President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle...

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Mrs Obama: Tired of ’angry black woman’ stereotype. (article from msnbc.com)

Having just finished reading Sister Citizen; Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America by Melissa V. Harris-Perry, which has been the most comprehensive book I’ve read on the subject of race and gender issues that focus on the unique political and social challenges faced by Black women in America…this has been “a long time a coming” as the old cliche goes, and is exactly what comes to mind as i read the above article in which Michelle attempts to set the record straight.  I remember in 2008 when the ‘angry black woman’ attacks first began on Mrs. Obama, and with integrity in mind, she did the opposite of what right wing commentators, news and radio jockey’s expected, and refused to give it the supposed ‘typical’ reaction it was begging for.  I remember the ‘Baby mama’ episode with Fox News during the heat of the general election fight, they referred to her as “Barack’s Baby mama”.  There were attempts to to frame her with the common trope of hyper sexuality.

In her book Sister Citizen; Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America Melissa V. Harris-Perry States the following a Chapter devoted entirely to Michelle Obama’s image in the media during the election campaign and even as First Lady.   “Baby mama is used as a derogatory term for the mother of children born outside of marriage: it usually implies that the woman is difficult and bothersome to the children’s father, thus the slang phrase ‘baby mama drama’.  Many commentators found this reference to Mrs. Obama appalling, denonced Fox News, and elicited an apology.  While Fox News has earned a reputation as particularly virulent on issues involving the Obama family, their characterization of Michelle Obama was not motivated by political opposition alone: it was rooted in the specific history of shaming black women as sexually immoral.  In reality, all of the major players in the 2008 presidential campaign, the Obama’s had the most traditional, least controversial sexual history.  Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama’s rival in the primaries, still labors under the shadow of her husband’s public infidelity.  John McCain’s relationship with his second wife caused a scandal in Washington, DC, after his first marriage abruptly ended.  Sarah Palin’s teenage daughter was unmarried and pregnant during the campaign.  Even Joe Biden is in his second marriage, though the story of his first wife’s death was far more tragic than the scandalous. Yet it was Michelle who was derded as a ‘baby mama’.  It is the negative myths surrounding black women in America that allowed some commentators to feel they were licensed to deploy such a wildly inaccurate term.” (pg 273)

However, when this didn’t stick, they painted Mrs. Obama with the ‘angry black woman’ brush at different points during the campaign.  One of those moments occurred when the content of her Princeton university senior thesis was made public.  “In 1985, a young Michelle Robinson had written a senior research  project for the Princeton sociology department in which she explored the social and personal difficulties many African American students experienced at the university.  The thesis also revealed her own sense of alienation on campus. This resulted in attacks against Michelle by many in the media who accused her of harboring resentment and hatred toward white people, white institutions, and America in general.” (pg 274)  Again, there was a torrent of criticism of Michelle when she made the remarks “that ‘for the first time in my adult life i am proud of my country because it feels like hope is finally making a comeback” this she said on a campaign stop in Milwaukee after her husband won the Primary in Iowa .  As Harris-Perry points out in her book Sister Citizen, “this comment became fodder for opposition speculation about her latent anger. She was a forty-four year old mother of two who earned a significant salary and held degrees from Princeton and Harvard-yet she was never previously proud of her country? Again her critique was taken as evidence of her irrational anger.  If her criticism of Princeton university was seen as revealing an inappropriately racialized psychology rather than the university’s institutionally discriminatory practices her pride comment was received as evidence of her lack of patriotism rather than a course for reconsidering the nations’s racial history.  Every time she pointed out that the angles of the room were crooked, the nation seemed to shout back that she, not the room, was askew.” (pg 275)  Harris-Perry focuses on Michelle because she is the most visible and contemporary example of an African American woman working to stand straight in a ‘crooked room’.

I remember the picture in the New Yorker that characterized Michelle Obama as an angry black woman depicting Barack and Michelle as ‘fist bumping’ terrorist with an American flag burning in the fire place of the oval office, Osama bin Laden’s picture hung over the mantel.  See this write up in the Huffington Post.

It’s called a ‘fist pound’ or simply ‘Dap’…not ‘fist bumping’ smh

Barack is dressed in traditional North African apparel.  Michelle was shown in military gear and combat boots with an AK-47 slung across her back and her hair in a large, curly Afro.  As Harris-Perry observes in her book “what ever the intent, it captured a particular sentiment about Michelle, Although Barack Obama had been photographed in similar attire during a trip to Africa, Michelle has never syled her hair in a large Afro, been heavily armed,  or worn military gear.  The New Yorker’s representation of her was not drived from visual evidence but from an ideological perspective about her.  As is often the case the crooked room, anger was an easy defult framework for interpreting Michelle.”

The Obama’s public display of affection and teamwork

And be assured, this isn’t just an slanderous attack on First Lady Obama, nor is it a struggle she is shoulders by herself, however the media’s treatmeant of Michelle serves and a constant reminder of the ‘crooked room’ in which smart, educated, self assured, confident, cultured, socially conscious and often attractive Black women find securing recognition to be difficult.  The ‘crooked room’ is representative of the racial framework in which Black women are viewed through historical stereotypes, which fits neatly into America’s racial framework which is connected to America’s dark past, and the African American experience.

Ms. Harris-Perry illustrates the many ways ‘mis-recognition’ has taken hold over the history of African Americans in this country, and the specific political impacts that have resulted. This book is an amazingly well-written, important work that should be required reading in history classes across America, and that most certainly should be gifted to as many African American women young and old, as possible and anyone with an interest in American politics of gender and race.

About the Book:

Jezebel’s sexual lasciviousness, Mammy’s devotion, and Sapphire’s outspoken anger-these are among the most persistent stereotypes that black women encounter in comtemporary American life.  Hurtful and dishonest, such representations force African American women to navigate a virtual crooked room that shapes their experiences as citizens.  Many respond by assuming a mantle of strenght that many convince others, and even themselves, that they do not need help. but as a result, the unique political issues of black women are often ignored and marginalized.

In this ground breaking book, Melissa V. Harris-Perry uses multiple methods of inquire, including literary analysis, political theory, focus groups, surveys, and experimental research, to understand more deeply black women’s political and emotional responses to pervasive negative race and gender images..  Not a traditional political science work concerned with office-seeking, voting or ideology, Sister Citizen instead explores how African American women understand themselves as citizens and what they expect from political organizing.  Harris-Perry shows that the shared struggle to preserve an authentic self and secure recognition as a citizen links together black women in America, from the anonymous survivors of Hurricane Katrina to the current First Lady of the United States.

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