What Michelle Obama Can Teach Us About Black Women

Throughout this long, tense election, everyone has focused on the presidential candidates and how they'll change America. Rightly so. But selfishly, I'm more fascinated by Michelle Obama and what she might be able to do, not just for this country, but for me as an African-American woman. As the potential First Lady, she would have the world's attention. And that means that for the first time people will have a chance to get up close and personal with the type of African-American woman they so rarely see.

Usually, the lives of black women go largely unexamined. The prevailing theory seems to be that we're all hot-tempered single mothers who can't keep a man and, according to CNN's "Black in America," documentary, those of us who aren't street-walking crack addicts are on the verge of dying from AIDS. As writer Rebecca Walker put it on her Facebook page: "CNN should call me next time they really want to show diversity and meet real black women that nobody seems to talk about.''

Like Walker, I too know more than my share of black women who have little in common with the black female images I see in the media. My "sistafriends" are mostly college educated, in healthy, productive relationships and have a major aversion to sassy one-liners. They are teachers, doctors and business owners. Of course, there are those of us who never get the chance to pull it together. And we accept and embrace them—but their stories can't and shouldn't be the only ones told.

Yet pop culture continues to hold a very unevolved view of African-American women. Take HBO's new vampire saga "True Blood." Even in the world of make-believe, black women still can't escape the stereotype of being neck-swirling, eye-rolling, oversexed females raised by our never-married, alcoholic mothers. Where is Claire Huxtable when you need her?

These images have helped define the way all black women are viewed, including Michelle Obama. Before she ever gets the chance to commit to a cause, charity or foundation as First Lady, her most urgent and perhaps most complicated duty may be simply to be herself.

It won't be easy. Since her emergence on the national scene, Obama has been deemed radical, divisive and the adjective that no modern-day black woman can live without: angry. Thankfully, so far, she's endured these demeaning accusations with a smile and shrug—at least in public. But if she does end up in the White House, continuing to dial back her straightforward, vibrant personality isn't the answer. In the same way that Eleanor Roosevelt, Jackie Kennedy and Hillary Clinton each redefined what it meant to be First Lady, Michelle will forge her own path. Not only will she draw the usual criticisms, but she'll be open to some new ones too. I eagerly await the public reaction if Sasha and Malia ever sport cornrows or afro puffs on the South Lawn. And if Michelle decides to champion a program that benefits black youth, will her critics slam her for being too parochial?

To be fair, Hillary Clinton's early involvement in her husband's administration (think health-care reform) brought a major backlash. But there's no real evidence of Michelle Obama's desire to be a huge presence in her husband's potential administration. Besides helping military families, we don't even have many clues about what projects she might tackle.

Whatever she does, I hope she doesn't fall victim to critics with little point of reference. Take this month's issue of Town and Country magazine. An article—written by a white female reporter—offers advice to both potential First Ladies. The writer suggests Cindy McCain let her "personality and experience shine" and motivate others to give back.

For Michelle, the writer suggests that she avoid "popping off when your guard is down" and to be careful "about how, when and if she injects her ethnicity … into her platform as First Lady."

The underlying message is that the last thing anyone needs to be reminded of is that Michelle Obama is all black, unlike her husband, who is mixed—as the writer points out for seemingly no reason.

And that speaks to the larger issue that Michelle Obama could pose for the media. Because few mainstream publications have done in-depth features on regular African American women (and no, Halle Berry, Oprah and Beyoncé don't count), little is known about who we are, what we think and what we face on a regular basis. For better or worse, Michelle will become a stand-in for us all.

Just as she will have her critics, she will also have millions of adoring fans who usually have little interest in the First Lady. African-American blogs such as Sisterlicious, Black Girls Rock and That Black Girl Group have all written about what they'd like to see Michelle bring to the White House—mainly showing the world that a black woman can support her man and raise a strong black family. As contributor Felicia Jones wrote on one blog, "Michelle Obama will be the hero my little girls have been looking for. The hero doesn't have to shake her booty or point her finger to get noticed and respected. My little girls finally have a role model." Michelle will have to work to please everyone—an impossible task. But for many African-American women like me, just a little of her poise, confidence and intellect will go a long way in changing an image that's been around for far too long.

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