The Very Image of Affirmation
In Michelle Obama, Black Women See A Familiar Grace & Strength Writ Large

By DeNeen L. Brown and Richard Leiby
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, November 21, 2008

Michelle Obama emerged, long and lean, from a black limousine that pulled up at the White House the other day. She stood in a bold red dress that followed her lines. She smoothed her hair and moved between her man -- the president-elect -- and the first lady. Tall in shiny red pumps, Michelle seemed to tower over them all.

As she stood there, many black women on this side of the White House gate saw something else in Michelle Obama that sunny afternoon: bits and pieces of themselves.

They saw their family in hers, or the family they dreamed of having. Saw a woman whose husband seemed to adore her, giving her hugs and pecks on the lips as if the whole world were not watching.

Women watched Michelle Obama until she disappeared into the White House. Then they began talking.

"I like the way she carries herself," says Liz Nolan, 65.

"I like the fact that she walks with him," says Shenee McRae, 31, "not behind him or in front of him."

"For black women, she is visible proof that you can be anything you want to be," says Greer Jones, 37.

These particular women were at A Natural Motion, Nolan's beauty salon on Georgia Avenue NW. Elsewhere, in offices, in kitchens, on the radio, over the telephone, in churches, on blogs, women are talking and whispering a chorus of amens. Not just black women -- all women. They comment on what they see, or don't see. They opine about Michelle Obama's intellect, her style. Fascinated by Michelle. That's what they call her, Michelle -- first-name basis already.

They noticed the way Michelle, 44, wore her hair pulled back in a ponytail to vote, as normal black women would on the way to the hairdresser the morning before a big event. Two daughters in tow in plaits. They liked the way she wore J.Crew on Jay Leno. And noticed that she told her husband he needed to be home for Valentine's Day.

It would be too trivial to say that she is smashing stereotypes of black women, because the stereotypes are so flat, so one-sided, so unreal, that smashing them would be like punching a cloud.

"There's the stereotype of the powerful black woman, the aggressive black woman; there is the stereotype of the over-sexualized, overly sexed black woman; there is the stereotype of the mammy," says Aziza Gibson-Hunter, 54, a conceptual artist and mother of four who lives in Northwest Washington.

What she sees in Michelle Obama is strength: "I saw it in my mother. When I was a kid, I saw it in the women in the church, this dignified strength. I think that is real.

"I think Michelle Obama is her own woman. I think people with the stereotype thing need to get over it. She is forcing people who have never taken the time to know who we are as black women to take a second look. To actually see, for once in their life, that there are black women that are brilliant and graceful, intelligent, well spoken and have their own sense of themselves. And it doesn't have to be measured up to anyone else."

Gibson-Hunter is sitting on the black leather sofa in her home with her husband, Jawara, an anesthesiologist. Their brown dachshund just jumped in her lap. Her 16-year-old son is on the computer in the other room "supposedly doing homework." They have just finished a dinner of tofu, salad and naan flat bread.

"I think for nonblack people, they are going to have to maybe deal with the stereotypes in their heads," Gibson-Hunter said. ". . . What this whole situation is doing is inviting people to look behind the projections in their own minds and maybe begin to do some work to deconstruct some of that and find the truth."

"She is educated. She is not like 'Michelle the housewife.' It's 'Michelle the attorney,' " says McRae. "She is smart. She is not an airhead. She's not the pretty girl. She's not the ugly girl. She's not the trophy wife."

"Nobody wants to see anybody in a Chanel suit," says Diavian Jeffreys, 24.

"I look at her head to toe, and I can't find one fault," says Nolan.

The stage is set for soul-searching. "Michelle Obama will be under the microscope in a way no other woman of color has been," said Donna Brazile, a Democratic commentator and strategist who offered advice to the Obama campaign. "There's no question that Michelle Obama will alter the playbook for black women for years to come. . . . We're long overdue for this."

During the presidential campaign, Michelle Obama found herself branded "Obama's baby mama" in a Fox News graphic. Some conservative pundits labeled her an "angry," unpatriotic black woman after she remarked in February, "For the first time in my adult life, I am proud of my country, because it feels like hope is finally making a comeback. And I have been desperate to see our country moving in that direction." By July came a depiction of Michelle Obama as an Angela Davis type, fist-bumping her husband on a satiric New Yorker cover that famously backfired.

She says she ignores labels, telling NPR: "I have not paid much attention about what people say about me who don't know me." She said she was saying one thing -- how proud she was that more Americans were participating in the electoral politics -- and the way people interpreted it was another thing. African Americans say they knew exactly what she was talking about: For too long, they felt excluded from the political process. The Obamas changed that.

But the controversy highlights how the first lady will need to practice "impression management," said Quinetta Roberson, a Villanova University business school professor who co-authored a law journal article analyzing public perceptions of the future first lady.

"One of the other perceptions around her is that she is a very strong woman, and her influence on her husband and family is very clear," Roberson said. "In his acceptance speech, Barack Obama said she is 'the rock of our family.' Other politicians may say my spouse is my ally or inspiration, but it doesn't necessarily suggest an equal role. 'Rock of our family' means she is right next to him and a critical part of his foundation."

Yet the positive can easily be spun as a negative, into a stereotype of an "aggressive, somewhat overbearing woman," Roberson says.

"She can help girls with the decision that when they grow up, what kind of man you should want by your side," Greer Jones says. "Do you want a man to stand on the corner or do you want a man who has potential to become president?"

"In Chicago, she stood right there till her man finished his last word," says Patricia Johnson, 34.

People have been drawing conclusions about Michelle Obama by refracting her words through their own experiences and biases. There are blogs following her every move: the school-selection process for her daughter, her performance on "60 Minutes," her figure. Essayist Erin Aubry Kaplan posted this on "Barack's better half not only has stature but is statuesque. She has coruscating intelligence, beauty, style and -- drumroll, please -- a butt."

Still to come will be more serious assessments based on the causes she promotes, her first official journey outside the country, her first state dinner.

"I have no doubt that she is prepared for the challenge," said Lani Guinier, a Harvard Law School professor and onetime Clinton nominee for a top Justice Department post. "She and her husband embody a very healthy relationship. That in itself is quite a public and political statement."

Guinier added: "I toast to the time when this is all normal -- or otherwise unremarkable."

Portia Pedro, 29, a third-year student of Guinier's, is pursuing the same degree held by the incoming president and first lady. "The hope for young black professional women that's embodied in Michelle Obama is a bit different from the hope invested in Barack Obama," she said. "As we go higher and higher into education, we outnumber black men, and there is a not-so-silent concern that you are less likely to get married and less likely to have children. The career part is not in question, but can you do that and be married and have a family?

"If she can do that, then it opens possibilities for other black women."

Alice M. Thomas, a 45-year-old professor at Howard University School of Law, said the Obama marriage should help redefine the image of black relationships.

With his election night tribute to Michelle as "the love of my life, your next first lady," Thomas said, the president-elect crowned all black women: "He had a humble enough spirit to concede the stage to her. . . . It elevated black women in a way we haven't been elevated since antiquity: Queen Hatshepsut, Queen Nzinga, Cleopatra, Nefertiti. World leaders came seeking them, admiring their beauty. They were not just beautiful, they were intelligent.

"For him to regard her and treat her and show and express unabashedly, unashamedly, his love for her, his love for her intelligence, respecting her, romancing her, smiling at her -- for the world to see that exchange between a powerful black man and a powerful black woman, I think it's what is everlasting about this," Thomas said. "I don't think we can point to another power black couple like that. Oprah and Stedman aren't married. And Stedman doesn't seem to have power. Nelson and Winnie broke up."

Some women say Michelle Obama and her family represent nothing really new -- that there have always been stable, married, beautiful black families living in beautiful houses and sending their children to private schools. Mother in pearls. Dad in sharp suits. So often, black families are depicted as statistics. But look behind the curtained windows and you'll see "normal" American behavior: working parents, live-in grandmothers.

Michelle Obama told the Cleveland Plain Dealer during the Democratic convention: "When I was growing up in the '80s, 'The Cosby Show' meant so much to African American families. A lot of people looked at the Huxtables and thought, 'There's no way that family exists.' But African Americans knew differently. If we don't see those images, then the people don't believe they exist."

If you peeked you would see yourself, too -- a family, just a regular family. All these years they were there, living in cities and suburbs, down the street from you. Soon, they'll be living in the White House -- with Michelle Obama as self-described mom-in-chief, standing in for so many women on this side of the gate.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company