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As Mom-in-Chief, Michelle Subverts Stereotypes

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Michelle Obama's decision to focus on nurturing the first family disappointed some. But in this excerpt from her new book, Melissa V. Harris-Perry says she's making a healthy correction to an ugly national script about black women as mothers.



(WOMENSENEWS)--A long tradition of pathologizing black motherhood is the backdrop against which Michelle Obama announced that she planned to serve as mom-in-chief.

Many progressive feminists, who had hoped for a more aggressive policy agenda, were distressed with her assertion of motherhood as her primary role. Michelle Obama is a graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Law School who has 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 her husband's early forays into politics and even during his election to the U.S. Senate.

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While no one expected her to commute to a 9-to-5 job from the White House, many hoped that she would take on an independent political role in the Obama administration.

These people were disappointed when she chose to focus on supporting her daughters through their school transition and providing companionship to her husband as he governs. White feminists in particular saw this as Michelle conforming to restrictive gender norms.

I see it differently. Michelle Obama 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, she subverts a deep, powerful, and old public discourse on black women as bad mothers.

Enslaved black women had no control over their children. Their sons and daughters could be sold away without their consent and brutally disciplined without their protection. When a black woman claims public ownership of her children, she helps rewrite this ugly history. In the modern era, black mothers have been publicly shamed as crack mothers, welfare queens, and matriarchs of fatherless families.

Black single motherhood is blamed for social ills ranging from crime to drugs to urban disorder. Michelle Obama is an important corrective to this distorted view. She and her own mother, Grandma Robinson, are kind, devoted, loving, and firm parents who challenge the negative images of black motherhood that dominate the public discourse.

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