Official White House photo of Michelle Obama by Chuck Kennedy
BY KEISHA BELL | Visionary Brief
Would you have love and respect for Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama if she were not married to the 44th President of the United States? Would she feel familiar to you?
Over generations, negative images of black women have routinely flooded media outlets, music videos and lyrics, television and movie scripts. Her “character” has contributed to introducing her as loud, loose, and angry.
If not a sarcastic maid, she has been seen in numerous variations as a gold digger. If not a hot head, she has been reduced to a mere sexual object. An overly sexualized, uncontrollable, manipulative domestic, does this description sound historically familiar?
The nation has seen black women as the “face” of governmental programs, single-parenthood and teenage pregnancy. She is regularly faced with degrading messaging, a narrative that introduces her as a victim of poverty, uneducated and helpless—literally.
Although funny at times, somehow, her strength is generally portrayed as defeated, especially when considering the larger scale of America’s possibilities. Amidst the jokes, she deals with this presentation of herself even when she defies it.
When Michelle Robinson, later Obama, was a student at Princeton, she wrote a thesis titled “Princeton-Educated Blacks and the Black Community.” Initially, she thought that the black alumni would still identify with the African-American community even though they had attended an elite university. After she researched her thesis, she learned that her findings did not support her initial hope.
As more and more black Americans continue to graduate from colleges and universities, is it not time to expand the definition of the African-American community and the issues affecting it? According to the U. S. Department of Education, the national college graduation rate for black women is 44.8 percent. When will she be the face of storylines stemming from this?
Obama was not born with a silver spoon in her mouth. She has told stories of experiencing gender discrimination while growing up, as well as, struggles with dealing with how her peers perceived her for excelling in school. She excelled anyway.
She recalled teachers telling her that she was setting goals too high once they learned she wanted to attend Princeton. She applied anyway. Once there, she was initially overwhelmed. She experienced racism. She graduated as the salutatorian of her 1981 class. She entered Harvard Law School confident.
Obama’s faculty mentor at Harvard Law was Charles Ogletree. He has said that by the time she arrived at Harvard Law, she had concluded that she could be “both brilliant and black.” Obama found familiarity within herself by discovering her truth.
When she first arrived on the national and international stage, she was attacked for being strong, black, and female. Her presence and credentials were foreign to many blacks and non-blacks alike. As a result of expanding the narrative of the black experience, she was again faced with the all too common question, “Who does she think she is?”
In black communities across this nation, there are examples of Obama in different stages of life. She was not a resident at the White House without first being one on Euclid Avenue in Chicago’s South Shore community. She had to push past the naysayers and the societal obstacles. She had to endure the verbal attacks and find inner peace with being “different.”
Across this nation, black women and girls who are defying stereotypes are faced with the same question, “Who does she think she is.” Like Obama and as referenced by Ogletree, they too must confidently answer “both brilliant and black.” Has the day arrived when she feels familiar to you?
Keisha Bell is an attorney, author, and public servant.