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Ella-Lorraine Brown, 8, was a bit disgruntled when another classmate chose to dress up as the same figure she had chosen — Michelle Obama — for her Los Angeles school's annual Cultural Heroes Day in October.
"I told her, 'Yes, but I bet she is doing Michelle Obama, First Lady. You’re doing Michelle Robinson, Princeton student, and that makes you extra-special,'" Ella-Lorraine's mom, Karlyn Johnson Brown, told TODAY Parents.
That encouraged Ella-Lorraine, who wore a mock Princeton ID badge and carried tiger-themed folders and notebooks in her bag along with an outfit and even braids that were almost an exact replica of Obama's in a picture from her undergrad days.
Brown's subsequent side-by-side photo of Ella-Lorraine and Obama on Facebook garnered attention that eventually reached the former First Lady herself, who retweeted an article about it.
Brown and her husband, Eugene, have raised their children to be aware of historic and cultural figures who look like they do. "Representation matters," she said. When they gave their children — both Ella-Lorraine and her brother Langston, 10 — the names of prominent African-Americans, they hoped they would inspire them.
Ella-Lorraine was named both for legendary American jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald and Lorraine Hansberry, author of "Raisin in the Sun."
The Browns share stories and books about these figures with their children and research a different person every year for the Cultural Heroes Day project at their school, City Language Immersion Charter School. In past years, Ella-Lorraine has also dressed up as her namesake, Ella Fitzgerald, Bessie Coleman, and Ruby Bridges, while Langston has been Jackie Robinson, Paul Revere Williams, James Still, and his own namesake, Langston Hughes, the Harlem Renaissance leader, poet, novelist, and playwright.
For Ella-Lorraine, "we tend to focus on African-American women simply because those are names and information she probably won’t get just in passing, but that doesn’t mean those are the only women we honor," said Brown.
"We also don’t hide her from some of the challenges that black women have had to face," she said. "We keep it age appropriate, of course, but we don’t shy away from telling her how Bessie Coleman died or how she had to go to France to be trained as a pilot because no one would train her here. We talked at length about the ways Ruby Bridges was insulted and called names by other members of the town and school."
This year, Ella-Lorraine wanted to research Michelle Obama mainly because of her education and her connection to Princeton University, which is also her mother's alma mater: Brown graduated from Princeton in 1995 with a degree in psychology. "It was important to me that Ella-Lorraine dress as Michelle Obama as an undergrad to fortify that Princeton connection," said Brown.
Brown made sure Ella-Lorraine focused on Obama's accomplishments as an individual, not just the wife of a former President of the United States. "She had a name and an identity before the White House," noted Brown.
Brown describes her daughter as a "pistol" — "spunky, feisty, and yet at the same time, completely lovable." She's a Girl Scout, a member of the children's choir at her church, and she loves cooking shows, performing cartwheels, and reading "anything and everything," according to her mom.
Though Ella-Lorraine doesn't fully understand what it means that her photo has gone viral, her mother says that when she heard that Obama had shared the article about her on Twitter, "she tried not to smile, but soon her dimples were showing!" said Brown. Ella-Lorraine said she wants the former First Lady to know that she plans to continue to follow her dreams.
Brown said she hopes this gave Ella-Lorraine a stronger sense of who she can be in the world. "At the time of Cultural Day, Ella-Lorraine was wearing her hair in braids and even that was a connection," she said. "All of these things matter, especially in a society where black girls, black women — despite the social media trends and celebrations — are often overlooked in classrooms and undervalued in the workplace.
"I want my daughter to feel that sisterhood — not just with Princeton alums, but with all of those female faces and brown faces who have gone before her," she added. "I want her to know she is part of a larger fabric of strong, beautiful, educated and yes, black, women. It matters. And one day, someone will look up to her — that thrills me most of all."