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Does Michelle Obama want to be Ms. Congeniality?


She has not read the book, she does not care about people’s perceptions because they would not know, yet she sends out clarifications. I am disturbed by what she seems to have a problem with: 

  • “I guess it's more interesting to imagine this conflicted situation here and a strong woman. But that's been an image that people have tried to paint of me since the day Barack announced [he would run for president] - that I'm some angry black woman.”

And why can she not be one? Have those specific words been used? People have said things about Hillary, when Bill Clinton was President. Did it become an ‘angry white woman’ issue? People have called Sarah Palin several names, and she spawned a whole humour industry, as indeed did George Bush. 

We are talking about The Obamas, a book by Jody Kantor. Like many such biographical accounts, it does not have an official stamp of approval and is based on interviews. This is a valid form of writing, as are opinion pieces. Had it been hagiographical, would Michelle Obama be concerned about how she is projected? Would she feel the need to debunk the archetype of the angry black woman? 

Let us dissect the three words separately:

Angry. It does convey a negative emotion, but its potential to be channelised and keep the spark alive is even more potent. ‘Look back in anger’ goes right into the heart of such fury. The problem is that the world is rather interested in the Ms. Congeniality and Mr. Nice Guy ideas. Anger may lead to just an extra dose of arrogance, of righteousness, but belief also leads to introspection. 

Black. It is a colour. It is a race. It comes with baggage, like many other shades – yellow, brown, white. I understand that racism is a major concern, but people in power in other societies have had to deal with labels too based on their origins. There have been black people who have contributed in several fields and to even mention it is exceedingly patronising. There are barriers, but they aren’t waiting for handouts or confirmation of their credentials – of blackness or beyond. 

Woman. Again, the gender issue will talk of the ‘second sex’, which I find insulting. In a country that is still not quite certain whether it wants a woman to be President, the First Lady should be holding out for this one. I am not suggesting that a woman ought to be head of state, just as I do not think such choices need to be based on narrow definitions and identities and bandied about. It only shows we have not quite evolved and need these pigeonholes. 

Now, if we take these three words together “angry black woman”, we can see it in a positive manner of a person who thinks independently, is comfortable with the identity she was born with (I will not say ‘be proud of’, for it is puerile to be proud of an accident of birth, unless you have great skin and an awesome pair of boobs, but that is about natural vanity, not worked-to-earn-a-place pride). This person is a woman and does not need masculine yardsticks to judge her, so if she is angry, then she bloody well will yell and scream and if you call this female hysteria then you will have to put up with it, because she is going to have her say. You think she in on the soapbox, fine. So, don’t expect a pedestal, lady, for that is the big trap. Your anger is as just as it is justified, and you don’t need for it to be justifiable. 

On the other hand, we have Naomi Campbell, an angry black woman, but she is seen as a tyrant for what she has done. Should we psychoanalyse her behaviour necessarily through a black female prism? 

When Michelle Obama says that being pinned as an angry black woman seems “more interesting” to people, she is using a limited definition by imagining it. However, one might like to know more interesting than what? That she fights for causes? That’s she brings up two teenage daughters? That she makes sure young Americans eat right? These matter only because of the place she occupies in the White House. 

Therefore, one wonders why she thinks it is not quite right to say she sits in her husband’s political meetings? She has gone defensive:

  • “I am his biggest ally. I am one of his biggest confidants. But he has dozens of really smart people who surround him. That's not to say that we don't have discussions and conversations.”

Yet, one of the reports has this to say:

  • In the opening pages of The Obamas, Kantor sets out the terms of her project: “In public, they smiled and waved, but how were the Obamas really reacting to the White House, and how was it affecting the rest of us?” The questions are at once labored and absurd. The state of a marriage is a poor guide to the course of a presidency.

Really? Why was Clinton impeached? Why has Nancy Reagan’s role been dissected? The Obamas have talked about their life; they discuss with the media their concerns about their daughters; there is public display of affection. If Michelle were faced with that yawn of a quote “Behind every successful man there is a woman”, both she and Barack would have smiled, at the very least. Neither would deny it. They might not go the Clinton way of getting two for the price of one, but this reveals that a partner plays a role. She may not have problems with the White House staff, but many people have issues with those who work with their spouses, especially if they are essentially sharing the same physical space. The fact that one calls it home and the other office gives the former an advantage, and rightly so. 

It would be a tough task to make it sound like an edition of Friends. As she said:

  • “My hope is that over time people get to know me. And they get to judge me for me. That’s why I don’t read these books. Because, you know, it’s a game in so many ways… Who can write about how I feel? Who? What third person can tell me how I feel? Or anybody for that matter.”

True. She might like to write her own story, but that too would be selective, would it not? Or would she write a self-help book, “How Not To Be An Angry Black Woman”? 

(c) Farzana Versey