Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Good Negress

I have been thinking about Michelle Obama lately, a lot. A whole lot actually.

Clearly, I am a fan as she is the face of my blog. She represents a world of what's possible for women, for women of color, for Black women and what's possible for me.

In the words of my president, Barack Obama, let me be clear; Michelle Obama wins with me. She wins all the time. I am biased, squarely in her corner and will come out swinging if I think that my beloved Michelle Obama is being maligned in anyway.

And yet it occurs to me that my beloved Michelle Obama is doing something EXTREMELY radical. Beyond radical. Inexplicably shocking, actually. Michelle Obama is not acting like the first Black First Lady of the United States of America.

It hit me like a ton of bricks. The wearing of the shorts should have been my first clue. But I was so busy defending her from the blogosphere haterade that I was temporarily blinded. I was tipped off when she wore shorts and a tank and a helmet to go biking with her children around Martha's Vineyard. But it came crashing home when I saw her at the late Senator Ted Kennedy's funeral. She wore a skirt, some heels, an organza blouse and a bolero jacket. In a sea of dark suits, she wore a big black bow.

When I was a child, my mother...hell, all my damn life, the women in my family, my mother, grandmother and aunt have hollered from the rooftops to the floor about how a woman should look when leaving the house. I am a source of shame for them. I am not always dressed in a power suit and sometimes I wear jeans on the airplane! One time in church, my mother looked at me and said "I am ashamed to be seen sitting next to you. You look like you fell out of a Goodwill bin!" Ah, the Goodwill bin, a favorite insult of my mother's. Her other favorite insult? "You dress like a White girl". You see, being well dressed was not just a hobby. Oh no. It was the first line of defense against racism and discrimination. Being accused of dressing like a White girl was an insult because White women could (and would) be seen looking any old which way, but we as Black women didn't have that luxury. White women could wear leggings and slouchy tops, but in mother's house there were never any slouchy clothes. We had to be twice as good, and apparently, twice as well dressed, to get half as far as a White woman. So, dressing well for my mother and for my family was not just about what looked nice, it was also about the fact that as Black women, we didn't have the luxury to be anything other than beyond reproach when it came to our clothes. I imagine that I am not the only Black woman who has been raised with some version of this story.

Michelle Obama has tossed that logic out on its ear. And I don't know how I feel about it. I keep thinking about Coretta Scott King. She always looked like a doll. There are pictures of her marching for freedom with her face beat, in her suit and pumps, gloves and pearls. Didn't they march all the way to Washington? She was NEVER seen without makeup, much less galavanting with her children. In fact, we never saw the children galavant either. And yet, Mrs. Obama runs around in shorts, sneakers, tank tops, helmets, rides bikes, goes hiking! What's next? Flying a kite?

And finally, she actually takes fashion risks! Dresses and cardigans. Full skirts and bows. She has to know that as a Black woman she can't make those kinds of choices. If a White first lady had shown up at a funeral in Moschino I dare say it would have either A. not been news worthy or B. been ALL the rage. Mrs. Obama has to know this, and yet, instead of having a closet full of navy, black and red suits, she has CARDIGANS!

There are times, even now, when I am going somewhere really fancy with a bunch of White people and I still hear my grandmother say, "You can't wear that around all those White people!" I still cave from time to time, because I don't want to give anyone a reason to talk about me or look down on me. And yet, here Michelle Obama is, seemingly free from that particular Black girl neurosis. And she is paying for it. There are those out there who talk as though she were an embarrassment to the White House and to America. There are those that claim that she should hire someone to help her with the protocol of what it is to be the First Lady. There are even those that claim that she shouldn't be allowed to ride in Air Force One. There are so many claims of unworthy and unfit that I am starting to lose track of all the insinuations.

There is a part of me that doesn't really know what to do with this fresh new Black American woman, who dresses herself without thinking about "What will all the White people say?". This is all very new to me. A Black woman who embraces her humanity instead of constantly defending and guarding it. Someone who is malleable and flexible and real, instead of fixed, rigid, perfect and beyond reproach. As much as I love Michelle, this is taking some adjustment. There is a small part of me that wants her to retreat into the land of Oscar De La Renta suits and pumps, never leaving the house unless she has on lipstick and a strand of pearls. Because anything less leaves her open and vulnerable to attack. But perhaps that is the whole point. Perhaps there is a unspeakable bravery in laying it all bare, her arms, her legs, her face. This is unchartered territory for the Black woman. And Michelle Obama is laying a new course for us all. I am following, but right now, I am shaking in my Christian Louboutin boots.

1 comment:

  1. Hey, Did you hear that Sarah Palin was offered one million dollars to pose nude for Playboy? Not to be outdone, National Geographic offered Michelle Obama two million to pose nude for their publication.