I have wanted to write about Michelle Obama since the Democratic primaries death march, but I find that I have more feelings than thoughts about her. I feel a lot of things, but my thoughts are all garbled. I’ve suspected I’m not alone in this, suspected that my friend Johnny is right when he says the real shock is not that America elected a black man as president but that they elected a black woman to be its first lady and that because of this no one knows what the hell to do with her. Oh sure, she’s all over the news and blogs, but these are reactions to her rather than reflections on what she means to this country–all parts of it.
My suspicions about this curious silence were confirmed when I attended a conference at CUNY Graduate Center today. The conference, “Black Women and the Radical Tradition,” was a day-long series of talks, presentations, and lectures about, well… the title is pretty obvious. It was flawed in certain ways, but I did learn interesting things about black women’s history in different political struggles, made a few new friends, and had a perfectly lovely visit with a friend over tea and scones at Alice’s Tea Cup. What I did not hear from anyone, all day, was any word or observation about Michelle Obama. I heard a lot about her husband but not a thing about her. It was like she didn’t exist. I was sitting half a row away from Angela Davis and wanted to say, “pssst; what did you think of that New Yorker Cover? That’s your afro, right?” But I didn’t. I did ask her, during the Q&A after one of her talks, about Proposition 8 but not about Michelle.
Could it be because she’s not radical in the way these women might recognize? Looking at all the different ways that hair can be “natural” at the conference, I couldn’t quite imagine Michelle Obama there (my favorite hairdo was the huge afro on a super skinny young woman; she looked like a black q-tip…adorable!). But she is a revolutionary figure and her ability to walk the fine line of being first-mom without turning into first-mammy is pretty impressive. I think it’s because she’s a woman. Davis made an interesting observation. When Condoleeza Rice was named secretary of state, there was no breathless moment for the “black community.”* Now this might be because of her politics, but Davis didn’t seem to think so, and I don’t either.
I’m sure in the years ahead people will have much to say about Michelle Obama’s true radicalness (not the racist crap the right is calling radical), but the silence about her today was very loud. I’m just sayin’…
*I know the black community is a construct that lets certain parts of the country think we’re more alike than different, but it’s useful shorthand from time to time.