NPR logo DNC Day 2: Will America Accept First Lady Michelle?

Conventional Wisdom

DNC Day 2: Will America Accept First Lady Michelle?

Conventional Wisdom

Author and Columbia University professor Farah Jasmine Griffin shares her thoughts on Michelle Obama's DNC address last night. She writes, in part, "It is Michelle's blackness that has deeply disturbed many Americans and much of the press, and it is that same blackness that has endeared her to many, but not all, black Americans." Read and respond.

Farah Griffin

By the time Michelle Obama — the woman who many hope will be America's next First Lady — took center stage, the Pepsi Stadium was electric with anticipation. We'd just watched a well-produced video, South Side Girl, documenting her "American" story.

It was followed by her brother's loving introduction. Watching her, resplendent in teal, perfectly made up and coifed, I wondered, "What will it take for Americans to love this woman?" Surrounded by tall placards with her name in bold white print, I thought "What will the pundits make of her performance?" I had no doubt she would be elegant, beautiful, intelligent and graceful. She always is. I wasn't concerned that she might slip up and speak a basic truth about our deeply flawed nation. She has learned her lesson and there are now handlers to assure that she makes no such slips.

It is Michelle's blackness that has deeply disturbed many Americans and much of the press, and it is that same blackness that has endeared her to many, but not all, black Americans. For those of us who share her race, gender and generation, the negative reaction she has inspired is stunning. As with Michelle, we are the daughters of hard working, even struggling, parents.

We are the daughters who were constantly told that we mustn't ever fit the stereotypes "they" have of us. We were raised to take advantage of the opportunities created for us by the Civil Rights Movement (and though rarely acknowledged, by the Feminist Movement as well). We grew up in black communities that were proud of us.

And, when we went off to predominantly white, elite colleges and universities it was with the reminder that we must do better than well, and that we dare not forget those we left behind. Why are black women like Michelle Obama, black women who have been educated alongside and worked with white Americans as equals, so unfamiliar to so many Americans?

Unlike Oprah, a billionaire media mogul who serves as a spiritual mother to millions of American women, Michelle is mother only to her own precious daughters. An accomplished professional, a devoted mother, sister, wife, daughter and friend, Michelle Obama is like countless other American women and yet many white Americans have found it impossible to see themselves or their aspirations in her.

Maybe it is because they cannot imagine her as First Lady. "Lady" is not a designation easily bestowed upon black women. In fact, it is an identity that we have had to fiercely fight for. In an effort to leave behind a legacy of forced labor and forced sex, formerly enslaved women valued ladylike behavior and instilled it in their daughters as if that alone would save the race.

However, in both legal and popular discourses, the privileges of ladyhood were reserved for white females. Many white Americans are comfortable with fictions of welfare and quota queens. Unfortunately a younger generation, encouraged by irresponsible artists and greedy corporate conglomerates, have also grown comfortable with "video hoes." But are Americans ready to bestow that designation — Lady, First Lady — on a black woman? And, at what price?

Last night, Michelle Obama was all that one would have expected of her. She was articulate and empathetic. She was patriotic and visionary. She stressed the importance of education without emphasizing her own educational pedigree. She was elegantly dressed, replete with portrait collar and flattering 3/4-length sleeves. Her hair was "appropriately" straight. She acknowledged her debt to past struggles for social justice, both those for racial equality and gender equality. She was magnanimous towards Hilary Clinton. She was not threatening or loud. She did not raise an eyebrow. She painted a vision of a glowing future led by her husband. And she gave Americans a picture of themselves as a people striving together toward a better tomorrow. She gave no specific policy points (Americans tend not to like that in their first ladies) nor did she acknowledge any ongoing racial tensions. She was soft and feminine.

By the end of her speech when she was joined on stage by her daughters and the stadium erupted in thunderous applause, my heart was full but my mind was still aflutter with questions:
Did she successfully do what the campaign wanted her to do? Will working class white Americans feel any closer to her and, by extension, to her husband? Will middle-class white professional women and stay-at home moms see themselves in her? Will self conscious (and a few self-hating) black Americans think she represented the race well?

I can almost say with certainty that elderly black women, the church and neighborhood mothers, were indeed proud. And the rest of us who have loved her from day one can only pray for her protection, her safety and her sanity on this mad journey.