Celebrating Black Women: Michelle Obama

One of the best analysts of U.S. racism ever in my view, Patricia J. Williams, has a great column in The Nation on Michelle Obama (Creative Commons License photo credit: AlexJohnson). (I wonder how many of us considered her one of the best reasons to vote for Barack Obama last November?) She begins with how Ms. Obama defies:

Michelle Obama

the boxes into which black (as well as many Latina, Asian and white) women have been caged; she expands the force field of feminism in ecumenical and unsettling ways. . . . given the centuries during which black women have been relentlessly taxonomized as mammy rather than mom, many black and brown women find this phenomenon paradoxically, even sweetly transgressive. In some ways it’s an echo of the cultural tension within the “women’s lib” movement of the 1960s and ’70s: relatively privileged white women wanted to be liberated into the workplace; relatively exhausted and exploited black women wanted to be liberated from it.

Patricia Hill Collins, currently American Sociological Association president, has critically assessed these traditional black female stereotypes in her writings, which have helped to develop the now strong black feminist thought tradition.

Williams, of course, is not trying to criticize either type of women’s situation (home or outside workplace) as such, but accenting that what is

frequently missing from the discussion of black women is their role as loving mothers, beloved wives, valued partners, cherished daughters, cousins, relatives. . . . Where, for heaven’s sake, is a picture of black femininity (in particular, that of darker-skinned, nontragic femininity) that might signify beauty, chic, elegance, vulnerability, sophistication? . . . And so Michelle Obama represents a more comprehensive identity for all women, but particularly for black women. . . . hers is a well-rounded life, one of multiple roles and layered humanity. She is powerful yet approachable, highly educated yet colloquial, bare-armed but modest, playful but consummately civilized.

And she has an international impact as well:

She projects a powerfully modern image to conservative constituencies around the globe, whether in the Muslim world; or in Israel, where ultra-Orthodox newspapers recently airbrushed out all the women from a photo of Netanyahu’s new cabinet; or in China, where male children are so fetishized that each year thousands of boys are kidnapped and sold.