We’ve never had a First Lady quite like Michelle Obama. How she’ll change the world’s image of African-American women—and the way we see ourselves.
NEWSWEEK: Allison Samuels
At a recent Sunday brunch after church, my “sista friends” and I sat on the patio of a Los Angeles restaurant gabbing about the election of Barack Obama. Sure, we were caught up in the history of the moment. Most of us never thought we’d see an African-American president. But as a group of six black women in our 30s and 40s, we were equally excited by who is coming along with Obama to the White House—his wife, Michelle, and their two young daughters. We all praised—OK, maybe even envied—Michelle’s double Ivy League pedigree, her style, her cool but friendly demeanor. And yet we’re all aware of how much we have riding on her. At 44, Michelle Obama will be the youngest First Lady since Jacqueline Kennedy. And many are expecting her to usher in a similarly glamorous era in Washington. (“Bamelot,” as some are already calling it.) But Michelle’s influence could go far beyond the superficial. When her husband raises his hand to take the oath of office, Michelle will become the world’s most visible African-American woman. The new First Lady will have the chance to knock down ugly stereotypes about black women and educate the world about American black culture more generally. But perhaps more important—even apart from what her husband can do—Michelle has the power to change the way African-Americans see ourselves, our lives and our possibilities.
It’s an amazing opportunity—and a huge responsibility. “I think she’s always going to be classy, because she knows she’s not just representing herself,” said my friend Gertrude Justin, 40, a nurse from Houston. “She knows she’s fighting stereotypes of black people that have been around for decades and that her every move will be watched. I’m sure she’s been just as insulted by the lack of true depictions of African-American women as any other black woman.” Michelle will be a daily reminder that we’re not all hotheaded, foaming-at-the-mouth drug addicts, always ready with a quick one-liner and a roll of the eyes.
Like many African-American women I know, Michelle has had a lot of practice at the delicate tap dance of getting along in the mainstream white world. During all those years in boardrooms and a topnotch law firm—not to mention the exclusive clubs of Princeton and Harvard Law School—she’s had to learn to blend in. Now she’ll have to go even further in convincing two very different constituencies—African-Americans and everyone else—that they can trust her as their First Lady. And she’ll have to do it all while remaining true to her authentic self.
Michelle has already shown she understands how universal her appeal must be. Early on in the primaries, after she was labeled too forward and too loud, Michelle demonstrated self-restraint and discipline by dialing back. She stopped making harmless jokes about Obama’s morning breath and other breaches of hygiene. Her remark about being “proud of my country” for the first time was another rare misstep. But she quickly learned to play the adoring and uncontroversial wife, talking up her husband on shows like “The View.”
She showed she could calibrate her remarks for predominantly black audiences too, opening up a bit more about what Obama’s election would mean for them—and what it would also mean for her, referring to herself as “the little black girl from the South Side of Chicago.” Yet when The New Yorker caricatured the Obamas in July doing a “terrorist fist bump” in the Oval Office, the image stung. It was Michelle who came across as the domineering one—the angry black woman. She toned it down and took to wearing pearls and reassuring J.Crew cardigans.
Will that softer side win out now that she’s headed to the East Wing? When I met Michelle earlier this year for an interview in Atlanta, I was taken by her warmth and eagerness to chat about everything—fashion designers she’d like to wear, her girls’ taste in clothes, even dogs. (On a follow-up phone call, she greeted me with “Hey, girlfriend,” like she was a long-lost sorority sister.) There was no pretense—no second-guessing her next word or move the way she seemed to do after the campaign became a mudfest.
I personally hope that she will let more of that true, colorful personality seep through. There are some good hints she might. Her daring election-night red-speckled dress, designed by Narciso Rodriguez, was hardly a cautious choice. It wasn’t altogether flattering, but it showed that Michelle is searching for her own style. Other clues come from her winning, if still demure, performance during the recent “60 Minutes” interview. Looking chic and relaxed—and genuinely affectionate with her husband—she poked fun at the president-elect’s professed affinity for doing the dishes and told him she wouldn’t accompany him on a walk on a cold Chicago day.
That easy warmth between the Obamas as a couple was another thing that my girlfriends and I fixated on at our brunch. Nearly 50 percent of all African-American women are single. And, “The Cosby Show” aside, there are still woefully few public examples of solid, stable black marriages. What can this handsome first couple do for the future of the black family, we wondered? “I want my son to see first-hand what two people can do when they work together and respect each other,” said Janese Sinclair, an executive assistant and 34-year-old single mother of a 12-year-old son. “His father and I divorced when he was 2—so he never had the chance to see the way a relationship works. Many of his friends have single moms too, so the Obamas are going to teach us that love and happiness is not just for others but us too. It’s easy to forget when you look at TV or movies.”
Making her young daughters, Malia and Sasha, her top priority is heartfelt, but it could also help Michelle broaden her appeal. Taking lessons from the Carters and the Clintons—Amy was 9 and Chelsea was 12 when their fathers took office—Michelle is creating a protective cordon around the girls. What parent can’t relate to wanting to shield young children from the glare of the national spotlight?
But Michelle’s declaration that she plans to be the “Mom in Chief” has already ignited a minor flare-up in the ongoing white mommy wars between stay-at-home mothers and working women. (Don’t all moms put their kids first, even if they’re working? Is such an accomplished woman going to be content with Mom in Chief?) Still, most African-American women I know are thrilled she’s in a position to make that choice. The average African-American family can’t survive without two incomes—the poverty level among black families hovers above 30 percent, according to 2006 U.S. Census figures. And for single moms, that can mean working two jobs, leaving precious little time with the children. Michelle has already survived the working-mom juggling act, getting her law degree and working in government and administration before leaving during Obama’s campaign.
I’m hoping the whole Mom in Chief role will leave plenty of room for Michelle to tackle significant, meaty issues even if she’s not clamoring for a West Wing office. That’s a tricky balancing act for any First Lady—think Hillary Clinton and health-care reform. Most follow the path of Laura Bush in choosing non controversial interests like literacy. So far, Michelle has listed popular causes—military families and the struggles of working parents—that are hard to find fault with. But she’ll have another dimension to worry about: if she focuses on the black community—helping urban schools, say—will her interests be viewed as too parochial? And while every First Lady—and plenty of professional women—walk the line between being confident and seeming like a bitch, African-American women are especially wary that being called “strong” is just another word for “angry.”
Appearance could be another minefield for Michelle. First Ladies are always scrutinized—how else did Hillary end up in those black pant-suits? Though Michelle has shown a penchant for sleek hair and form-fitting dresses, her style is still evolving and wide-ranging. She’s gone from $148 off-the-rack outfits to Dolce & Gabbana. When she showed up for her first tour of the White House wearing a striking red dress, she indicated she’s willing to be daring. But will she retreat if critics slam her for bad hair days or talk too intimately about her shape?
She has one advantage over many of her predecessors—she’s got the lean, tall build of an athlete. That could have serious implications far beyond the style pages. A self-proclaimed fitness junkie who works out every morning, Michelle could actually encourage women of color to take better care of themselves. African-American women face alarmingly high rates of high blood pressure and obesity. And like everyone else, we have plenty of excuses for being sedentary, including the always-present fear of messing up our carefully done hair. “I look at her and think, I have two kids and she has two kids,” said my friend Tamara Rhodes, a 37-year-old public-safety officer in Long Beach, Calif. “If she can find time in the day to do her thing to look good—why can’t I? She looks good and in a way that I can see myself looking—not a size zero—but really healthy.”
As my brunch friends and I continued talking about Michelle, our conversation wandered into one area we seldom discuss, even among our families and closest confidantes. Michelle is not only African-American, but brown. Real brown. In an era when beauty is often defined on television, in magazines and in movies as fair or white skin, long straight hair and keen features, Michelle looks nothing like the supermodels who rule the catwalks or the porcelain-faced actresses who hawk must-have cosmetics. Yet now she’s going to grace the March cover of Vogue magazine—the ultimate affirmation of beauty.
Who and what is beautiful has long been a source of pain, anger and frustration in the African-American community. In too many cases, beauty for black women (and even black men) has meant fair skin, “good hair” and dainty facial features. Over the years, African-American icons like Lena Horne, Dorothy Dandridge, Halle Berry and Beyoncé—while beautiful and talented—haven’t exactly represented the diversity of complexions and features of most black women in this country.
That limited scope has had a profound effect on the self-esteem of many African-American women, including me. “When I see Michelle Obama on the cover of magazines and on TV shows, I think, Wow, look at her and her brown skin,” said Charisse Hollands, a 30-year-old mail carrier from Inglewood, Calif., with flawless ebony skin. “And I don’t mean any disrespect to my sisters who aren’t dark brown, but gee, it’s nice to see a brown girl get some attention and be called beautiful by the world. That just doesn’t happen a lot, and our little girls need to see that—my little girl needs to see it.”
In Africa, skin-lightening creams are all the rage even though the chemical they contain, hydroquinone, has been shown to cause harm in high doses. Visit any beauty-supply shop in an American inner city and you’ll find an entire aisle dedicated to less-potent forms of these products. “It’s a truth that’s long been with us,” says comic and television host Whoopi Goldberg, who came to fame with a one-woman stage show featuring her longing for straight blond hair and blue eyes. “In society and in the black community, the lighter you are and the more European your features, the more you are desired. Now many of us want to deny that’s true or say it’s changed, but it hasn’t. The darker you are makes you less than ideal. Plain and simple. And that messes with your mind something awful.”
If you’re an actress, it can also keep you from appearing in a hip-hop video or getting the juiciest movie role. But it affects regular girls and women too. On a recent episode of the nationally syndicated “Tom Joyner Morning Show,” the host asked listeners if the president-elect’s choice of a wife and her look had in any way influenced their vote. The answer was a resounding yes, followed by comments like “She’s a regular sister,” and “I love the fact that she looks like the woman next door or like my cousin or niece.”
Michelle has accomplished so much even before moving into the White House. Imagine what she can do if she decides to tackle substantive problems—perhaps even just a single one she’s mused about, like helping the local Washington, D.C., community. Now that’s the kind of influence that could reach far beyond my friends at the brunch table.