In the middle of an election cycle replete with messages of fear and words of hate, Michelle Obama picked up a foil in the middle of New York City on Wednesday and learned to fence in the name of hope, unity and patriotism.
The First Lady was in Times Square to celebrate the 100-day countdown until the Summer Olympics kickoff, continuing her years-long “Let’s Move” work promoting healthy living, exercise and eating for the nation’s youth.
And amid a day filled with speeches, basketball lessons and smiles for the camera, the most moving, emotionally laden moment came when Obama spent time with fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, the first U.S Olympian ever to compete in a hijab.
Muhammad spent a few minutes mentoring Obama, teaching her the proper form for wielding a foil and giving pointers before the First Lady practiced her new moves with a young girl.
Naturally, cynics will say this was merely a photo op. A carefully orchestrated publicity event conducted to pull on all the right strings of patriotism heading into this summer’s Games.
But after the year we’ve had — the tragic attacks in Europe, the devastating shootings back home in the States and the rhetoric of violence heard far too often in the campaign primaries — this is just the kind of scene we should be embracing with open arms.
Here are two women — both trailblazers who will surely go down in the history books — coming together to celebrate the country in the exact right way. Promoting a message of unity, not division — of pride in the diversity inherent to our nation, even in the face of the alarming, offensive calls for exclusivity we’ve witnessed in recent months.
Ibtihaj Muhammad herself said it best.
“It’s unfortunate that we’re in this moment, especially during the presidential election, where people feel so comfortable voicing their dislike or the discontent for people of a particular background, a particular race or a particular religion,” she explained to reporters.
“We as Americans have to fight that, because that goes against the very values that we stand for,” she went on. “I feel like I’m in this position and I have to use it, and I want to use it well. I don’t want to waste my time as an athlete; I want to reach as many people as I can — just not with my skills within my sport but also with my voice.”
She and the First Lady did just that in New York City this week. We’ll be rooting you for in Rio, Ibtihaj.
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