In 1985, Deborah Gray White published her now-classic little book, Ar’n’t I a Woman? This gem of historical research examines the archetypes by which slave women in the plantation South were confined–the brazen, sexualized Jezebel; the domineering, emasculating Sapphire; the dependable, selflessly neutered mammy; and the perpetually loveless, suicide-inclined, tragic mulatta. These tropes haunt black women still: from the adventures of Flavor Flav and Strom Thurmond to the depictions from Don Imus and the minstrelsy of Tyler Perry.
It’s not easy living on the receiving end of this unhappy iconicity. That’s why so many minority women are so smitten by the work that Michelle Obama performs, if at a purely symbolic level. She defies the boxes into which black (as well as many Latina, Asian and white) women have been caged; she expands the force field of feminism in ecumenical and unsettling ways. I appreciate that there are those who feel that Michelle Obama has been “mom-ified” by the media. But given the centuries during which black women have been relentlessly taxonomized as mammy rather than mom, many black and brown women find this phenomenon paradoxically, even sweetly transgressive.
In some ways it’s an echo of the cultural tension within the “women’s lib” movement of the 1960s and ’70s: relatively privileged white women wanted to be liberated into the workplace; relatively exhausted and exploited black women wanted to be liberated from it. It’s a tension that’s still recognizable to some degree, if only as parallel reactionary forces. If Hillary Clinton was dogged by accusations that she was too much the aggressive career woman, Michelle Obama is now besieged with criticism that she’s not nearly careerist enough.
I don’t wish to romanticize either the “pricelessness” of domesticity or the econometrics of the workplace. My point is this: what’s frequently missing from the discussion of black women is their role as loving mothers, beloved wives, valued partners, cherished daughters, cousins, relatives. Lord deliver us from the best of our few so-called role models: hard-working, hard-edged disciplinarians, the ultimate iron-willed church ladies. Where, for heaven’s sake, is a picture of black femininity (in particular, that of darker-skinned, nontragic femininity) that might signify beauty, chic, elegance, vulnerability, sophistication?