Sunday, September 14, 2008

The Paradox of Michelle Robinson Obama

Finally, my piece on Michelle Obama and her speech at the DNC last month.

I’ve had time to reconsider the intentions of Michelle Obama’s speech last month at the Convention. I have mixed feelings about the impact it made. Sure, I thought it was delivered perfectly, and that it did an excellent job of counteracting all of the negative perceptions that have plagued her since entering the Presidential spotlight. And I’m glad to know that people like her better than when they thought she was the second coming of Angela Davis.

Thanks to that speech, she can compete on solid ground against Cindy McCain in the Mrs. All-American Sweetheart Pageant that candidate wives endure between Labor Day and Election Day. Her off-the-rack clothes and working-class bona fides should convince anyone who wondered otherwise that Michelle is just another girl-next-door who made good (like Laura Bush or Tipper Gore). In other words, she’s a real American wife and mother, and not a pampered, aloof heiress like the aforementioned Mrs. McCain or Theresa Heinz Kerry.

Who wouldn’t like a woman whose favorite childhood show was “The Brady Bunch”?

Before the image consultants and stylists, I actually thought I knew Michelle Obama pretty well. Although I did not know much about her background, it was not surprising to learn that she was a product of the same two-parent middle-class family that tends to produce most successful black women. Michelle Robinson was just like the girls who sang in my high school gospel choir, my college classmates, my sorority sisters, or one of the many women who became my public interest peers early in my career. (Actually, since she is a few years older, she probably would have been one of our mentors.)

Our stories are similar—I watched “The Brady Bunch” too, although I would be exaggerating if I admitted to being able to recall all of the episodes. My parents worked, imposed strict discipline, set high academic expectations, instilled in us a strong work ethic, and (I hope) are very proud of our accomplishments. Like Michelle, I harbored feelings of resentment against those who seemed to take their privileges for granted. So I became a civil rights lawyer out of an odd mix of frustration and veneration for the contradictions of American ideals.

I thought of all this as I watched the C-Span coverage of Congresswoman Stephanie Tubbs Jones’ memorial service in Cleveland. I knew her from my Hill days and attended an event with her. Her sudden death elevated her into the pantheon of archetypical achieving black women. Tubbs Jones did not seem to worry much about perceptions; she was the what-you-see-is-what-you-get type. Speaker after speaker spoke of the Congresswoman’s fearlessness. I could not help but to think wistfully that Michelle Obama represented that same tenacity before the convention.

Since the whitewash (or makeover), Michelle has been recast as some non-threatening black June Cleaver. The new and improved Michelle Robinson Obama bears little resemblance to the homegirl who graduated from Princeton with a bit of a chip on her shoulder. I liked her keep-it-real-ism; it was refreshing. But apparently, America was not ready.

America only seems capable of accepting professional black women as either Oprah or Omarosa. Oprah is the consoling sister-girl; Omarosa is the angry shrew. Michelle Obama may have been friends with Oprah, but her detractors convinced America that her real BFF was Omarosa. To those of us who saw her life story reflected in our own, there is no difference between these two personality types because we embody both extremes. There are days when our inner Oprah has to be that reassuring presence in the midst of chaos and confusion. And then there are those times when we must unleash the Omarosa in order to be heard.

The same image transformation was attempted on Hillary Clinton 16 years ago. The country was not ready for the Hillary Rodham they initially met, so she added her husband’s last name and endured a series of disastrous makeovers to become Hillary Rodham Clinton, a more maternal First Lady. Eventually, she reinvented herself as a powerful, independent woman for the 21st century—an image that allowed her to be a convincing Presidential candidate.

If her husband is elected, Michelle Obama will expand the image spectrum for women of color. She will be a liberator of sorts. The first African American First Lady will evoke the faithful spirit of Coretta Scott King while also channeling the fierce independence of Claire Huxtable. She must carry the mantle of leadership passed to her by Stephanie Tubbs Jones, Shirley Chisholm, Barbara Jordan and myriad others. More importantly, I hope she rediscovers the quality that Michelle Robinson developed as a young woman growing up in Chicago, and what guaranteed her survival at Princeton—fearlessness.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Roles of Women in this Campaign

I am in between computers, so I've got a post on Michelle Obama that is going to anchor this series of posts about women in American politics. I just need to get the file over to this computer...hopefully before the end of the week.

In the meantime, I got so fired up that I posted my first blog entry on the Obama-Biden website. I intend to post it here too, but again, that is after I upload my Michelle Obama piece.

But, this post can be an introduction of sorts. Or a continuation of the same topic since I've already weighed in on the Palin selection. She has reignited this issue in a way that I cannot fully explain. It is not as if she is the first woman in politics. And she is not the first woman to espouse views I cannot abide. There were moments during the primary campaign where I seriously had issues with Sen. Clinton and her surrogates when it came to invoking gender. But women change the political poker game, so this is an excititing time.

I am actually happy that the conservatives finally realized that women have valuable contributions to make to our public policy debates. Conservatives like Sarah Palin and Condoleezza Rice help to dispel the notion that women are only useful in policy debates about parenting and culture. I have never been ashamed of my admiration for Condi Rice--as far as I am concerned, she is more powerful than Laura Bush. It makes me proud to know that the woman entrusted with representing the US abroad got to the top of the heap on the merits of the qualifications she brought to the table, and everyone acknowledges that fact.

Of course, I cringe at her blind loyalty to the sinking ship that is the Bush-Cheney legacy. Should Sarah Palin succeed Condi Rice as the most powerful woman in the world, she will be expected to toe the line as well. That is what Republicans do--they stand by their men.

But now that the GOP has demonstrated that it can handle giving women some room at the table, Democrats need to remind the public that women have been there for decades. Democrats have long given women positions of power. I have no doubt that if Barack Obama makes it to the White House, he will give women the same opportunities to shine.

I just hope that we will be given more to do than engage in arguments about culture in the kitchen while the men are in the other room talking war. Women's perspectives are vital to domestic policy issues--after all, who brings those meals to the "kitchen table"? But women also have a stake in the other major issues of our time--our children may be sent off to fight, our cars and homes need alternative sources of energy, and we want to keep our friends and families safe too.

So, stay tuned for my little blog series on women in this campaign and politics in general.

Friday, August 29, 2008

18 Million and One Cracks?

If I might opine a bit about the events of the past week: what a great convention! Loved Michelle Obama's speech, appreciated Hillary Clinton's speech, was pleasantly surprised by Bill Clinton's speech, and was totally inspired by The Man himself. Most of the other speeches were what I expected. As Jon Stewart put it yesterday, the "Alabaster Chorus" of old white guys (Kennedy, Warner, Biden, Kerry, Dean, Gore, et al) offered us the right pitch so that things stayed in tune. Of course, the commen-haters remarked on how low on substance the convention was, a perception that was only bolstered by the open-air music festival vibe that preceeded Obama's speech last night. Well, UNITY Fest aside, I was impressed and was all fired up when I went to bed.

This morning, I was still on my mile high when word leaked that John McCain might defy conventional wisdom to select an unknown female candidate for VP. I got excited--was this really going to be a challenge? Without HRC, were the Dems about to be hit by a page from their own "I'm Every Woman" playbook? Who knew that there might be a woman on McCain's radar? Had we totally underestimated the GOP as anything other than an elite Gentleman's Club or Senior PGA Tour?

So, I spent all morning scouring the news sites for the final word that McCain had, for once, made a bold move. Confirmation came and I eagerly tuned in to watch the announcement on CNN. After he droned on about his wisdom and judgment, he introduced...

Sarah Palin, a first term governor of Alaska. She's a young mother and has a couple of years of executive experience in a solid GOP state. She's pro-life, pro-guns and probably will christen the spot where the first oil drill will break ground in the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge. She is a former beauty queen and small business owner. She embodies everything that the GOP represents in terms of family values and patriotism. In a word, she is perfect!

But she is as exciting as vanilla pudding. After watching her on stage and hearing her speak for five minutes, I wondered why I expected more from her or the GOP. She couldn't have been more predictable. With Cindy McCain as the rich, glamorous wife, Sarah Palin is the nerdy little sister. Maybe that is a sign of progress.

Not really. In the clubhouse that is Presidential politics, a female candidate will have to hold her own and then some. There will be the inevitable comparisons to the other candidates' wives. Her wardrobe choices will be endlessly scrutinized (skirts only, lest she be associated with HRC's Sisterhood of the Traveling Pantsuits). Her children will be compared to the other candidates' children and grandchildren for cuteness. She will be patronized by inane questions when she's forced to appear on Dr. Phil. She'll have to submit a cookie recipe to Woman's Day magazine. She'll be patron saint of the Mommy Wars--unlike the wives, she'll actually have a job in a McCain Administration.

I was willing to endure all of that until I heard her speak. Her remarks confirmed my worst fears--that she is merely the female version of every other bland man passed over for the job. Sarah Palin is no maverick, which is too bad. I was actually looking forward to the VP debate between her and Biden...I imagined her delivering a memorable self-deprecating zinger in response to some unfortunate Bidenist mistatement. But because she is a good Republican, Sarah Palin will not be speaking much for herself. The GOP is big on message control, so no one is allowed to stray too far off the talking points, not even the President.

Furthermore, it is ironic that the first woman in line to potentially serve as Madam President won't get there on the momentum of her own ideas. This was an arranged political marriage--a shotgun wedding of convenience. She might have been the perfect choice for Vice President, but shouldn't the job have been offered to someone who actually wanted to be President some day? I can't claim to know her ambitions, but surely she didn't aspire to be John McCain's work wife for the next four years!

So I'll be watching next week to see if this May-December political coupling has a chance, who gives the bride away, and what she'll be wearing.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Grumbles and Groans

So today I was in line at the CVS and it was taking forever. There were two people in front of me, including a woman who apparently was the reason for the hold up. While she shifted back and forth impatiently waiting for the cashier to return to the counter, I decided to flip through this month's Ebony (which has Michelle Obama on the cover, btw).

So anywho, about 15 minutes passed before the cashier returned and the woman at the front of the line got loud. REALLY LOUD. Now I and every other customer in the CVS knows that she was waiting for pre-natal vitamins that were not ready.

Now, I don't know why she had to broadcast her disgust all over the CVS. While it is perfectly understandable to be frustrated at seemingly indifferent customer service, I am assuming that no one was really all that interested in standing in line for an additional five minutes while she berated the cashier.

On Saturday, the woman in front of me at the Macy's kept changing her mind about the clothes she selected. Now every few feet, there is a price scanner, so she could have found out the cost of everything before she got on line. She seemed utterly unfazed that she was holding things up--and all for less than five items.

I don't have any substantial conclusion. I just wish that those geeks at MIT would hurry up and make some of the technology from Star Trek available so that I can minimize contact with annoying, self-absorbed people.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

The Jig is Up

OK, so I was watching Project Runway (one of the best shows on TV, ever) and this week, they eliminated another talented designer. I don't remember her name, but she get the auf wedersen while that loony hack Blaine remained to sew something more tragic next week. And this morning, I tuned in to see the very end of that P. Diddly "Apprentice" show, and again, the loud-mouthed self-proclaimed Poprah (pop-Oprah, get it?) got to stay, while the mild-mannered whats-his-name got escorted from the building.

I know...the a$$holes who stay make for great television. Those who leave are forgetable, which is why they get kicked off. That predictable format works well on shows about finding love for rich nobodies, washed up hype men, reality show losers, and one-hit wonders. The fine print disclaimer that runs along the bottom of the screen after elimination pretty much admits that a good number of the "contestants" are there to keep us watching. But it isn't supposed to be that obvious.

In the past, it took a while to catch on to the scheme. On Season Two of PR, Santino clearly scraped the bottom of the bad taste barrel weeks earlier, but he still made it to Fashion Week. Of course, the winner that season was the forgetable Chloe, so it all makes sense in hindsight. Ditto for the phenomenon that is Omarosa--the mere mention of her name can give a show weeks of steam (which probably explains why Trump brought her back for the has-been celebrity version last fall). And as odd as it is to admit this, Dustin Diamond--perhaps the most pathetic child star loser since Danny Bonduce and Gary Coleman--single-handedly made Celebrity Fit Club worth watching again.

So conflict-casting clearly works. But it is a cheap ploy that eventually reveals the shortcomings of the show, not the actual "contestants". Once the roller coaster gets back to the gate, people get off the ride. Only kids stand in line to ride again and again. When shows have to resort to gimmicks to keep people watching, it is a sign that their ride is almost over.

PR is only in its fifth season, Diddy's show just started, and already they are pulling tricks? If they had asked me, I would have told the geniuses at Bravo that by replicating their best show, they've polluted the airways with flawed clones--Shear Genius and Top Design both suck. Top Chef is the notably exception, but its success only proves that instead of being a unique show, PR was just a template. As for Diddy, well, originality was never his thing, so it is no surprise that he would helm an Apprentice knock-off with another Angry Black Woman (ABW) at the center (more on that conflict casting device a little later). Poprah could end up duking it out on Celebrity Death Match with Omarosa.

Oh well, I guess I will just enjoy the ride...

Thursday, August 14, 2008

OK, So I'm Going to Try This Again

I just logged in for the first time in nearly a year. I am surprised that the blog hasn't been overrun by spammers.

I don't even know where to begin. I could pick up where I left off last September, but that would be boring. To make a long story short, whatever I was afflicted with last fall went away and although I am not exactly the glowing picture of health, I am surely not death warmed over either. Also, in case you were wondering, I am still broke and under-employed.

And that is about all there is to report.

I'm back because I miss writing. I've gone months without writing anything of significance. Sure, online lectures qualify as significant writing, but the only people who read those are my students (barely).

I stopped writing when I became frustrated that my blog was just one more voice out there in a crowded room full of shaky soapboxes. I determined that writing for an audience of one was akin to the age-old philosophical question about that tree in the forest...

In truth, I was afraid that I would eventually be discovered. How could I justify my musings and rants to a potential employer? It could cost me a job, I reasoned, so I quit to avoid succeeding at something that I actually enjoyed...

Yup, I am a coward.

Right now, I am having the hardest time even writing this re-re-introduction. There are tons of ideas going through my head, but there is also the dread that I am setting myself up again for another emotional implosion. What makes me so sure that I will be able to withstand the pressure this time?

Years ago, someone told me that my worst enemy was my own self-doubt. She was right. At times, it is utterly debilitating. What is my problem? I can write as well as, if not better than some of these folks. So what am I waiting for?

I am still trying to answer that question, so that is one of the reasons why I returned. I need to find my voice again, and see this endeavor through to wherever it may go. Anything is better than wondering "what if".

So, I guess that means I am writing. Again :)