Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Black Camelot?

"My mother was a very powerful woman. This was so in a time when that word-combination of woman and powerful was almost unexpressable in the white american common tongue, except or unless it was accompanied by some aberrant explaining adjective like blind, or hunchback, or crazy, or Black. therefore when I was growing up, powerful woman equaled something else quite different from ordinary woman, from simply "woman." It certainly did not, on the other hand, equal "man." What then? What was the third designation?" - Audre Lorde in Zami: A New Spelling of My Name.

"Usually, I love the dynamics of a cheeky woman puncturing the ego of a cocky guy.

I liked it in '40s movies, and I liked it with Katie Couric and Bryant Gumbel, and Cybill Shepherd and Bruce Willis in "Moonlighting."

So why don't I like it with Michelle and Barack?" - Maureen Dowd in her column (click the #1 search item for full text w/o registration).

Because she's black, Maureen. And a woman.

Now, I realize I'm laying down a bold claim. I don't know what Dowd thinks about Hillary or what she thought of Mrs. Heinz-Kerry, but I do see something unsettling in her critique of Michelle Obama's treatment of her husband. In the article, she discusses Michelle's tendency to humanize Obama through (what I would consider) teasing. I understand Dowd's critique that this humanization starts from an understanding that he is more than that: a superhero only dressed like one of us. But let's face it, famous politicians are more than their bodies. Bush, Cheney, Clinton, Obama, Pelosi, Kennedy, and Guliani all stand for something bigger than their life experiences. It's a longstanding trend and one that is worthy of a brief historical analysis.

Black (male) leaders have always been seen as more than human since most of our community bought into (even after bondage, we had agency) a system of patriarchy that states that as the norm anyway. From Douglass to DuBois to King, these figures have benefited from a system of patriarchy that historicizes them as demigods while their female counterparts (Sojourner Truth, Ann Plato, Lucy Delaney, Mary McLeod Bethune, Irene Morgan, and Claudette Covin to name a few) remain unwritten or passively written in history books. It is also a system that demands the oppression of these men as non-white members of a hierarchical oppressive system.

Michelle Obama does not “emasculate” Barack as she jokingly reveals his flaws, she liberates him from an imposed hypermasculine and distant identity forced upon other men, especially men of color. While I do not think this a necessary duty of a significant other, I do see it as teamwork on the part of the Obamas. This seems to be a system that has worked well throughout their marriage, and I am glad that the campaign trail will not force either of them into foreign and constrictive gender roles.

Dowd, for whatever reason, sees Michelle in light of Barack. It could be the trappings of the potential first lady position or it could be perpetuated by racial or gender bias. I think all factors are to blame since this piece might also fall into a similar framework. Let’s try to change that. What does Michelle have to say about this? In a USA TODAY article, she does not directly address Dowd’s critique when asked about it she simply said that Dowd “doesn’t understand.” In other comments though, it really seems like she is sincerely trying to get America to judge Obama as a person rather than a deity. Looking at Camille’s piece a few posts back, it might be a good idea. She says:

It’s important at this time for people to feel like they own this process and that they don’t turn it over to the next messiah, who’s going to fix it all, you know? And then we’re surprised when people turn out not to be who we’ve envisioned them to be. There is a specialness to him [but] if he’s doing his job, he’s going to say things you don’t agree with.

Responding to John F. Kennedy’s pristine Camelot model, Michelle is deliberate in her stance:

“Camelot to me doesn’t work. It was a fairy tale that turned out not to be completely true because no one can live up to that. And I don’t want to live like that.”

I think that last line is critical. Michelle sees this period before the primaries and possibly general election as real life. Not time where events, people, and personalities can be suspended for the public eye. She knows a Messianic politician is very close to, if not already, an oxymoron and is using her agency to anticipate the inevitable Obama deflation by emphasizing the positive but not lying or hiding the negative, even if it’s unseen to everyone but her.

Michelle Obama does not seem to believe in these safe spaces we bring up on TNS. Or rather, she believes in a safe yet public space for her own career and her own life instead of a private one where potential problems with Barack would fester. It seems to be a matter of possession. She knows he could be ours (if only representatively) and wants us to see things from her perspective to facilitate an easy and honest process of electing the best person for the job. It might just be me, but I find that admirable.

As for Ms. Dowd, I don't think she knows what to do with a strong black female who will not simply sit and smile but instead will be her own person free and willing to examine her husband's behavior, politics, and his public reception when she thinks it’s appropriate. I don't think Michelle should remove herself to the business side of Barack's campaign, as Dowd suggests. After all, Michelle’s speeches on the campaign just might be implicitly critiquing those oppressive systems that relegate her to that third unnamed designation far from recognition or understanding. Neither a mammy nor a jezebel, Michelle Obama is free from the usual expectations for black women. Equipped with a high profile career and an educated black man, Michelle Obama is writing her own history.


Anonymous said...

"equipped with... an educated black man."
let's take a closer look at this sentence!

Camille said...

2 things:

1) I was actually just ruminating on a post about Michelle Obama. Until I actually write it, I'll piggyback on this post. In a 60 Minutes interview with both Obamas, the interviewer asked wasn't she afraid of him getting assassinated. She shot back, "As a black man, he could get shot at a gas station." How often does Laura Bush hold her own like that? (ha!)

2) Josh, I wanna second Naima's comment. Can you just clarify that little bit, cause I was following you completely up until there. I just don't want to see her being defined in terms of her husband. "Equipped" could mean a) that she's enabled only by having him as a husband/defining feature, or b) that he's a convenient tool (for lack of a better word) for her own self-definition.

I'd like to think that their being such a power-couple means that they each serve as balances for the other and strengthen the other's individual character--a character that would exist without the other but maybe is made more vivid or deeper through the encouragement of the other. In this way he could be her "equipment" to fortify an already strong character. I want to see her given the space as a potential First Lady (a terrible term) to develop her own agenda, a radical thing for any woman to have.

Joshua said...

The last two sentences are about perception, and I think that's why they're tricky. I use equip and define it as "to furnish with intellectual or emotional resources." I still think Michelle is very much active in the sentence and not suddenly objectified by the word. My sentiment definitely lies with this sentence from Camille:

"In this way he could be her "equipment" to fortify an already strong character."

Though I'd probably replace equipment with resource.

I think it's important to witness how Michelle might be perceived as a black woman that "has" those two things: a great career and a seemingly fulfilling relationship with an educated black man. I think that's a part of why she is receiving a backlash (even if people won't call it that) and I did not want to ignore that. How often do we see a public black woman that isn't a jezebel figure (New York from VH1) or a mammy figure (arguably, Oprah)? No amount of spin can turn Michelle Obama into either.

While I get how the term could seem problematic, I think the problem arises when one does not view Barack as similarly equipped with a resource in his relationship with Michelle. I think that is the case with Ms. Dowd.

Camille said...

got it.

"I think the problem arises when one does not view Barack as similarly equipped with a resource in his relationship with Michelle."

For real. Not that I like Hillary Clinton, but I always did appreciate that she had her own agenda as First Lady beyond choosing the tea and cookies for her hubbie's manly get-togethers. But because of that she's always been seen as a liability for her husband. Seems like Michelle Obama's taking it one step further--it's barely campaign season, and she's not even pretending she's gonna be content to sit around on her husband's elbow for four years.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this thoughtful commentary! I linked to your post in today's newsfeed.

Andrew said...

Love this post...

Naima said...

revisiting this post after some months and after obama's win in iowa!

i love the paragraph about patriarchy in black leadership and the position black men inhabit where they do participate in gendered hegemony while experiencing serious oppression. really fantastic paragraph. also, meaningful point about "messianic politicians" being an oxymoron. important reminder of how change must also happen with organizing beyond the realm of electoral politics.

still not crazy about the "equipped" but just wanted to say this is a great post and thanks for it.

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