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Africana panel explores Michelle Obama's image, identity

Michelle Obama, one of the most influential -- and controversial -- black women today, was discussed at an Oct. 15 panel at the Africana Studies and Research Center (ASRC), "Thinking Through Michelle Obama: Black Studies and Black Feminism."

The panel, part of ASRC's "Race and the Presidency, Part II" colloquium in a yearlong series on freedom, citizenship and democracy, was moderated by Beverly Guy-Sheftall, a professor of women's studies at Spelman College, and featured Africana studies faculty Noliwe Rooks, Riché Richardson and Carole Boyce Davies.

"Black women are most palatable to various public audiences -- including African-Americans -- when we embrace traditional family structures, and Michelle Obama is no exception," Guy-Sheftall said. She noted that the first lady's popularity rating has been consistently high and higher than her husband's.

But Obama's current image of "mom-in-chief" is very different from the image with which she began the 2008 campaign, said Rooks, who examined the "stunning" transformation triggered by her unscripted, from-the-heart comment that "for the first time in my adult lifetime I'm proud of my country..."

The comment, and the unexpected release of her senior thesis by Princeton shortly thereafter, resulted in a portrayal of Obama as an angry, unappreciative black radical, Rooks said. The campaign had to reshape her public persona and strip out all mention of her work life, of law school and of her African-American studies minor at Princeton.

"It was all replaced by an image of mom-in-chief," Rooks said.

Critiques of the first lady now focus on her lack of femininity, said Rooks, noting that one way Obama has fought back is through fashion.

"The designers she chooses and how she talks about fashion meshes with the politics of respectability, but while she uses fashion to turn herself into someone recognizable, she puts a stamp on it that keeps her as a singular kind of presence," she said.

Boyce Davies said that within feminist scholarship, "motherhood rests in black communities in diaspora at the center of community, so it's not a negative image. On the other hand, being a mom doesn't give power in the political sphere."

She emphasized the rise of black women in political leadership across the African diaspora. "Black women having leadership isn't new," Boyce Davies said, "but it has moved into more central spaces, with black women filling more prominent positions around the world …. without the mitigating status of wife."

While she said Obama fits the category of black women whose political influence has been camouflaged by their husbands, the first lady still "presents images of strength in her physicality and unabashed assertiveness in her public persona and her deep sense of community."

Richardson examined the influence of place, noting that Obama's upbringing on the South Side of Chicago has been an essential part of her image. The emphasis on "south" in defining Obama's origins in Chicago links her to black southern diasporas in the urban North, Richardson said.

The biographical video made by the 2008 campaign "unsettles the typical pathologies of the South Side of Chicago by describing it as a place where stable, loving black families and devoted black mothers exist … foregrounding an African-American woman who was a stay-at-home mother," Richardson said.

Richardson also noted that Obama frequently emphasizes her South Side roots to underscore the barriers that she overcame and to suggest that her achievements are possible for other girls and women, "pointing to the profound significance of space in constructing her identity as a woman."

Linda B. Glaser is staff writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.

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