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The Meaning of Michelle

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My response to the tornado of events precipitated by the Donald Trump administration has been one of occasional action and full-fledged nostalgia.

On the morning of inauguration day, I changed my Facebook cover photo to a picture of my friend Allison and me on a crowded, neon-lit Michigan Avenue the night Barack Obama was elected. We were wearing Yes We Can Change shirts featuring a tight-lipped, determined Barack Obama, and we held each other with glowing, teethy smiles.

I re-watched YouTube videos of Barack Obama casually chuckling at the potential reality of Donald Trump becoming president, when asked on CBSN one year ago. I indulged in a second viewing of President Obama roasting Donald Trump at a White House Correspondents’ Dinner. I pinned images of Michelle in glamorous, curve-hugging, shoulder-draping gowns at state dinners. 

Then I called and tweeted some congress people, donated some money to the ACLU, patted myself on the back, and visited Amazon to order The Meaning of Michelle, a series of personal essays about Michelle Obama’s legacy.

The first essay I read was “She Loves Herself When She Is Laughing: Michelle Obama, Taking Down a Stereotype and Co-Creating a Presidency,” by Rebecca Carroll. Having just finished Their Eyes Were Watching God with my American Lit class, I was curious about the comparison Carroll makes between Obama and Zora Neale Hurston.

Carroll writes that Michelle is the “embodiment of what black American writer Zora Neale Hurston meant when she wrote: ‘I love myself when I am laughing, and then again when I am looking mean and impressive.’” I think what she means is that both Michelle and Zora are/were both resolutely themselves in the public eye, which, as Carroll writes, was “no small thing for a Black woman in the 1930s, and sadly… no small thing for a Black woman in the 2000s either.” Carroll argues that Barack Obama, struggling to find his place as a biracial black man with an unconventional upbringing, was attracted to Michelle for the very reason that she was grounded in her blackness, and fully immersed in it. Carroll identifies with the former President’s longing for this grounding partner, growing up as a “Black adoptee in a white family.”

In “Lady O and King Bey,” Brittney Cooper writes of the “mutual girl crush that Michelle Obama and Beyoncé share.” Cooper points that Michelle, as First Lady, had an opportunity to reclaim something that black women are often denied:

“In a world in which Black women were always treated as women but never as ladies, a Black woman becoming the icon of American ladyhood is a triumph of the hopes and dreams of all those race ladies of old.”

Given the significance of Michelle Obama’s ladyhood, her public admiration of Beyoncé implies that she also lays claim to another version of black womanhood, one characterized by body confidence and sex appeal, and also a taking of pleasure in “flouting the rules of social propriety.”

For example, when Beyoncé performed “Formation” for the 2016 Super Bowl, critiquing “anti-Black state violence” and wearing costumes with a sartorial nod to the Black Panther Movement, Michelle told Gayle King in an interview, “’I care deeply about the Halftime Show. I hope Beyoncé likes what I have on’ [She] was dressed in a black blouse with black slacks.”

Super Bowl aside, I can imagine there have been many times Michelle may have wanted to channel Beyoncé in “flouting the rules of social propriety.” For example, when “Representative Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin remarked that Michelle Obama had a ‘big butt,’ and thus no business leading the Let’s Move! Campaign,” as Cooper writes. In explaining Michelle Obama’s need for Beyoncé, Cooper writes that

“sometimes ratchet is a more appropriate register in which to check your haters than respectability will ever be. But overtly ratchet Mrs. Obama simply cannot be. Beyoncé can be as ratchet as she wants to be though, and in this, I think the First Lady finds a place to let her hair down and put her middle fingers up.”

According to Cooper, the friendship between Michelle Obama and Beyoncé is both remarkable and “regular as rain,” or rather, “reign.” Their friendship is a testament to the fact that:

“The U.S. is no nation for Black women. It is too limited a container for the magic we bring. And because the American national imaginary is built on the most limited and stingy ideas about who Black women get to be, when we are called to navigate the terrain of racial representation as public figures, many sisters return to the most basic truth we have – we need each other to survive.”

In “Becoming the Wife,” Cathi Hanauer identifies with Michelle’s willingness to set aside a prestigious career to become “Mom-in-Chief.” When Hanauer met her husband, she was an established writer looking to do “something more meaningful” by applying to an MFA program. Her would-be husband was a struggling writer working odd jobs as a ski instructor and a janitor. He eventually became the editor of The New York Times’s Modern Love column, a wild success, as Hanauer gradually increased her role as primary parent and homemaker.

In Michelle Obama’s case, as is widely known, she was Barack Obama’s mentor before she became his helpmate. After she married Obama in 1992, they lived “separate professional lives”… up to a point. As Hanauer writes,

“What did change, work-wise, for Michelle – as it did for me, and as it does for so many college-educated women, particularly once children are involved – is that we both reached a point in our lives and marriages when we agreed to become… The Wife – as our husbands took on the more important and lucrative work role. We did this for the greater good of our marriages, our families, and in Michelle’s case, the world; and maybe even, as mothers, for ourselves. Michelle became Mrs. President. And I became Mrs. Modern Love.”

There’s something refreshingly real about the way that Hanauer frames the choice to become the wife, the helpmate once children enter the picture – that it’s a choice borne out of practicality, human limitations, a humility in not demanding oneself to be everything to everybody. This willingness to inhabit a prescribed role, and a traditional, non-glamorous one at that, seems like a matter of maturing for the younger versions of Michelle and Cathi, embarking solo on their careers with Plans – at once laser-sharp and limitless.

When I mentioned this essay to my husband, he said that the notion of success, in his view, has evolved from sacrifice to achievement. We used to judge women, and to an extent, men, by how much they had sacrificed for others, whereas we judge them now by their individual solo accomplishments. I think one of the reasons Michelle Obama is so popular is precisely owing to the amount and quality of her sacrifice, for her children, for her husband, for her willingness to make her motherhood and wifehood public, assuming a role that seems both demanding and tedious. This feeling of admiration and gratitude doesn’t confer as easily onto Barack Obama, as his public sacrifices seem tied up with his personal ambitions.

And then, in spite of our admiration, there’s a collective instinct to see Michelle pursue her ambitions, full-force. Ironically, perhaps, this is how Hanauer ends her laudatory essay on becoming the wife:

“I can’t wait to see what she does next. And what she does after that, when her children are grown and she can focus with far fewer distractions on her career. She has said she’ll never run for president herself. To that, I say: Never say never, Michelle. Let’s just see where we all are a decade from now.”

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