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.

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Repudiating the Mammy Role

Michelle Obama's insistence on focusing on her children is also a sound repudiation of the Mammy role. Mammy is a symbol of black women as competent, strong, and sassy, yet she is beloved among white people because she uses all of her skills and talents to serve white domestic interests.

Mammy makes sure that white children are well fed, that white women are protected from the difficulties of household labor, and that white men have a safe and comfortable home to return to at the end of the day. She ensures order in the white world by ignoring her own family and community.

Her devotion and attention are for others, not for herself or her family.

Calling on Michelle Obama to take a more active policy role while her children are still young is in a way requesting that she use her role as First Lady to serve as the national Mammy.

Michelle refused.

Instead of assuming that the broader public sphere was necessarily more important than the needs of her own children, she made a choice that has been denied to generations of black women.

There is a danger in this strategy. Michelle Obama's traditionalist public persona could be used as a 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 Michelle Obama's choice, a choice fostered by a unique circumstance of privilege, to reassert that black women who labor for pay outside the home are inadequate parents.

Given the pervasive myths of black women as bad mothers, this narrative could easily be deployed to undercut support for public policies focused on creation of a just and equal political and economic structure and to focus instead on "marriage" and "family values" as solutions to structural barriers facing black communities.

At the same time, these conservative discourses have never needed any particular excuse to exist.

Michelle Obama's framing herself as mom-in-chief does not make her complicit in the demonization of black mothers that began long before she became First Lady. Her decision does, however, deliver a blow to the Mammy image that many might have preferred that she embody.


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From the book "Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America," by Melissa V. Harris-Perry. Excerpted by arrangement with Yale University Press. Copyright 2011.

Melissa V. Harris-Perry is professor of political and founding director of a project on Race, Gender and Politics in the South, Newcomb College Institute, Tulane University. She is a contributor at MSNBC, a columnist for The Nation and author of "Barbershops, Bibles, and BET; Everyday Talk and Black Political Thought."

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