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On Revolutionary Black Womanhood

It’s an odd experience when two seemingly unrelated stories subtly and symbolically collide. In one corner, Michelle Obama wowed audiences with her speech at the Democratic National Convention two weeks ago. In the other, Karen Lewis, head of the Chicago Teachers’ Union, led Chicago Public Schools teachers into a fight with Mayor Rahm Emanuel, when they decided to strike for the first time in 25 years after contract negotiations failed to result in agreement. Responses to Lewis’ and Obama’s public performances have ranged from praise to disappointment. And although much of the commentary has died down, an observation about two black women making national headlines is worthy of comment, especially when one of them isn’t named Beyonce–or Oprah.

Last week, a Clutch magazine article about Michelle Obama’s appearance at the DNC made its rounds on Facebook. The post was a response to the white feminist commentary during and after Obama’s speech. Many white feminists were disappointed with the way in which the self-proclaimed Mom-in-Chief downplayed her professional accomplishments in exchange for a focus motherhood and mothering. The push back in Tami Winfrey Harris’ article, as I understand it, is that Michelle Obama’s appearance is revolutionary due, in part, to the fact that black women have not often had the means and/or agency to “choose” a particular kind of mothering over other more immediate responsibilities. The idea in the article is that many black women have always worked outside of the home and mothered their children and others simultaneously. Therefore, witnessing a black woman articulate her decision to choose to return to the home and mother her (own) daughters is a revolutionary act. Indeed, as the history of white feminism makes clear, the home–and being relegated to it–is one of the core issues one must work against in order to create a more equitable society for women and girls. For the bourgie, heteronormative familial construct places women in it whether or not they so choose to be there. So, the idea that a woman, black or not, would appear on national television and celebrate this decision is troubling for many white feminists. And, as we might expect, they responded in a way that articulated that discomfort.

As much as I can understand Harris’ joy whenever she sees Michelle Obama, I disagree with her position. Yet my disagreement does not immediately align me with those white feminists who find issue with the theme Michelle Obama has adopted during her tenure as First Lady. Michelle Obama choosing motherhood is hardly revolutionary. In fact, her choice of a sobriquet with a militaristic connotation reflects a conservatism and (black) assimilative respectability that aligns itself nicely with the aims of her husband’s administration. A position that seeks to dismantle the very structures that enabled Michelle Obama to eventually decide to “choose” to mother. Moreover, I suggest that if we are looking for a symbol of revolutionary black womanhood in the headlines, it might behoove us to consider Karen Lewis, whose fight for Chicago teachers and students challenges the goals of an administration our First Lady helps personify.

Right as Mrs. Obama’s press and curl was, it works as a symbol, as black women’s hair often does. Mrs. Obama’s hair, and the commentary that accompanies/-ed it displays an implicit adoration for her success in convincingly embodying the respectability I am discussing. For me, the Mom-in-Chief moniker is not about making the choice to mother nor is it a way of making Obama not appear emasculating. Rather, it carries a theme of respectability, a quiet articulation that black women, and by extension black folks, will act right when given the opportunity. Such gestures foreclose the recognition and respect for the various kinds of mothering black and other women have been doing for years. Modeling a particular construct or behavior that black folks allegedly can’t on a national stage seems hardly revolutionary. In actuality, it attempts to substitute a black body into a position that black folks have perpetually been outside of. And this idea of the heteronormative, nuclear, bourgie family is at the core of a nation losing its footing, despite the exceptionalist rhetoric peppered in Mrs. Obama’s speech. Perhaps this crumbling of the United States’ standing is why the most recognizable image of the nuclear family at this moment is Cosby 2.0: The Obama family. It seems to me, then, that resisting or at the very least interrogating these positions and their consequences would be a much more rebellious act.

By many accounts, Karen Lewis seems to represent a necessary resistance to the policies that will inevitably help define the Obama era. As such, that she is the face of a union strike and the target of anti-union vitriol subtly juxtaposes her to Mrs. Obama’s version of black womanhood. Consider, for example, Mrs. Obama’s countenance–thin and health conscious, straight haired, mother to properly behaved and private school educated girls–compared to the natural-haired Ms. Lewis, whose admission to “self-medicating” in college and physical appearance have generated some version of the following disappointing opening in an otherwise excellent article:

Karen Jennings Lewis is a powerhouse of energy, ideas, and idealism. The head of the Chicago Teachers’ Union, this 350-pound African-American woman is not easily intimidated.

Witnesses readily discuss Lewis’ refusal to back down from Rahm Emanuel, and by extension the goals of the Obama Administration. After all, Emanuel’s attempt to privatize CPS by opening more charter schools, naming corporate heads to the city school board, and cripple the teacher’s union partly by promoting the lie that its central aim is to protect bad teachers, reflects similar national aims seen through the POTUS’ choice of Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education and its troubling Race to the Top program. Lewis’ strident and uncompromising critique of Mayor Emanuel’s goals places her in a tradition of black womanhood that has not thought to emulate or personify the power, but fight it. And that is a revolutionary tradition of agitation and activism that black women have both embodied and voiced. At this juncture, it seems that it is more necessary, and frankly more revolutionary, to be willing to occupy a space of critique that articulates the detrimental (race, class, gender) ramifications of supporting the disturbingly conservative goals of our nation’s first black mixed president, rather than comporting one’s self to fall in line.

To be sure, I understand our desire to go hard for Michelle Obama. I get it. But beyond noting how astonishing it is just for her to live in the White House, I hesitate to call her choice(s) revolutionary, and not a seemingly feminine extension of a kind of conservatism that has been attractive to black folks for decades #bookert #malcolmx #obama. Beyond the scene, there’s nothing new here. Lauding the choice to personify a respectability that, frankly, won’t ever solve black people’s alleged problems seems counterproductive to me. But speaking truth to power and putting one’s self in danger so that others might begin to see this and other things differently? I’ll raise a fist to that.


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