Thoughts on Michelle Obama I

It’s a relief that the focus on Michelle Obama had broadened, just a bit, from her magnificent wardrobe to the projects she has embarked on as FLOTUS.

FLOTUS. I love the sound of that because it brings to mind two lovely words: the word “flow” and the image of the lotus flower. I only have a passing understanding of the different cultural significances of the lotus flower, but I have a pretty clear sense of what “flow” looks like. I don’t think I can define it but, like art, I know it when I see it, and she’s got it. Those of us who supported Obama during the Democratic Primary and the general election have seen it all along. It’s evident in the way she moves, the easy rhythm of her speech, and the values that she has stayed true to all along the way—family, community, service.

The press succumbed, as it so easily does, to the Republican’s caricature of her, gladly discussing her as a liability and depicting her as a version of black womanhood America is comfortable with dismissing and/or dissing—dark, angry, and unfeminine. And then they were shocked and stunned to discover a woman they still can’t really define.

While the focus on her wardrobe seems silly, I can understand why it has played out this way. To put it simply, the media do not have the language, the lexicon, or the rhetoric to report on a woman like Michelle Obama. She’s like a unicorn but more rare because she doesn’t even exist in American, or international, legends. Think about it. Can you name one famous black woman who is not an entertainer who is like Michelle Obama?

You might be tempted to compare her to the women of the Civil Rights Movement because she is already a historic figure, but she is not like Sojourner Truth, Rosa Parks, or Shirley Chisholm. She is certainly no Angela Davis or Fannie Lou Hamer. She is more their descendent than a figure cut from the same mold. She is no Oprah. And she is no Condoleeza Rice and not just because the two women have different political leanings. She’s not like either woman because she easily wears a mantle that neither woman has taken on—mother and wife.

This is, in itself, a radical thing for a public black female figure, and it’s a thing that the mainstream media simply can’t understand. They also have not quite yet figured out how to report on why she has charmed the majority of the nation. This is, in part, because doing so would require them to say the kinds of things that many white Americans simply don’t want to hear—for to discuss Michelle Obama in real terms is also to discuss the mistreatment of black women by all the different parts of this country.

She takes on this tricky problem fearlessly, though I’ve noticed she does so by speaking very little about the present. When she refers to her ancestry as a descendent of slaves, her very presence in the position of our first lady affirms that “ancestry” can be seen as “ancient” and “history.” At the same time, she exhorts young people to think about and plan for the future. She wants them to be what she has so successfully been throughout her life—a strategist, someone who can see the forest for the trees and who does not let herself get distracted by the small things in a culture that has a habit of cordoning people off from their ambitions.

Her strategy seems to be acknowledge the struggles of the past, work hard in the present, plan for the future.

I don’t mean to make Michelle Obama out to be larger than life, but she is. She’s actually a larger figure than her husband. As my friend Johnny said the day after the election, the miracle is not that Americans elected an African-American man to be president but that they accepted a black woman as their first lady.

When it comes to her, I’ve done little more than watch her and, at times, emulate her style. I’m inspired by her and comforted by her presence because she is unbreakable proof that black women can be more things than the media portrays us as being. But I’m still trying to find the language, the lexicon, the rhetoric to describe this unicorn of a woman. Thankfully, there is plenty of time, and she’s giving us plenty of good material to think about.

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I’m just sayin’

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.