Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Mrs. Obama's White House

Jolene Ivey's commentary on Michelle Obama's future life in the White House brought back images, discussions, and movies that captured the essence of the "Mammy" caricatures that managed to dominate the representation of Black women in the media. In her commentary, Ivey says, "From the time when Africans were dragged to these shores as slaves, one of the jobs that fell to these women who weren't working in the fields was caring for the children of their owners" and even after slavery, "it was common for black women to leave their own children at home to fend for themselves and go to work for low wages as domestics in the homes of well-off white families."

Ivey clearly brings to mind characters like "Mammy" in Gone with the Wind, "Aunt Jemina" on the Pancake box, "Lucrezia Borgia" in the film Mandingo, and "Annie Johnson" in Imitation of Life. I like to think how often these characters and other real women of color had to anticipate the mood of their employers/masters in order to keep the peace. Do you not recall that Mammy knew exactly what to say to keep people in the home happy? Sometimes she placated her owner's moods with food or kind words. Do you remember the sacrifices these women made and how they always helped things come together?
Michelle Obama is intelligent, progressive, caring, and nuturing. I would argue that Mammy, Aunt Jemina, Lucrezia Borgia, and Annie Johnson were too. These women created a tradition in the Black community of making a way out of no way. In many ways, Michelle Obama makes change happen out of no way too.

Ivey beams with excitment about Mrs. Obama's future life in the White House because it resonates with her own privileged background as a woman of color. Although Mrs. Obama's experience will be one of privilege, the fundamental drive to succeed that comes from within Mrs. Obama is something that she shares with her foremothers. Just as the Mammy, Mrs. Obama will have to nuture the wounds of others' children. She will have to anticipate potential problems and respond in a thought provoking manner. As much as Ivey appears giddy over the thought of Mrs. Obama's ability to be Black, educated, and at home with the children, the truth is that in so many ways the American public is her new baby. Although Barack will be the President, Mrs. Obama will become the First Lady, a role with its own set of spoken and unspoken responsibilities.

But I am more excited about Mrs. Obama's image in the White House defying the negative images of the Mammy caricatures. For once, we will witness healthy images of Black women. We will witness the truth of a Black Woman's ability to be loving, smart, sexy, fun, beautiful, strong, independent, beautiful, fashionable, honest, attentive, driven, and happy.
The Black woman's allegiance to her community has been expensive--overworked, underpaid, inconsiderate male counterparts, health concerns, media scrutiny, legal lynching of her children, and a scapegoat for both community and institutional problems.

Mrs. Obama is a refreshing outlook for the future.

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