turn it over and let you get to the business of talking, but I want to encourage all of you to feel at home. Raise your hand, ask questions -- especially our young people. Jump in, use your voices. Because this is a rare opportunity -- do not be shy about it.
And I want to thank you all for being here. I want to thank you all for everything that you do for your families and for our communities and for our country. We are so proud of you. And now, it is my pleasure to turn this stage over to my dear friend Michele Norris who is going to open things up for a wonderful panel discussion with the cast.
So thank you, guys. Have a good time, and God bless you all. (Applause.)
4:28 P.M. EST