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.