(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.
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.
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.
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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