The Michelle Obama Factor: The Media, Myths, and Black Women
By Mary Annaise Heglar
(Originally Published in Clutch Magazine; posted below with edits from the author)
In the past four years, you’ve probably learned a lot about black women. We are eternally single but we refuse to marry outside of our race. We are fat and proud, but we’re also considered the least attractive. And, even though our wild curly hair is not attractive, we are still obsessed with it—and boy, do we spend a lot on it!
As a black woman, I learned a lot about myself that I didn’t know. And I didn’t know it because it wasn’t true. I did know, however, that not a single one of these publications, websites, blogs, or think tanks had been at all concerned about black women four years ago. But suddenly they were about as fascinated with us as a puppy with a slab of bacon.
What changed though? Well, the answer is simple. While we have been here for centuries, we’d never been in the White House before. And the 2008 election gave us our first black president and first lady.
Michelle Obama’s presence in the White House is very different from Barack’s. His multiracial identity, while complicated, does not involve a history of kidnapping, rape, and forced servitude. Rather, it involves consensual intermarriage. Michelle, on the other hand, is the descendant of slaves. Her family history is one that America knows all too well and wants so desperately to forget. In his famous speech on race, “A More Perfect Union,” Barack tellingly drew on Michelle’s background—not his own.
As French writer, Bernard-Henri Lévy, said during the 2008 election, “Obama is, certainly, black. “But not black like Jesse Jackson; not black like Al Sharpton; not black like the blacks born in Alabama or in Tennessee and who, when they appear, bring out in Americans the memories of slavery, lynchings and the Ku Klux Klan — no; a black from Africa; a black descending not from a slave but from a Kenyan; a black who, consequently, has the incomparable merit of not reminding middle America of the shameful pages of its history.”
Michelle has no such merit. Yet, two generations ago, she would have been “The Help,” but now she is Jackie Kennedy. Her very being challenges every myth about black women—we are fat, ugly, angry, stupid, and (now) single. Michelle is slender, a health nut, poised, smart, and happily married.
The Washington Post was perhaps the least subtle of all the news outlets that were hot on black women’s trails. In the midst of their “Black Women in America” series, they released a statement on why they chose this topic. They mentioned Dick Cheney’s 2004 statement regarding AIDS and black women and the sheer mass of data mined from their own survey of black women. Really? Cheney’s well-echoed and anything-but-original statement didn’t spark interest until six years later? Also, their survey was conducted in 2011—when black women were already a hot media commodity.
In between those two factors, the Post stated the election of Barack Obama and the attention paid to Michelle Obama. They could have began and ended the list right there.
Michelle has undone centuries of terrible PR and outright lies. She single-handedly brought successful, well-rounded black women out of the shadows. No longer the invisible women, they now meet with the Queen of England and hula hoop on the White House lawn. She is the First Lady, the face of American womanhood to the rest of the world.
And this is different from Condoleezza Rice, who also broke glass ceilings within full view of the nation and the globe. Black people embrace Michelle, but they saw Condi as a race traitor. Further while Condi had authority, she was at least perceived to have been used as a token and a mask for the Republican Party and the Bush Administration. Michelle is the partner to the leader of the free world, much in the vein of 1990’s Hillary Clinton.
Unlike Hillary, though, Michelle’s time in the White House has been marked by an unprecedented show of disrespect—unparalleled by any other First Lady’s tenure. A Congressman mocked her “large posterior” to a constituent and a Washington, D.C. cop has threatened to shoot her on sight. Toy makers have even made replicas of her daughters that show anything but a resemblance. And she is still haunted by the shadow of the angry black woman every time she shows a spine or an opinion. The nation’s hostility toward black women is determined to die a slow death.
Michelle is a walking contradiction. And, since they cannot look away, the media launched a full-on investigation into black women’s lives. How could it be that they’d had this demographic wrong all along? Were black women more like Michelle, or more like Tami Roman?