I’m going to go out on a very sane limb here and argue that Michelle Obama will probably not love this. Since the Hottentot Venuses, African women whose “exotic” features were displayed like animals in zoos in 19th-century Europe, black women’s bodies have been fetishized. Their bodies weren’t perceived to have emotions or feelings. They were the physical embodiment of objectification. Sure, the Portrait d’une négresse seemed to reach beyond that narrative, but it lay firmly in the era of battling ideologies over a black woman’s naked body, like public turf and not private property.
So literally painting one of the most recognizable black women into that canon is an obvious no-no. It’s why Michelle Obama’s nude seems more insidious than Percheron-Daniels’ Photoshops of Queen Elizabeth and Princess Di. Those two women have the security blanket of a history that ostensibly sought to protect their white bodies. Michelle Obama and women who look like her have none of that.
But why should you care? I’d never heard of Magazine de Fuera de Serie before its offensive cover landed in my inbox. I don’t have to pass it at the newsstands on my way to the subway or flip through it while under the dryer at the beauty salon. It’s not on my radar, but then again, it is.
I have to live in an increasingly shrinking world in the skin I was given. I’ve been to Europe more than once and experienced “the eyes” that black women whisper about. The stares follow you from plaza to café to discotheque — curious, unblinking and, most of all, hungry.
Once while in Paris with my bestie (the same art-history nerd I made e-smell the stench of Michelle’s Portrait d’une négresse), a Frenchmen, who looked a lot like Vigo the Carpathian from Ghostbusters II, demanded I go to his “most VIP” club later that night. When I finally relented, he said the bouncers would take care of me at the door, which sounded scarier, considering his doppelgänger. I hesitated and he pressed on.
“Two black guys. Two huge blacks? You know? Niggazzz.”
I was too shocked to shoot up the place. Instead we asked him why he thought calling black people “n–gers” was OK.
“It’s OK, you know, because it’s France.”
No, I didn’t know. I had no idea, but I was learning that being black abroad is a lot like being black in America, but the nuances don’t translate. It’s where racism is blunt and unabashed. It might sound different in French or Spanish, but it’s the same and should be decried just as loudly, whether it’s happening down the street or thousands of miles away.