Cozy Spotlight on Former First Lady by Ebony Edwards-Ellis

The American people–critics and allies alike–like to compare Barry and me to the Obamas. Like the Obamas, we are an African-American couple who ascended to the White House with two young daughters. Both presidents were Ivy League educated lawyers. And Michelle Obama and I, having both been born during the third week of January, occasionally celebrated birthdays on the King Holiday. 

What people often intentionally overlooked was how different Barry and I were to the Obamas. Barry and I weren’t married at the time of our elder daughter’s birth–a situation we did not rectify for several years. Having dropped out of college, I am not an Ivy League educated lawyer like Michelle Obama nor do I possess her grace, charisma or charm. And yes, both presidents answered to the nickname “Barry” at some point in their lives, but the names “Barack” and “Barrington” bespeak two very different backgrounds. And, no, despite all the efforts of Barry’s PR machine to create the image of a peaceful cohesive family, Barry and I did not enjoy a particularly happy marriage.

Barry and I were the anti-Obamas…

This is how former First Lady Shelley Diggs characterizes her relationship with her soon-to-be ex-husband, Barrington “Barry” Welles. After Trump resigns under the threat of impeachment, Barry defeats Mike Pence in the election of 2020 to become the 47th President of the United States. Having never wanted to be a “political wife,” Shelley has to sacrifice her freedom and privacy for the sake of her husband’s political career.

Fed up with omnipresent Secret Service agents and desperate to reclaim some measure of autonomy, Shelley leaves her husband shortly after he finishes his second term, returns to her native New York, and relinquishes her protection detail. However, Shelley’s yearnings for her husband threaten to derail her plans for her future. When a family tragedy strikes, Shelley must choose between the sometimes rocky path to independence and the warts-and-all marriage to the man that she still loves.


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The American people–critics and allies alike–like to compare Barry and me to the Obamas. Like the Obamas, we are an African-American couple who ascended to the White House with two young daughters. Both presidents were Ivy League educated lawyers. And Michelle Obama and I, having both been born during the third week of January, occasionally celebrated birthdays on the King Holiday. 

What people often intentionally overlooked was how different Barry and I were to the Obamas. Barry and I weren’t married at the time of our elder daughter’s birth–a situation we did not rectify for several years. Having dropped out of college, I am not an Ivy League educated lawyer like Michelle Obama nor do I possess her grace, charisma or charm. And yes, both presidents answered to the nickname “Barry” at some point in their lives, but the names “Barack” and “Barrington” bespeak two very different backgrounds. And, no, despite all the efforts of Barry’s PR machine to create the image of a peaceful cohesive family, Barry and I did not enjoy a particularly happy marriage. 

Barry and I were the anti-Obamas. 

That means that I have the dubious honor of being the first First Lady to leave her husband after he left office. And all the mail I got after I left–fan mail, hate mail, and everything in between–wanted to know why I had done it when Hillary Clinton and Melania Trump, two women who had had just cause to leave, had chosen to stay. And many of these letter writers erroneously assumed that I was the first First Lady to ever consider divorce, period. 

The first official First Lady to ever have been divorced was my immediate predecessor, Karen Pence. However, she and her first husband dissolved their marriage so long before her second husband, Mike Pence, became president, that many people did not even know she was a divorcee.

In addition, to being the first Former First Lady who ever sought to divorce a former president, I am also the very first First Lady to give birth out-of-wedlock and, I am proud to say, I was also the first First Lady to legally retain her maiden name, something that feminists celebrated. And, standing at five feet and one-quarter inch tall, I am also the shortest. 

Before that, I was the obscure wife of an obscure New York City councilman, who despite her commitment to her career, was more of a stay-at-home mother than a work-from- home mother. Before that, I was the even more obscure wife of an obscure New York State Assemblyman. Before that, I was the single mother of a daughter, a daughter that I loved fiercely but never planned to have. 

And before all that, I was a struggling novelist whose work was better loved by critics than book buyers. I paid the bills with a hodge-podge of writing assignments–freelance magazine articles, copy-writing, music reviews for one online music magazine, book reviews for yet another, the occasional paid blog posts. I was even a Carrie Bradshaw of sorts, dishing up sex advice for one of the many free weeklies that littered the seats and floors of New York City subway cars back in the early Aughties. 

Before that I was just Shelley Jane Diggs, daughter of Mary Jane Diggs, a nineteen-year- old high school dropout. 

Several months before my birth on January 15, 1972, my mother watched a movie– probably the made-for-television schlock that she preferred–with a character named Shelley. My middle name is Jane because my mother’s middle name is Jane. My last name is Diggs because my mother’s maiden name is Diggs. She never married my father because he was already married to someone else. 

My mother never married anybody actually. After she got over my father’s refusal to leave his wife, she dated a string of men before choosing to settle down with the father of my brother, Mike, in 1974. He didn’t last long; by the time my brother made his appearance in mid- 1975, Mike’s father, Big Mike, was long gone. My mother had quite a few boyfriends after that break-up. Some of those guys lived with us for periods lasting a few weeks to a few
months. Then my mother hooked up with the father of my two youngest brothers, the twins, David and Jonathan, in 1980. 

As you might have guessed, my childhood was rather tumultuous. No one has it easy with an emotionally immature, sexually promiscuous mother, especially not when they’re growing up in the Tompkins Houses in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. 

I resolved early on to get away from my mother. I didn’t like her very much, a feeling that was mutual. I decided that my best means of escape was college. Although my grades were good, I couldn’t get a full ride to an out of state school so I decided that Hunter College was a good idea. I went full-time and worked two part-time jobs to come up with my share of the rent in the Manhattan one bedroom I shared with three other people. 

That went well for a year. Then the grant that I needed to cover tuition was defunded and I was unable to borrow enough to stay in school. I dropped out, resolving to go back. And like many people who make similar vows, I never did. 

Wanting to be a writer, I took on an unpaid internship at a fledgling feminist magazine while I worked fifty hours a week as a food runner in a theme restaurant. The unpaid internship allowed me to make the connections necessary to land a paid internship at another magazine which in turn resulted in a paid staff position at said magazine. While I never wrote for that periodical, I did make friends with a writer who gave me advice on how to get published in other magazines. 

By the time I reached my twenty-fifth birthday, I had published ten magazine articles and was polishing up the final draft of my debut novel. By the time I was twenty-eight, I was earning modest royalties from that book and working on a second. By the time I was thirty, I had published the second book to good reviews but poor sales. I had also landed a column at NYC ALTERNATIVE

Not being able to afford Manhattan but not wanting to leave, I split a tiny one bedroom apartment in East Harlem with another struggling writer. I learned how to like walking everywhere. I learned to like having Ramen Noodles, Ramen Noodles that I purchased with food stamps, for lunch (and oftentimes dinner) every day. 

Sick of hair straightening and realizing just how expensive it was to touch up my new growth every six weeks, I cut off my shoulder length hair and started sporting sisterlocks once my natural texture hair grew out. 

I learned how to shape my own eyebrows with tweezers. I learned to like never being able to afford the movies or nights out. I only shopped for clothes twice a year and never bought anything that wasn’t on sale. And I bought a thermos and learned to make decent coffee at home, learned to look away from the enticing storefront windows of all the hipper-than-thou coffee shops that every wannabe screenwriter in a rapidly gentrifying uptown Manhattan patronized. 

That’s who I was and how I was living at the time Barry and I first crossed paths. 


Author Bio

Ebony Edwards-Ellis is the author of Memoir of a Royal Consort and Former FirstLady. She also writes for the blog Random Rants of a Super-Nerdy Black Chick.

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