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.