Heroism: Michelle Obama and Other Black Women Facing Racism

The widespread character of white racism in this country often makes it difficult to envision a hopeful future. But the courage of African American women like Michelle Obama is striking and does provide a reason to hope about a better US future.

Sadly, there are continuing attacks on her of various kinds today in this country. There is a conservative white racism and racial ignorance, seen in attacks such as those of Fox news on her “patriotism,” and a liberal white racism and racial ignorance, seen in some liberal media and blog posts. The May posting (now removed) by a liberal writer at the dailykos website of a caricatured image of white-robbed Klan members whipping, branding, and likely lynching a black woman whose apparently photoshopped head is that of Michelle Obama appears to fall into that latter category. (I will not post that image, which reminds one of celebrations of the early 1900s Klan-celebrating movie, Birth of a Nation, but you can find it here.) The dailykos writer attempts a critique of Republican attacks on the Obamas and Republican race baiting, but in the process of political commentary unreflectively uses (and may help normalize) an image of a black woman being tortured and killed by the world’s oldest terrorist organization, the Ku Klux Klan–and without any critical assessment of that long white history of white violence or of the many contemporary violent attacks against black women.

As Marc Lamont Hill put it, can anyone imagine a prominent political site or commentary portraying the bloody lynching of Nancy Reagan to make a political point? Chauncey DeVega (also see this analysis) has responded to this photo imagery and his comments are on target:

Ultimately, the image of Michelle Obama . . . is utterly “real.” Because it is “real” there is no possibility of irony. In its utter “realness” it speaks to an ugly reality. . . . I believe it is important to write Michelle’s name because it removes the protection and insulation offered by historical abstraction (read: black people were lynched; read: black women were lynched; see how this is different from writing Michelle Obama was lynched?). She is a human being, a real person being threatened with murder and violence. This threat, a threat through implication and historical allusion is no less hurtful, real, or shocking–notice I did not say surprising–than one made through active speech in the present.

Indeed, Michelle Obama is a real human being who is being unreflectively portrayed as a target of KKK violence.

Consider the great heroism that Michelle Obama has shown in this campaign to bring some sanity back to U.S. politics after a long era of decline. She and her husband have received death threats. It is time for the top political “leaders” of this nation to recognize this publicly and to take action against this real and threatened racist violence — and to recognize the degree of courage required just to hang in there day after day.

Clearly, such visual messages–however well-meaning the writer may have been–likely suggest visceral and hidden racial messages to readers of all ages across the Internet. Strikingly, most whites of all backgrounds have no clue just how often black women have historically faced such violence at the hands of whites—and still do.

Hundreds of thousands of enslaved black women were raped by white slavemasters during this country’s 240 years of extreme racialized slavery. After that, there was the near-slavery of legal segregation. Since the 1870s whites have lynched an estimated 6,000 black men, women, and children, not counting the legal lynchings of police and courts. And this bloody record is the tip of the iceberg. Recent research by one of my African American students, Ruth Thompson-Miller, has shown that a great many black women, including many still living, were targets of white male rape and other unpunished violence over long years of legal segregation. They and the men in their families were often targeted by whites for violence, and those numbers run into the millions.

Recall too that in speaking with a caller Fox’s Bill O’Reilly used this lynching language in trying to say he might give Michelle Obama, who said she could now be proud of her country, the benefit of the doubt:

I have a lot of sympathy for Michelle Obama, for Bill Clinton, for all of these people. . . . And I don’t want to go on a lynching party against Michelle Obama unless there’s evidence, hard facts, that say this is how the woman really feels. If that’s how she really feels — that America is a bad country or a flawed nation, whatever — then that’s legit.

A casual mention of lynching again! Also, I have news for racially illiterate media folks, the United States can be shown from much social science to be a racially flawed nation, starting with millions of violent attacks on black women, men, and children historically, and the continuing attacks on many African Americans in the present.

We also need to remember the courageous responses to this violence on the part of black women, men, and children. Historically and today, they have often stood up bravely against white violence, when no white leaders did, or now will, speak out against it.  We have quoted in a previous post from a Washington Post review by Glenda Gilmore of a Paula Giddings biography of heroic anti-lynching activist and black civil rights leader, Ida B. Wells-Barnett:

For speaking plainly about rape, sex and murder, Wells lost her home and her livelihood. For the rest of her life, she had to defend her reputation against both white and black people who called her a “negro adventuress” and “Notorious Courtesan.” A black newspaper editor suggested that the public should “muzzle” that “animal from Memphis,” and the New York Times dubbed her “a slanderous and dirty-minded mulatress.”

We still live in a country where the reality and meaning of historical and contemporary violence against black women and men, just because they were/are black, is not understood or critiqued by most white Americans.

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