October 29, 2011

The First 'Black' Lady: Re-Constructing Black Womanhood

Michelle Obama
Vogue 2009
Photo by Annie Leibovitz
I often update my Facebook status with whatever random theoretical thoughts happen to come up.  Today I posted the following:

Ok, so this just occurred to me (I know. I'm late). For those of us who've been immersed in Gender and Race Studies in America, how deliciously ironic is it that the first lady is an unambiguous black woman?
Several posts later, one of the commenters asked:

What do you mean by unambiguous?

To which I responded:
Unambiguous-as-in-she-could-not-be mistaken-for-anyone-except-a-black-woman. She couldn't be biracial or Hispanic or Asian or Indian or anything else but African/Black/Negro/Colored.
Although he understood my meaning of the term "unambiguous," I had the feeling that the full meaning and implications of the post were lost on him.  And if the irony was lost on him (a pretty astute, well-educated, progressive-minded guy), then quite possibly the full significance of the post had been lost on many others.  The remainder of this blog post is my attempt to find what has been lost.  

In 2008, the entire world paused for a moment of deep reverence when America elected its first Black president.  The historical, cultural, and socio-political significance of that moment was apparent to the entire global world, even though many white Americans attempted to disavow the watershed event of America electing its first African American president - America - the same country who just 145 years ago defined Africans as subhuman accidents of evolution bound to the yoke of chattel slavery irrevocably.  No, this moment was not lost on anyone.

However, another watershed event simultaneously occurred when Barack Obama took the oath of the highest office in the land.  Michelle Obama became the "First Lady" of the United States of America.  

So, here is where I return to my Facebook post.  I said that it was "deliciously ironic that the first lady is an unambiguous black woman."  Here's the irony.  The office of the "First Lady" (and it is an office) was, of course, constructed and shaped over the years by powerful first ladies like Dolly Madison, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Jackie Kennedy.  If the President (the first man) epitomizes the power, masculinity, and patriarchy of an entire nation, then the first lady epitomizes the purity, femininity, and domesticity of that same nation.  We could debate some of the latter descriptors; however, the point is that the first lady is the paradigm of Western womanhood.  Historically (in spite of 1st, 2nd, and 3rd wave feminism), Western womanhood equals "white womanhood," and in 1966, Barbara Welter defined this "cult of true womanhood" as piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity.  Although Welter was defining white womanhood in the nineteenth century, her definition lingered well into the twentieth, and I would venture to say, the twenty first century.

Historically, black womanhood was the antithesis of white womanhood.  During and well after slavery, black women were defined as the binary opposites of white women.  Of course these definitions were not their own.  If white women were viewed as "naturally" pious, then black women were deemed "naturally" evil.  If white women were pure, black women were "jezebels."  If white women were submissive, black women were unpleasantly aggressive.  And if white women were "naturally" domestic, black women were "naturally" cut out for hard labor and toil.  Granted, there are contemporary progressives who will debunk all of this theorizing.  However, these racist stereotypes, although historical relics, have found their way into contemporary American society.  Just scratch the surface of any pop culture icon.

Michelle Obama
Vogue 2009
Photo by Annie Leibovitz
Enter Michelle Obama - a black woman - and now the paradigm of American womanhood.  And she has charmed the hearts and minds of Americans (white, black, and other).  She has turned the "cult of true womanhood" on its head.  More importantly, however, she has deconstructed pejorative images of black womanhood and re-constructed a new black woman for all the world to see and emulate.   

Unlike her husband, her poise, grace, intellect, and beauty cannot be accredited to any other race except African American.  Not that it isn't wonderful that President Obama is biracial.  In fact, I think it's absolutely fitting that the first African American president is half white and half African.  And I think it doubly fitting that the first African American First Lady is unambiguously black.  She has no cafĂ© au lait skin or European facial or body structure.  Mrs. Obama, for all intents and purposes, is a black woman - a little sugar - but no cream.  Indeed, this is deliciously ironic.  

October 15, 2011


As an individual, Rudyard Kipling was probably a real SOB.  He was an imperialist, a racist I'm sure, and author of the infamous, "White Man's Burden."  However, there is one poem, to which I will pay tribute here, that I think he got right.  It's beauty can not only be found in it's content, but it's form which represents the perseverance and tenacity about which it speaks.  Embarrassingly enough, I get choked up and verklempt each time I hear it read or read it myself.  I have lived my life by it for years and will continue to do so.  If you have never read it, enjoy.  If you have read it yet never liked it, read it with new eyes today.

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too:
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or, being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or being hated don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise;

If you can dream---and not make dreams your master;
If you can think---and not make thoughts your aim,
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same:.
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build'em up with worn-out tools;

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings,
And never breathe a word about your loss:
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: "Hold on!"

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings---nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much:
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And---which is more---you'll be a Man, my son!

Rudyard Kipling