“Barack has a handicap the other candidates don’t have: Barack Obama has a black wife. And I don’t think a black woman can be first lady of the United States. Yeah, I said it! A black woman can be president, no problem. First lady? Can’t do it. You know why? Because a black woman cannot play the background of a relationship. Just imagine telling your black wife that you’re president? ‘Honey, I did it! I won! I’m the president.’ ‘No, we the president! And I want my girlfriends in the Cabinet! I want Kiki to be secretary of state! She can fight!” –Chris Rock, comedian
There is an old saying, “Many truths are told in jokes.” Unfortunately, Rock’s “joke” fails to warrant any comedic merit. Notwithstanding, it lends credence to a glaring truth in this historical moment about America’s anxiety regarding the potential of a Black woman becoming first lady. Rock’s statement is underpinned by the late twentieth century stereotype of the Black Matriarch, the domineering Black woman who refuses to allow her male partner to assume his rightful position as patriarch. Hence Rock’s characterization of Michelle Obama as a “handicap,” echoes Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s thesis in his treatise The Negro Family: A Case of National Action (1965), which reifies the representation of Black women as castrators and emasculators of Black manhood.
Rock is not alone in articulating the anxiety some Americans feel in relation to the idea of a Black woman assuming the role of first lady. Maureen Dowd in a New York Times op-ed, “Mincing Up Michelle,” which explores America’s perceptions of Mrs. Obama’s supposed unsuitableness for the role states, “there are some who think it will be harder for America to accept a black first lady. . . than a black [male] president.” Leonce Gaither, in his Huffington Post article, “Michelle Is Ungrateful? For What?,” which challenges assertions that the potential first lady displays ingratitude towards America, states, “Sometimes it seems that many Americans fear a black First Lady more than a merely half-white President.”
It is precisely Barack’s ability to straddle racial boundaries, invoking an illusion of a post-racial America, that has caused many, who may have otherwise discounted his candidacy, to embrace the idea of his presidency. Michelle, however, is another matter as she is undeniably, and to some, unforgivably black, a racialized gendered marker which renders the term black first lady a contradiction in terms. Barack implicitly demonstrates this in his seminal speech on race, “A More Perfect Union.” While he locates his own heritage from the trajectory of his immediate parentage, “I am the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas,” he locates his wife’s heritage from the trajectory of American slavery, “I am married to a black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slave owners – an inheritance we pass on to our two precious daughters.”
Barack’s latter statement is no mere acknowledgement of his and Michelle’s shared mixed race heritage which at first glance appears to be the legacy being passed on to daughters Malia and Sasha. A closer reading, however, indicates that bundled within this legacy is a racialized gendered inheritance which ties all Black women to the inescapable stereotypes which have defined black womanhood from slavery to the present (i.e. The Obama girls labeled “Nappy Headed Hos in Art”). As Black feminist critic Barbara Christian once asserted, “in America the enslaved African woman became the basis for our society’s Other.” More specifically, the image of the sexually wanton black female, the Jezebel, the foundation upon which white American conceptualizations of black womanhood are built, has informed white perceptions of women of African descent since time immemorial contrasting it with the myth of the ultra virtuous conception of white womanhood. Such myths were codified in the “cult of the southern lady” and the “cult of true womanhood.” These parallel nineteenth century ideologies reinforced a hierarchy among women based on race and class in order to maintain a white supremacist patriarchical agenda. America’s present anxiety with Michelle Obama is located within this historical framework 1
Gloria Steinem, in a New York Times op-ed, “Women are Never Front-Runners,” states, “Gender is probably the most restricting force in American life, whether the question is who must be in the kitchen or who could be in the White House.” While one cannot argue with Steinem regarding the prevalence of gender discrimination in the United States,” such an illusion of a shared experience based on gender alone is self serving and obscures the ways in which gender, race and class (not excluding sexuality) interlock to construct a nuanced reality of what it means to be a woman in American society. As Vanessa Tyson contends, “the combined discrimination of being 1) black, 2) female and 3) poor may be greater than the sum of each of the three parts.” Steinem’s gross generalization fails to acknowledge that race has equally played a role in who must be in the kitchen (read: black female domestics) or who could be in the White house (read: white women).
As the office of the president has been exclusively reserved for white men, the role of the first lady has been exclusively reserved for white women. While her role has never been clearly defined, as she is neither paid nor elected, nevertheless, the president’s wife has and can have tremendous influence over the social and political life of the nation. Far more than a hostess or keeper of the presidential residence, American history abounds with examples of first ladies who indeed proved their political weight in gold. While not serving in an official capacity, women such as Abigail Adams, Eleanor Roosevelt, Roslyn Carter, Nancy Reagan, Hillary Clinton and others proved instrumental in broadening the boundaries of the first ladies’ circle of influence within the political arena. Nevertheless, the first lady figures prominently on the national landscape as the female embodiment of the reigning virtues of American society. As such, from the beginning of our nation, white women have been held forth as the quintessential “lady,” the icon of true womanhood and American female royalty by which all women should aspire.
Black women, on the other hand, were presented in counterpoint. Subjected to a barrage of disfigured images, stereotypes of African American women perpetuated notions that they were, as historian Adele Logan Alexander contends, “[un]deserving of the courtesy and esteem automatically bestowed on white women.” As one southern boy responded to his younger friend who suggested that they step aside for a Black woman and let the lady pass, “She’s no lady,” the older boy quipped, “she’s a nigger.” However, such sentiments transcended region, as the North and South invoked the language of the lady to articulate the incompatibility of Black women with this ideal. 2
In 1804 as the North began implementing its policies for the gradual emancipation of slaves, the South’s effort to forge a regional identity as a pro-slavery defense against growing sentiments of abolition intensified. During this period, “the cult of the southern lady” served as the cornerstone of nineteenth century Southern identity. While the origins and function of the ideal of white southern womanhood to southern ideology continues to be debated among historians, they nevertheless generally agree that the function of the myth served to lend credence to the hegemonic ideals which normalized race, class, and gender dominance. Southern slaveholding women were placed upon a proverbial pedestal, the base of which, according to Anne Firor Scott, was racial slavery.3
The value in southern women was seen as the embodiment of unadulterated Southern identity. Through her role as submissive wife, caring mother, guardian of the patriarchical social order and of the Southern ideal itself, “Such basic myths,” according to Anne Goodwyn Jones, “polarized woman into . . . the clustering of images—goodness and light with virginity and evil and darkness with sexuality” which were “reified and confirmed when white planters owned black slave women.” While the Black female body was exploited as a ready resource for white male sexual gratification, the cult of the southern lady demanded that white women be the icon of female virtue and purity. This moral double standard prized white female fertility as the reproducer of the legitimate heirs to southern white privilege; therefore, white female sexuality had to be protected at all cost. As W. J Cash asserted, “For as perpetuator of white superiority legitimate line, and as a creature absolutely inaccessible to the males of the inferior group, she inevitably became the focal center of the fundamental pattern of proto-Dorian pride.” 4
She also inevitably became the central justification in pro-slavery literature as demonstrated in the works of Thomas R. Drew, William Harper, and George Fitzhugh. Consequently, slavery and women’s subordination become two sides of the same Southern identity coin. As Scott contends, “it was ‘no accident that the most articulate spokesmen for slavery were also eloquent exponents of the subordinate role of women.’ ” Nevertheless, white southern women internalized the mythology of the southern feminine mystique and reveled in the power it granted them over their Black subordinates, both male and female. 5
Womanhood was also central to the abolitionist argument as slavery’s degradation of Black women fueled Northerners’ arguments against the peculiar institution. Despite this, Northern Black females fared no better than their Southern counterparts when it came to Northern perceptions of Black womanhood. Perceptions of Black female immorality were also pervasive in Northern society. Neither Northern emancipation nor abolitionist sentiments proved useful in abating it. As Gerda Lerner asserts, “Just as the cult of white womanhood in the South served to preserve a labor and social system based on race distinctions, so did the cult of the lady in an egalitarian society serve as a means of preserving class distinctions.” Hence free Northern Black women, faced with what has been popularly dubbed “the cult of true womanhood,” found themselves struggling against the conventional wisdom of moral aptitude and its relationship to race and socio-economic status. 6
By the 1830s with the rise of Northern industrialization, stark class distinctions, due to the differing lifestyles of women, began to emerge. The burgeoning middle-class, with its sights ever pressed toward obtaining upper class status, believed the avenue to women’s privilege and prestige rested in her ability to strictly adhere to what Barbara Welter identifies as the four cardinal virtues of true womanhood:
piety, purity, submissiveness and domesticity. Put them all together and they spelled mother, daughter, sister, wife—woman. Without them no matter if there was fame, achievement or wealth, all was ashes. With them she was promised happiness and power. 7
Domesticity was central to the cult’s cardinal tenets as expressed in the slogan “a woman’s place is in the home.” The home, according to conventional wisdom, provided a protective shield from corrosive forces which all but guaranteed a woman’s adherence to the remaining tenets. Such women were viewed as ladies of leisure; a concept once proscribed was now viewed as a status symbol. Lerner suggests, “The women of the newly middle and upper classes could use their newly gained time for leisure pursuits: they became ladies.” Leisure pursuits were not confined to merely serving as hostess or attending afternoon teas. Ladies, both North and South, being relieved of domestic chores and motherly duties, by relegating them to the lower classes of women, namely Black women, had more time to focus on the higher responsibilities of life such as religious refinement and perfecting moral character. 8
Ironically, the virtues of domesticity were trumpeted during a time when poorer women, more specifically immigrant women, were entering the work force as factory workers by the droves. It also occurred at a time when the abolition of slavery in the North sent large numbers of Black women into the wage labor force. Consequently, Black women were shut out of factory employment. As Harriet Martineau, asserted, white women viewed the factories as “a more welcome resource to some thousands of young women unwilling to give themselves to domestic service.” While the majority of the white female wage labor force was comprised of single women, Black women, both single and married, worked as washer women or domestics who cared for children and performed domestic chores in white households while often neglecting the same responsibilities in their own homes. The majority of Black women could hardly afford to adhere to the cardinal tenets of the cult of the lady as most often they were the breadwinner of the family. This was a consequence of the systematic discrimination of Black men in the employment arena, a pattern that would persist well into the twentieth century. 9
Nevertheless, a Black middle class emerged in the antebellum North and Black women attempted to adhere to the tenets of the lady even as they challenged its racist and classist premise. As historian Paula Giddings observed, “they organized Black ladies’ literary, intelligence, temperance, and moral improvement societies in this period as a reaction to that pressure.” Their aim was to prove that they were able to acculturate white middle class values. Nonetheless, the stereotype of the lascivious Black female proved a formidable stronghold. While the Victorian ethic applied to the so called better classes of women during this time (white working class women were also viewed as sexually indiscreet), Black women regardless of their socio- economic status were viewed as innately amoral, even by their white female counterparts who excluded them from their ladies societies. Unfortunately, white female abolitionists were not immune to such racialized sentiments. 10
The fight against the assault on Black womanhood intensified during the post-Civil War era as noted by Harvard professor Evelyn Higginbotham who contends that the intersections of race and class conflated with gender to construct the contours of ladyhood which continued to exclude Black women regardless of socio-economic standing. In the post war South Black women “playing the lady” were criminalized as violating laws against “loaferism” for attempting to adhere to the ideal of domesticity by remaining in the home while their husbands and fathers worked to support the family. Such efforts were viewed as “unnatural and “evil.”
Although working class white women also fell outside of the mainstream definition of the lady, class was racialized as a means to subordinate working class Black women of comparative socio-economic status as demonstrated in a North Carolina tobacco factory. While white working class women labored under conditions deemed “suitable for ladies,” black women, however, were relegated to unsanitary and hazardous working conditions. Moreover, segregation came to “exemplify the troupe of the lady,” which further racialized class as Black women, despite their ability to purchase first-class tickets, were not allowed to ride in the first car on public trains also known as “the ladies car.” If a Black woman insisted on sitting in the ladies car, her resistance to adhere to Jim Crow was meant with unrequited violence. For example, when anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells refused to give up her seat in the ladies car after having paid her fare, she was dragged by three men to the smoking car as “the white ladies and gentlemen in the car even stood on the seats so they could get a good view and continued applauding the conductor for his brave stand.”
The racialization of class invoked ideas of Black women as possessing a morality lower than white prostitutes as expressed by an anonymous Africa American woman in an article that appeared in the Independent on September 18, 1902:
I am a colored woman, wife and mother. . . A colored woman, however respectable, is lower than the white prostitute. The Southern white woman will declare that no negro women are virtuous, yet she places her innocent children in their care. . . Southern railway stations have three waiting rooms and the very conspicuous signs tell the ignorant that this room is for “ladies,” and this is for “gents,” and that for the “colored” people. We are neither “ladies” nor “gents” but “colored.” 12
While the above statement identifies the degradation shared by both Black men and women alike, Adele Logan Alexander, nevertheless, observes that the lack of separate bathroom facilities for African American men and women served as a fundamental insult to Black women “thereby deliberately denying African American women the basic courtesies they unquestioningly accorded white women.” This practice was only discontinued in the late 1960s. Alexander further observes that other courtesies such as being referred to by one’s proper title in places of business was also denied Black women. During business transactions, Black women were not granted the simple courtesy of being addressed as “Miss” or “Mrs.” though Blacks faced retaliation if they did not extend such courtesies to whites. Black female domestics even had to address the white children they cared for as “Miss” or “Mr.” while the children merely addressed them by their first names. One elderly house keeper complained that “the child I work for calls me ‘girl. ’” 13
In fact, of the myriad of names Black women have been called throughout American history, lady is not one of them. As Maya Angelou once stated:
Called Matriarch, Emasculator and Hot Momma, Sometimes Sister, Pretty Baby, Auntie, Mammy and Girl, Called Unwed Mother, Welfare Recipient and Inner City Consumer, The Black American Woman has had to admit that while nobody knew the troubles she saw, everybody, his brother and his dog, felt qualified to explain her, even to herself. 14
Reflecting on the historical misconceptions of Black womanhood indelibly etched in the psyche of American society, African American feminist Michelle Wallace once stated, “Black women have a hell of a history to live down.” 15 It is this hell of a history outlined above that Michelle Obama must contend with and overcome. As Ed Kilgore aptly points out, Michelle Obama has now become a part of “the long pedigree of presidential spouse-bashing.” Nevertheless, her unique position as the first African American spouse with the potential to become first lady has invoked racially tinged representations by both the conservative and liberal media which are clearly informed by the historical stereotypes of Black womanhood. This is no joke as such representations aim to demonize Michelle as the bad Black woman undeserving of the respect afforded the litany of white women who have come before her, despite isolated comparisons to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis .
From the misinterpretation of her “proud statement” by numerous media outlets, to Fox News’s label of her as “Obama’s baby momma,” to a teasing segment of MSNBC’s Hardball which featured silhouetted female dancers to represent Michelle’s supposed image makeover, to the most recent caricature on the front cover of the New Yorker, which depicts the Princeton-Harvard Law graduate as an Afro hairdo wearing, rifle toting militant, are all deliberate attempts to ghettoize her image and reinforce the historical stereotypes of Black womanhood which continue to define the status of African American woman as outsiders. Hence, the notion that Black women, despite their level of education or socio-economic status, lack the refinement to be ladies is a hurdle which remains to be overcome.
The full frontal assault against Michelle, notwithstanding, she also belongs to a long pedigree of African American women who have resisted cultural misrepresentations of Black womanhood and triumphed despite there continued prevalence in American society. From Sojourner Truth who challenged the racism of the 1854 Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio, by asking the question, “A’int I a Woman?,” to the activism of Frances E. W. Harper and others who struggled to speak for themselves at the 1893 World’s Congress of Representative Women, to the open defiance of Ida B. Wells and Mary McLeod Bethune who dared to trespass the segregated boundaries in public train stations, to the bravery of Anita Hill who despite the Jezebel stereotype refused to remain silent about sexual harassment, to the indomitable spirit of Gwen Ifill who challenged the complicity of the corporate media in degrading Black professional women as “cleaning women” and “nappy headed hos,” Black women continue to forge ahead triumphantly in spite of racialize gendered bigotry. It is indeed a testament to the resilience of the African American female spirit.
It is this resilience which Maya Angelou celebrates in her famous poem Still I Rise (1973) that provides the metaphor for the resilience of Michelle Obama. Her historic role as “candidate” for first lady of the United States exemplifies the audacity of hope demonstrated by her forbears as she, “rise[s] out of the huts of history’s shame. . . from a past that’s rooted in pain. . . leaving behind nights [and days] of terror and fear.” Michelle, can indeed claim ownership to the final words of Angelou’s poem stating:
Bringing the gifts my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
As I conclude my thoughts on this Black first lady in waiting under the gaze of my great-great-grandmother Eliza Stuart Thompson, a former Virginia slave, whose portrait stares at me from the place where I write, I say,
By Arica L. Coleman
Ms. Coleman is Assistant Professor of Black American Studies at the University of Delaware.
Republished with permission from the History News Network where it first appeared.
1 Quoted in Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment (New York: Routledge, 1990), 68.
2 Adele Logan Alexander, “She’s No Lady, She’s a Nigger: Abuses, Stereotypes, and Realities From the Middle Passage to Capitol (and Anita) Hill,” Race, Gender, and Power in America: The Legacy of the Hill-Thompson Hearings, Anita Faye Hill and Emma Coleman Jordan, eds. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995).
3 Anne Goodwyn Jones, “Belles and Ladies,” Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, Charles Reagan Wilson and William Ferris, ed. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989), 1528.
4 Ibid., 1529; W. J. Cash, The Mind of the South, (New York: Vintage Books, 1941), 84.
5 For more on the writings of Drew, Harper and Fitzhugh see Virginia Kent Anderson Leslie, “A Myth of the Southern Lady: Antebellum Proslavery Rhetoric and the Proper Place of Woman,” Southern Women, Caroline Matheny Dillman, ed. (New York: Hemisphere Publishing Corporation, 1988), 19-33; Quoted in Jones, 1529.
6 Gerda Lerner, The Majority Finds Its Place: Placing Women in History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1975), 26.
7 Barbara Welter, “Cult of True Womanhood, 1820-1860 ” American Quarterly Vol 19, No2 Part 1 (Summer 1966), 152.
8 Gerda Lerner, The Majority Finds Its Place, 26
9 Quoted in Paula Giddings, When And Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America (New York: William Morrow & Co, 1984) p. 48.
10 Ibid., 48-49.
11 Evelyn Higginbtham, “African American Women’s History and the Metalanguage of Race,” Signs, Vol. 17, no. 2 (Winter 1992), 262.