Michelle Obama could have stayed home with her lips sealed today, and gotten a head-start on the annual Easter egg hunt. Instead she spoke about the alleged conflicts with former White House advisers described in Jodi Kantor’s new book, “The Obamas,” a type of work the first lady pointedly said she does not read.
“I guess it’s more interesting to imagine this conflicted situation here and a strong woman and -- you know?” Michelle Obama told “CBS This Morning” co-host Gayle King. “But that’s been an image that people have tried to paint of me since the day [President] Barack [Obama] announced, that I’m some angry black woman.”
Good for her. The first lady called it as she saw it. African American women often are portrayed as walking volcanoes, ready to spew on the nearest human rock. Enough. Black women, and all women, for that matter, are entitled to be authentic and upfront.
Let’s learn from former first lady Hillary Clinton, shall we? The public sought to bruise her over her remarks on (not) baking cookies. Now that she is Secretary of State, and crises loom everywhere, betcha many of those critics trust her leadership capabilities and could care less about her lack of interest in chocolate-chip cookie recipes.
Michelle Obama is not the presidential arm ornament former Democratic White House advisers may prefer. To some across the aisle, meanwhile, she is the “Mrs. YoMama” referred to in a “joke” email forwarded recently by Republican lawmaker Mike O’Neal, speaker of the Kansas House. To others, like Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, (R-Wisconsin) who apologized after loudly and publicly weighing in on her physical appearance, she’s a walking invitation to inappropriate critiques. (She shouldn’t encourage healthy eating and exercise, he posited, because she according to him has a “large posterior” herself.) But despite the tasteless and tired stereotypes critics try to superimpose on Michelle Obama, she is not the “Gone with the Wind” mammy figure who unleashes a giggle over a petticoat with Rhett Butler.
The film characters she reminds me more of include a bunch of the classy black and white women from the past that some Republicans so love to glorify. She ranks with the iconic and trailblazing Ruby Dee, Lena Horne and Suzette Harbin because she is a woman who simply knows how to be. There are also aspects of her that make me think of spirited Katharine Hepburn in Holiday, elegant Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca, wise and proud Greer Garson in The Valley of Decision, and adventurous Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday. Michelle Obama is not any of these characters, of course, but bears traces of the universal characteristics these women brought to life. As the first lady said today, she’s “just trying to be me, and I just hope that over time, that people get to know me.”
Genuine class knows no color. And visionary leadership is not gender-based. But do Mrs. Obama’s critics even want to know the real her, or do they prefer reacting to the stick-character they’ve made of her? As Katharine Hepburn once noted, “Enemies are so stimulating.”
Judy Howard Ellis is a Dallas-based creative consultant for entrepreneurs and the author of “Fall of the Savior-King,” a fantasy novel inspired by the Book of Genesis. Previously, she was features editor at the Denver Post. Follow her on Twitter at @JudyHowardEllis