Race, gender, politics, religion and our struggles.
Funerals tell us more about the living than the dead. It's why anthropologists often begin with rituals of death as an entry point for understanding societies and cultures.
I remember watching the funeral of Princess Diana. It was a perfectly British event: the poignant, silent march of her children, the bells tolling at Westminster Abbey, the red coat pallbearers. But I remember being taken aback as the car carrying Diana's casket drove through the streets of London. I was surprised because at that moment the mourners began to applaud.
They'd stood for hours lining the streets and as the casket passed they needed to grieve collectively and publicly. Stiff-upper lip British culture does not have a mechanism for such public grieving. There is no piercing death wail, no garment rending, no ceremonial dance, so instead the British applauded. Those applause revealed the missing place in English life for public mourning.
The death and remembrance of Michael Jackson has been an interesting window into American culture, its relentless cable news cycle, and the overwhelming but false sense of intimacy our celebrity culture engenders. But for me it was the peek into African American culture that was most intriguing.
Within a week of Jackson's death I watched the avatars on my twitter feed turn from Iran-solidarity green to iconic photographs of Michael Jackson. But the photos were exclusively of "black" Michael Jackson: some from his childhood, some from the Off The Wall era, and many from the Thriller era. Few of my African American tweeps were visually remembering the Michael Jackson of the past decade with diminished features and whitened skin.
Memorializing Jackson included selective collective memory that allowed African Americans to see him as belonging especially, if not exclusively, to black folks.
Some African Americans were incensed by the misogynist, racially stereotypical B.E.T. Awards that gave the first public tribute to Jackson. Many have been critical of B.E.T as a network for more than a decade, and the tribute to Jackson renewed that those criticisms. The contrast of Michael Jackson with Soulja Boy felt particularly stark, regressive, and embarrassing.
Memorializing Michael Jackson renewed critical conversation about the direction of black music.
Jackson's passing inspired memorials that reflected local cultures, my favorite was the Second Line in New Orleans, but it was the massive funeral in Los Angeles on Tuesday that was most revealing. Michael Jackson was an international music icon and his memorial was covered on mainstream media, but it was black tradition most fully on display Tuesday.
African American death rituals have long been celebratory as well as mournful. As a marginal people whose collective identity is rooted in struggle, death is celebrated as a release from pain, inequality, and torment. As a deeply religious people, death is celebrated as an opportunity for reunion with God. As a people who were often denied dignity in life, the dignity of a proper homegoing is a critically important sign of respect. Along with these celebratory aspects of funerals, death rituals among African Americans are marked by loud, deep, displays of emotion and public grieving that mark the sense of loss experienced by the whole community.
All of these aspects of black life were on display Tuesday. And it tells us more about us than about Jackson himself. Jackson's radical surgical choices largely eliminated his black phenotype. Jackson's romantic choices did not include black women. His wealth and eccentricities set him apart from most black people. In the final years of his life his music was much more popular in European and Asian countries than among black American listeners. But in death black folks embraced Jackson.
Memorializing Jackson reminds me that death is still a segregated business in America. Funeral homes still anchor black neighborhoods and are a central path of black entrepreneurship. Though he may have transcended or "escaped" blackness in life, Jackson was rendered fully black in death. And that says much more about us than about him.
Father's Day is fast approaching and I have been thinking about President Obama's relationship to black fatherhood.
His loving engagement with his daughters is the very embodiment of idealized male parenting. Michelle Obama even encouraged us to link Barack's fatherhood to his capacity for political leadership. At the DNC convention she retold the story of Barack driving her and their first child home from the hospital- carefully navigating the difficult terrain of Chicago's snowy streets. Michelle encouraged us to see that he could similarly act as a father for the nation, safely steering our country through an uncertain future. It was an effective metaphor.
In his role as "good" father, Obama has been critical of "bad" fathers. During his campaign Barack Obama appalled some in the African American community during a guest sermon at a black church when harshly criticized absent black fathers. To some this criticism seemed liked a cheap and easy way for Obama to distance himself from black communities in order to gain white votes. His goal may have been racially strategic, but I suspect that Obama sincerely believes in the absolute centrality of black fathering.
So it is interesting that Obama's role as good and loving father allows us to ignore the simple fact that the first black president of the United States did not have a present and available black father. I suspect that had the elder Barack Obama remained married to Ann Dunham and present in the young Barack's life he would not now be the President of the United States. President Obama's particular life experiences, his challenges, his search for self-identity, and his exceptional achievements were possible, in part, because his father was absent. Obama largely documents this reality in his thoughtful autobiography, Dreams from My Father.
Had his father remained Barack would never have lived in Indonesia, his grandparents would have taken a less active role in his upbringing, he may even have grown up in his father's Kenya rather than in the United States where he made a home and political career. Had his father been present he might have had less adolescent angst, but then again that angst was part of what sent him into a world of books from which he emerged a formidable intellectual. Part of Barack Obama's greatness is his fatherlessness.
I don't mean to suggest that it is better, in general, not to have a father. President Obama is right when he points to the importance of loving, involved, financially responsible men in the lives of their children and their communities. I do want to suggest that President Obama lacks some imagination when it comes to analyzing the necessary ingredients for childhood success. That lack of imagination is odd given that the recipe is readily apparent in his own biography.
Barack Obama survived and even thrived even though his own father was absent because he had an intergenerational support network, access to quality education, and opportunities for travel and enrichment.
In America today black women are more likely than any other group to never marry, to divorce, or to be widowed young. We will mostly raise our children alone. Those of us who are parenting with little financial or emotional support from our children's father appreciate President Obama's insistence on greater male responsibility. Mothers deserve and desire support. But we have little choice but to proceed in child rearing even if that support is not forthcoming. We have daughters and sons to raise right now.
We live in an age when family is being remade in creative ways. Gay men and lesbians are fighting for the right to marry and raise their families with full civic equality. There are more interracial and bi-lingual households in our country. Financial necessity is bringing friends, neighbors, and extended family into single households. We have to do more than assert and embody a single, rigid ideal of parenting and family.
As we embrace new models of family we can also support children who are growing up in many different circumstances. President, Barack Obama can't make all fathers be responsible parents but he can help single mothers give our kids the opportunities he had.
In order for grandmothers and grandfathers to be able to provide important back-up coverage for working single moms they need to be able to retire at a reasonable age, have quality health care, and opportunities for dignified housing. We need the federal government to shore up social security, protect and extend Medicare, and make more affordable housing opportunities available for seniors. In order for all kids to have the chances young Barack had, we need quality public schools and enrichment programs that offer travel, language, and cultural exposure to poor and working class kids whose life opportunities are too often limited by parental income. In order for single mothers to provide adequately for their children they need affordable child care, gender equity in pay, and support for continuing education and job training. In order for the children of LGBT couples to have the secure family unit President Obama trumpets we need to have marriage equality.
We can assert the value of fathers and still create government and community structures that more fully support families of all kinds.
I believe the murder of George Tiller was an act of domestic terrorism whose aim was not only to assassinate a single man, but also to frighten a generation of doctors and to shame and terrify women and families who are making difficult choices. While the murderous rage of Tiller's assassin is not representative of the broader anti-choice movement, I believe that the anti-choice community operates with a totalitarian impulse that generates a culture of terror rather than a culture of life.
Hannah Arendt suggested that totalitarians generate terror in part by cultivating profound loneliness among their targets. Loneliness locks human beings in isolation and hampers discourse, connection, and shared experience. When we believe we are alone and misunderstood we cannot form the bonds necessary to organize and resist. There are few experiences more lonely and isolating than facing an unintended pregnancy or facing the need to terminate a desired pregnancy in order to protect maternal health. The anti-choice discourse labels the women and families who chose abortion "baby killers." It is a strategy that dehumanizes these women and the doctors who care for them.
The strategy is effective because abortion still carries tremendous social shame in addition to its personal psychological burden. Activists for reproductive rights have a hard time convincing women and families who have terminated to be part of a movement that protects the right to terminate. Many understandably prefer not to be publicly associated with the stigma and potential violence that comes with standing up for choice.
It also works because abortion, like all American healthcare, is profoundly shaped by structures of privilege and access. Wealthy women in urban areas with private insurance who have long term relationships with physicians have more access to privacy and to termination services than do other women. Poor women, teenagers, rural women, women suffering with domestic violence, and uninsured women are much more likely to have to risk some level of public scrutiny of their decision to seek an abortion. They cannot request a D&C from their private provider, they must seek out a clinic. Even during the dark years of back alley abortions when all women seeking abortion were at risk, it was the most vulnerable women who carried the heaviest burden of infection, illness, and death.
Because women of privilege can keep their termination choices private while vulnerable women are exposed to public shaming, it becomes easier to believe that only those "other" women and "bad" women choose abortion. Telling our stories is part of counteracting the terrorism that seeks to divide, shame, and even murder to impose its own worldview. Nurturing a sense of commonality and shared experience reduces the power of terror. Women need realistic understandings of how many women grapple with these choices and the different ways they come to make a decision. Such information is shockingly difficult to access. Often women must wade through disgusting, painful, and misleading "information" about abortion just to get basic medical advice. While there are political, judicial, and structural aspects to this issue, I want to also make an appeal for the power of our personal narratives to fight back against anti-choice terrorism.
Forty years ago my mother was part of the movement of individuals who helped desperate women find safe ways to terminate their pregnancies. This network provided safe houses, transportation, and follow-up support for women who had to cross state lines to obtain abortions. She was willing to risk her life and livelihood to protect women's reproductive choices.
Nearly twenty years ago my older sister was diagnosed with cancer during the second trimester of her pregnancy. Her religious commitments led her to refuse her doctor's advice to terminate. She risked her life to ensure that she would not have an abortion. She and my niece are both healthy.
When we were 14-year-old, high school freshmen my friend decided to have the baby of a boy she'd had sex with only once. It changed her life forever, but she graduated from school and made a life for herself and daughter. In my twenties I stood by dear friends who simply could not afford emotionally or financially to carry their pregnancies to term. Their decisions to seek abortions were difficult and painful, but they faced them courageously.
I'm a 35-year-old, educated, black, divorced mother. Like so many other women my age I have faced my own tough reproductive choices. I've had a child, an abortion, and hysterectomy. I love and respect women who have chosen many different paths. Their stories and my own are part of the reason that I am a committed supporter of reproductive rights.
The murder of George Tiller is personal to me. It is not just a matter of politics or policy. I am an aunt to three teenage girls and the mother to a daughter. It is critical to me that their health, safety, and choices are protected.
Tuesday was an emotional day for the left.
In the morning President Obama nominated Sonia Sotomayor to the United States Supreme Court. It was welcome news for those of us who'd hoped for a liberal, woman of color to fill the vacancy. After taking a battering on economic bailouts, torture, and don't-ask-don't tell, it was nice to feel as though President Obama was unapologetically siding with progressive interests.
As personal celebration I repeatedly played the classic track South Bronx by legendary hip-hop artist KRS-One at top volume in my office. It seemed like a generationally appropriate way to express my enthusiasm about a smart, self-made, progressive Puerto Rican woman judge being nominated to the court by a smart, self-made, centrist African American President.
My mood, and that of many on the left, became more somber in the afternoon when we learned that the California Supreme Court chose to uphold Proposition 8's ban on same-sex marriage. Hip-hop no longer felt like the right soundtrack for the day.
But it is possible that we have it all wrong. Maybe we ought to be celebrating the regressive decision by the California court and somberly receiving news of the Sotomayor nomination.
I spent seven years on the faculty of the University of Chicago and shared a hallway with Professor Gerald Rosenberg. His field defining text, The Hollow Hope, argues that the courts rarely bring about social change. Somewhat counter intuitively Rosenberg argues that Supreme Court decisions can work against progressive political interests because a major "win" can leave activists complacent while encouraging opponents to redouble their efforts. By this interpretation the courts are at best a blunt instrument of social change, and at worst they generate ideological and organizational backlash that can harm rather than help social movements.
There was clearly some evidence of this effect today. Some have argued that the massive popularity of candidate Obama in California during the general election lulled some marriage equality advocates into undue optimism that Proposition 8 would fail. Certainly no such complacency existed today. Marriage equality advocates took to the streets in cities and towns across the country. Activists are organized for state-by-state campaigns to topple unequal practices. Social networks and new media are buzzing with activity. In twenty years we may well remember this California decision as a key moment that turned the tide in public opinion and organizational capacity for same sex marriage rights.
Alternately, it is hard to predict the impact that Sotomayor will have on American judicial history. She is a left of center judge replacing a justice who was also reliably left of center. Though undoubtedly her Latina identity is meaningful and historic, it is also not deterministic of her judicial temperament or predictive of her future decisions. To assume otherwise is both foolish and racist.
And even if Sotomayor proves a doggedly progressive presence on the court, Rosenberg's thesis warns that the symbol of her nomination may serve as a rallying point for conservative interests. Sotomayor could be deployed as a kind of Supreme Court "boogie man" to reinvigorate the GOP's socially conservative base in anticipation of the 2010 midterm elections.
I think Sotomayor is the right choice for the Supreme Court and I believe that California's court made the wrong choice on marriage equality. But seven years of sharing a hall with Gerry has me convinced that history may tell a different story.
President Obama seems to be struggling about whether or not to make public a series of photographs depicting Americans engaged in torture.
The President is taking heat from all sides on this one. His initial position to release the photos was consistent with his insistence on government transparency and public accountability. He changed his mind after conferring with military leaders who worried that the inflammatory photos could compromise the safety of our troops still engaged abroad. This is a tough issue for me because I have a deep sense of the political power of photographs and have seen them used both for and against progressive causes.
Perhaps the most powerful torture photograph in our nation's history is the image of the lynched and brutalized Emmett Till. Till was a 14-year-old Chicago boy who went to Mississippi to visit family in the summer of 1955. There he was accused of whistling at a white woman. For that supposed infraction he was dragged from his family's home, brutally tortured, murdered, and discarded like trash. In many ways Till's story was more ordinary than exceptional, because black men, women, and children had been victimized and tortured by their fellow Americans for decades. Jim Crow's vicious, racial code was policed by vigilantes given carte blanche to impose the death penalty when they saw fit.
What made Till's murder unique was the decision to publish the photographs of his mangled body. Till's mother did something so courageous that it still inspires awe. She held an open casket funeral for her son and allowed Jet magazine to publish photographs of his brutalized body. There was controversy at the time about her decision, but, those photographs of the mutilated boy galvanized a nascent movement for equal rights and launched the contemporary Civil Rights Movement.
Till's example makes me want those torture photographs in print immediately. I believe they may have a deep power to force us to face the horror of what has been done by our country and in our names.
But I know something else about the political power of photographs.
As a reproductive rights advocate I have been a volunteer who "walked the gauntlet" with women seeking abortions in southern, women's health clinics. In the early 1990s, when I was in college, "pro-life" supporters would often stand within a few feet of clinics shouting ugly and hateful epithets at patients. Volunteers like me went with these women to hold their hands, and shield their faces as they navigated the protesters. Many of the protesters did more than shout. The also held huge, larger-than-life photographs of terminated pregnancies. The images were ghoulish, frightening, and unrepresentative of the vast majority of abortions, but they are not, strictly speaking, inaccurate. Certainly anti-choice advocates believed that their photographs of horror could and should immediately stop a practice that they defined as evil and torturous. While I can see their side, I found the protests unduly upsetting for women already facing painful, difficult, and deeply personal decisions.
The photographs may have been true, but I believed that revealing them did far more harm than good.
Thus I find myself in an unsatisfying gray area with respect to the current torture photos. I generally support President Obama's decision not to aggressively pursue prosecution of the government officials or lawyers implicated by the torture memos. I derive that position from a belief that truth and reconciliation is the best model for the U.S. to follow on this issue. I believe that revealing information and understanding what happened is the most important task we should engage in with relation to torture. I don't want Cheney in jail, but I want him to have to tell the truth -live- on TV- repeatedly. Consistent with that commitment, I believe we should release the photos and simply cope with the political, moral, and national pain that may follow.
On the other hand our sons and daughters are still overseas. We have not fulfilled the promise to bring them home. Until we do so we have to protect them as best we can from our places of relative privilege here in the United States. I strongly believe that no good is served if even one of our soldiers is abused in retribution for our failings or as a result of our moral self-righteousness.
Photographs of horror are powerful. That power should make us sober and careful in deciding how to use the images.
On Tuesday I spent the afternoon listening to Adrienne Davis of Washington University Law School engage in a smart and wide-ranging discussion of reparations. Professor Davis teaches contracts, legal theory, sex equality, law and literature, and slavery. Davis made a case for why truth and reconciliation commissions are sometimes insufficient for ensuring justice. There are times, Davis argued, when the state must make financial reparations for wrongs committed by the state. Although she does not favor direct cash payments to individuals, Davis did indicate that she believes there are ways that government can help support the work of anti-racist counterpublics.
It was an interesting seminar. Not all agreed with Davis, but all engaged the idea of reparations seriously and soberly. Then I got home and turned on the evening news. That was when I heard Rush Limbaugh invoking the term reparations with something much less serious or sober. It turns out Rush Limbaugh said of Obama's economic policy:
"This is the objective. The objective is unemployment. The objective is more food stamp benefits. The objective is more unemployment benefits. The objective is an expanding welfare state. And the objective is to take the nation's wealth and return to it to the nation's quote, "rightful owners." Think reparations. Think forced reparations here if you want to understand what actually is going on."
Clearly Limbaugh is attempting to use the politics of racial fear to appeal to the lowest common denominator of racial anxiety in this country. The terms "welfare" "food stamps" and "reparations" are all code words for "undeserving black people." Sadly Rush does not seem to understand that the politics of fear was soundly defeated in November. In the context of our deepening economic crisis Americans are embracing a politics of interconnection and shared struggle. We now understand, more than ever, that issues like reasonable nutrition for children, decent wages for workers, and affordable housing for families are not scary, racial bogeymen, they are the basis for a fair society. Everyone needs help these days. We will not be so easily and cynically divided.
I don't mean to suggest that there are no meaningful disagreements on policy, only that Americans with hard hit pocketbooks are seeking more solutions and less rhetoric. Rush and the shouting members of the GOP Right are ignoring this fact at their own peril.
Still, the term reparations here is interesting. Reparations are not solely, or even mostly, about race. Reparations are about giving back to those who have been wronged in order to make them whole again. American citizens as a whole have been wronged by the policies of the Bush Administration. Our sons and daughters were tricked into war. Our financial industry was deregulated. Our civil liberties were trampled. Enemies were tortured in our name. So yes, Americans, all Americans, are due reparations. We have been wronged by our government. When the government helps to right those wrongs by reinforcing the social safety net it is a kind of reparation, the best kind.
Finally, The idea that Barack Obama supports racial reparations is laughable! He was nailed on this question as far back as the 2004 Senate race when Alan Keyes supported slavery reparations and Obama didn't. I swear this happened: Alan Keyes pointed out that he supported reparations and that Obama would not be eligible for any because he had a white mama and African father. It was one of the funniest and most memorable moment of the Illinois senate race because Alan Keyes used reparations to claim he was more racially authentic than Obama. I'd love to see Rush call Alan on the carpet. That is a show I would tune it to hear! Indeed Obama has taken serious criticism from many African American progressives because he would not send a US official representative to the UN Conference on Racism in part because the conference included a plank supporting reparations.
So clearly Rush was not saying anything that is even vaguely, substantively true. He is simply screaming, "there is a black man in the White House! Be afraid!" But we are not afraid.
Besides, as Adrienne Davis said today, "I have no idea what to do with 40 acres and a mule." But I'm sure we all have ideas how to spend its 2009 cash equivalent to improve life in poor communities throughout the United States.
Editor's Note: Melissa Harris-Perry wrote the following appreciation of Elizabeth Edwards in May 2009. We resurface it on the occasion of Edwards's death.
I admit it. I was a John Edwards supporter.
Having attended college and graduate school in North Carolina, the Tarheel state offered opportunities for my first involvement in political campaigns. In 1998 I posted fliers and stuffed envelopes for Edwards's Senate campaign.
Early in 2006 I believed that Edwards had a real opportunity to win the Democratic presidential nomination. I suspected Obama had an insufficient ground organization to effectively challenge Clinton. (Hilarious in hindsight, I know.) I also suspected that Hillary was too polarizing and off-message to win. (I was a little closer on that prediction.) Edwards was my early pick, in part because he is a charming, white Southerner and whenever the Democrats had managed to win in the modern era it was with this kind of candidate: think Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.
In assessing his electability I counted Elizabeth Edwards among John's greatest political assets. Elizabeth is smart, tough and unafraid of political engagement. And her personal biography made John much more likeable. Elizabeth was the mother who supported her husband's turn to politics after the tragic death of her son. Elizabeth was the woman who chose, in the face of this tragedy, to have more children much later than she had planned. To do this Elizabeth endured fertility treatments and the side effects that accompany them. Then Elizabeth was diagnosed with breast cancer. Hers is a compelling narrative shared, in parts, by many contemporary women. Hers is a story that resonates with women across partisan differences.
And John loved her.
Yes, he indulged in expensive haircuts. Yes, he seemed a little too slick and too sappy at the same time. Yes, his message was a bit one-note. But he loved a smart, funny, intense woman who gained weight and lost her breasts. John's love and admiration for Elizabeth was among his most interesting personality traits. So campaign funds misappropriation aside, when John Edwards's affair was revealed it was more than a routine ethical breach. It wiped away one of the things that had anchored him as a compelling public figure.
It was for these reasons that I followed Elizabeth Edwards's return to public life last week. She was vilified by some and pitied by others. But more than the personal details of her estrangement, Elizabeth Edwards represents a broader problem of the role of women in American politics. I get the sense that Elizabeth is as angry about being cheated politically as much as being cheated on personally.
Elizabeth Edwards was relying on John to make a space for her political work, a way for her ability to impact policy and a forum for her to use her political voice. When John was silenced she was too. She is trying to reclaim her voice and space in public life.
Far too many women still find that the path to political prominence and influence relies on their intimate relationships with men. Many educated, aggressive, public-minded women have found their way to political influence by being the daughter or wife of a powerful man. This remains true even in this moment of seeming unprecedented political achievement by women. Nancy Pelosi is the first female Speaker of the House, but she is also the daughter of a powerful Democratic mayor. Hillary Rodham Clinton put 18 million cracks in the political glass ceiling, but her political career rests firmly on the shoulders of her past-president husband. Even Caroline Kennedy's new political relevance this election cycle was firmly rooted in the biographies of her family's men.
I don't mean to diminish the qualifications or capacity of these women. Quite the opposite; I believe the real tragedy is that many women who are deeply capable and superb potential leaders end up withering in the shadow of men rather than making independent contributions.
When political women rely on political men they are vulnerable to men's choices, particularly their personal and sexual choices. For years I was thinking of Elizabeth as a political resource for her husband, all the time forgetting she was a political resource for the nation. The point was not how Elizabeth helped John get elected, but why it wasn't Elizabeth all along running for office herself.
I am tired of seeing women's political achievement as an adjunct to that of the men in their lives. One of the critical tasks we face as a nation is unclogging the political pipeline to allow women's talent to flow more freely. That commitment is why I am proud to be associated with the Center for American Women and Politics here in New Jersey, which is actively working to prepare women to run for political office.
For Mother's Day I think I'll make a donation to EMILY's list… in Elizabeth Edwards name.
With Mother's Day approaching I want to think about Michelle Obama's assertion that her primary role as First Lady is "Mom-in-Chief."
Many progressive feminists were distressed with Michelle's assertion of motherhood as her primary role. They hoped she would seek a more aggressive policy agenda. After all Michelle Obama is a graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Law School. She spent her career as an effective advocate for urban communities in their fraught relationship with powerful institutions. She is smart, capable, and independent. She maintained her own career and ambitions throughout Barack's early political career and even during his election to the U.S. Senate.
Truth is, some of us who were in the orbit of the Obamas ten years ago believed Michelle, not Barack, was the real star of the couple. So while I don't think anyone expected her to commute to a 9-to-5 job in D.C; many hoped that she would take on an independent political role in the Obama administration.
Instead, Michelle has crafted a more traditional role for herself. She is highly visible, but she has taken on relatively safe issues like childhood literacy, advocacy for women and girls, and support of military families. Even her White House garden is framed more as an initiative for healthy eating and quality family meals than as a statement of commitment to local foods as an effort against global climate change.
Early in the primaries Michelle's gentle teasing of her "rock star" husband made him seem more human and led many to believe that the Obamas would be models for gender equity in the White House. While the mutual respect between the couple remains evident, these days Michelle is more frequently photographed with her head on Barack's shoulder, grasping his hand at public events, or evading reporters by stealing brief, romantic walks on the White House grounds. The outspoken Michelle Obama that made many bristle with anxiety during the campaign has been replaced by a woman who makes us collectively say, "aaaaahhhhh" when we see her with her husband, children, and even her new dog.
Over the past several months I have received many press inquiries from reporters and scholars who are anxious about the ascendance of this kinder, gentler Michelle Obama. They worry that Michelle is being manufactured and handled in a way that thwarts her authenticity and undermines the efforts of feminist movements committed to the notion that women can and should have both family and career.
This is a potentially fair criticism, but I want to complicate this easy narrative a bit by encouraging us to remember that as an African American woman the stereotypes against which Michelle is struggling are distinct from those that seek to limit and inhibit white women.
White, middle-class, gender norms in the United States have generally asserted that women belong in the domestic sphere. These norms have limited white women's opportunities for education and employment. But the story has been different for women of color and women from poor and working class origins. These women have faced the requirement of employment and the shouldered the extreme burden of attempting to effectively parent while providing financially for their families. Black women were full participants in agricultural labor during slavery, the backbreaking work of sharecropping, and the domestic services of Jim Crow. Even middle class and elite black women have typically worked as teachers, journalists, entrepreneurs, and professionals. At every level of household income and at every point in American history, black women have been much more likely to engage in paid labor than their white counterparts. Even Claire Huxtable worked full time!
So when Michelle Obama makes a choice to focus on supporting her daughters through their school transition and providing companionship to her husband as he governs she is not really conforming to norms. She is surprisingly thwarting expectations of black women's role in the family and representing a different image of black women than we are used to encountering in this country.
As mom-in-chief Michelle Obama also subverts a deep, powerful, and old public discourse on black women as bad mothers. Enslaved black women had no control over their own children. Their sons and daughters could be sold away from them without their consent, or brutally disciplined without their protection. So when a black woman claims public ownership of her children she helps rewrite that ugly history.
In the modern era, black mothers have been publicly shamed as crack mothers, welfare queens, and matriarchs. Black single motherhood is blamed for all manner of social ills from crime to drugs to social disorder. And black mothers are often represented in popular culture and the public imagination as domineering household managers whose unfeminine insistence on control both emasculates their potential male partners and destroys their children's future opportunities. These public images of black motherhood encourage the state not to assist black mothers as women doing the best they can in tough circumstances, but instead to blame them as unrelenting cheats who unfairly demand assistance from the system.
Michelle Obama is an important corrective to this distorted view of black motherhood. She and her own mother, Grandma Robinson, are kind, devoted, loving, and firm black mothers who challenge the negative images that dominate the public discourse on black motherhood.
There is a potential danger here. Michelle Obama's public persona of traditionalism could be used as a discursive weapon against women who do not conform to this domestic ideal. The majority of black mothers are working women who struggle to raise their children without husbands and often without adequate financial support from partners or the state. It would be easy to use the Obamas to reassert that black women's salvation can be found in submission to patriarchy. This is a narrative that could undercut support for public policies focused on creation of a just and equal political and economic structure, by focusing us instead on"marriage" and "family values" as solutions to structural barriers facing black communities. But these conservative discourses have never needed any particular excuse to exist. They have been the dominant frame for discussions of racial inequality for nearly 40 years, long before Michelle Obama began to rewrite the script on black motherhood.
Therefore, despite that rhetorical dangers, I must admit to reveling in Michelle Obama as mom-in-chief. I am a divorced, single mother who adores my work, but I am moved to see a black woman in a loving, egalitarian marriage who finds herself enjoying the privilege of focusing on her children and serving her country. There is something powerful, subversive, and new in Michelle Obama's traditionalism.
On this Mother's Day I will celebrate my sisters, my aunts, my mother, and my friends who are mothers. Some of these women are white and some are black. Each woman was shaped by the powerful social, political, and economic forces that framed her life and her choices as a parent. I celebrate the creative ways they responded to those challenges and how their choices made possible the world I now encounter as a woman and mother. This year I will also celebrate Michelle Obama and the new world of possibilities that she creates by her dignified embrace of her role as "mom-in-chief."
It's the middle of the night after a very long day, so this will be a short entry. Exhaustion could keep me from weighing in briefly at this critical moment.
With tonight's announcement that Justice Souter is retiring from the Supreme Court, it has suddenly become clear what the enduring act of President's Obama's next 100 days will be: the nomination of his first Supreme Court justice.
Though nominated by a Republican, Souter is a reliable liberal justice, so there is little reason to believe that this nomination will alter the balance of power on the court. But President Obama can still make this nomination a game changer. He can tap Kimberle Crenshaw for the job.
Kimberle Crenshaw is a field-defining critical race scholar who earned a law degree from Harvard. Her writings on race, gender, and the power of law dynamically altered the academic discourse in law schools throughout the world. Her work has been central to political movements here in the United States and to the development of emerging democracies globally. She is a prolific legal scholar and a respected public intellectual.
There is no one on the current court with the expansive, progressive, clarity of legal reasoning that Crenshaw has demonstrated for more than twenty years. As a justice Crenshaw would have the potential to substantially revise our understanding of American constitutional law by articulating elements of the American experience that have never before been integrated into our constitutional interpretation. She would open up the unique possibility of black feminist scholarship and practice challenging American jurisprudence from the inside out.
I recognize that Crenshaw is an unlikely choice. But on Wednesday night during his "100 Days" press conference President Obama smiled as he remembered that he once trailed by 30 points in Iowa. He encouraged us to think of his own election as an example of our nation's willingness to embrace surprising new leaders at this moment of change and opportunity. I take him at his word. Time for Kimberle Crenshaw on the Supreme Court. Change indeed!
On Monday the New York Times reported that the percentage of black Americans who believe race relations in America are generally good has doubled since July. This statistic forces me to ask: why are African Americans feeling so good about our country in a time of economic crisis and international conflict?
It is not just the fact of a black president. Instead, with everyone analyzing the 100-day mark of Obama's administration, I think the answer lies in understanding this historic moment through a black cultural lens. I believe African Americans are feeling racially optimistic because they respect how our first Brother President is handling his business. Not all black people of course; there is a group clamoring for "accountability." But the polls are clear that most black people remain enthusiastic supporters of this president.
In January Obama kicked things off with the ultimate political party. African Americans stood with numb fingers and toes on the National Mall to watch a day we never thought would come. Obama had Mary J. Blige singing on the weekend, Aretha in her Sunday-going-to-meeting-hat celebrating on Tuesday morning, and Beyonce serenading on Tuesday night. It was an unrivaled R&B trifecta, challenging even the Essence festival.
But the best part of January 20th was that Barack and Michelle got out of the bulletproof, blac Cadillac and walked the streets...and no one shot at them. I know we are not allowed to say it, but one reason black people believe that race relations have improved in America is because Barack lived through the primaries, the election, the inauguration, and now through 100 days.
Not only has he survived it; this man has been busy. Obama immediately threw open the doors to the federal government creating the most transparent and internet searchable administration in our history. He quickly ordered the closure of Guantanamo. Both acts resonated with black Americans who have often been most brutally impacted by unfair criminal practices and covert, domestic, government surveillance. Obama signed the Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and imposed a cap on executive pay for banks receiving TARP funds. These policies of wage fairness were immediate signals of substantive change for black Americans who continue to experience enormous income and wealth disadvantage relative to whites.
Though he didn't say much about race himself; Obama's Attorney General, Eric Holder, took Black History Month as a chance to critique America as a nation of cowards on issues of race. It was a deft move of racial defiance by proxy. And when the NY Post implied Obama was a chimpanzee deserving of being shot for passage of the stimulus bill, President Obama brushed his shoulders off and kept it moving. African Americans respected the grace with which he handled these moments of national racial anxiety.
In 100 days Obama revived the legacy of Abraham Lincoln, a president whose legacy is built on black freedom. He effectively co-opted the Clintons, a task many thought was impossible. He shepherded through Congress the largest piece of legislation in American history. While he made some political mistakes and sometimes angered Progressives, he also managed to keep the banking industry from full collapse. In just over three months he restored the sciences, the arts, reproductive rights, environmental protections, and the rule of law. He began opening Cuba, dapped up Hugo Chavez, and held the first Passover in the White House. He hung out briefly in Canada, traveled to Europe, dropped by to see the troops in Iraq, and even swung south of the border for a summit. Even though he was changing the world he found time to play ball with his advisors, filled out an NCAA bracket, and had a beer at a Wizards game. This is what we call being on the grind but remembering to keep it real.
President Obama made a bit of a mess of the auto bailout and the torture memos. But just when Americans thought Obama might be weak he showed stunning strength,. First he fired the head of General Motors; something most people didn't even know an American president could do. Then he shot three pirates and rescued a sea captain, which established serious street cred for international conflict. Those are power moves and they showed his willingness to assert his authority when required.
So tight was Barack's game over the last three months that he has reduced the normally disciplined, spin masters of the GOP to a groping, unbalanced collection of naysayers. Desperate to counter Obama's racial cool factor, Republicans elected Michael Steele to guide the Party. Steele proposed a hip-hop agenda for attracting new voters, but with the rap strategy failing they turned to Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal. His idea was to rebut President Obama by reminding America of the GOP role in Hurricane Katrina. Not a good look. When none of this worked, the Republicans turned to FOX News manufactured rage, tea bagging, and secession. These actions made them look both vaguely pornographic and surprisingly desperate. At this point, Obama has so fully neutralized Republicans that even Arlen Specter is a Democrat. Watching the bi-partisan Obama handle his opponents so effectively is as surprising and enjoyable as watching Wayne Brady turn gangster on the Dave Chappelle Show.
It wasn't all policy and strength. To maintain and cultivate his Cliff Huxtable appeal, President Obama kept his campaign promise to his daughters and got the kids a dog.
Except for a few missteps including a terribly insensitive joke about the Special Olympics and a criminally stupid Air Force photo-op over lower Manhattan, it was a great 100 days. And did I mention, nobody shot at him? No wonder America feels like a more racially friendly place.