First lady Michelle Obama has been in the news of late because of her portrayal as a "frustrated" black woman in Jodi Kantor's book The Obamas. ABC News recently ran a segment discussing Mrs. Obama's struggle to fight against the negative stereotype of being an angry black woman, which was assigned to her from the onset of then-Sen. Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign. In the segment, the first lady discusses having to fight against a false perception of being angry, based on stereotypes about black women, especially as we gain status and power.
The first lady's struggle hit home during my recent visit to Barbados. Barbados is a strikingly beautiful island, known for its flying fish, rum, sugarcane, stunning beaches and good-looking people with good manners to boot. Like other islands in the West Indies and the United States, Barbados is marked by the remnants of the Atlantic slave trade, including a huge wealth gap, a complicated political system, post-colonial struggle and problematic images of everyone informed by a different place and time.
One of these images is of Mother Sally, a mammy-looking figure that symbolizes fertility and is marked by a huge posterior. While the mammy figure in the United States is asexual, cantankerous, undesirable and tied to the domestic sphere, Mother Sally is celebrated for her fertility and desirability as a plump, black woman and is quite liberated.
In fact, Mother Sally is traditionally played by a man (donning a mask in the early years), which problematizes her characterization in multiple ways. Whereas it is laudable that a plump, dark-skinned woman is depicted as appealing, the fact that the presence of a man is required for the celebration is telling. Further, not everyone shares the celebration of Mother Sally; many believe that she represents a dangerous stereotype that is there more for the pleasure of the colonial gaze than for the indigenous and slave-descended population on the island, even though she is a constant presence in Bajan tuk band celebrations and performances, including the "Crop Over" festival.
When I first saw Mother Sally, I must admit that my reaction was visceral. I wondered aloud why those involved in colonizing the free world must always ridicule a fat, black woman. When I learned that a man traditionally played the role of Mother Sally, I was really ticked off.
I thought about the U.S. film industry and how ridiculous it is that black men are paid millions to dress up as fat, black women, while fat, black women are largely invisible in mainstream media unless playing the role of a mammy figure, funny girl or sociopath. If Hattie McDaniel were alive today, she'd be facing some stiff competition from Tyler Perry, Martin Lawrence, Eddie Murphy and Cedric the Entertainer.
To put it mildly, I was fired up about the Mother Sally figure until I learned of the cultural context and spoke with a variety of Bajans about their perceptions of the image, which is complicated based on a number of factors related to post-colonial cultural development on the island. Some think it's a historic figure that celebrates black beauty and desirability, while others believe it's a stereotypical image that needs to be eliminated.
My rush to judgment was mitigated after doing some academic research and talking to people who actually know the journey of the Mother Sally figure in Barbados. Examining her through my black, womanist, cultural-studies lens didn't do her justice or allow Mother Sally to have her own story. Luckily I didn't allow my cultural ignorance to define who Mother Sally is for those of us not steeped in Bajan culture and tradition.
The same lack of cultural context that many visitors to Barbados, including myself, have about Mother Sally — particularly those of us interested in images of black women — is the same phenomenon that allows many people to paint America's first black first lady as an angry woman instead of taking the time to "get to know her" and to understand who she really is, without all of the cultural baggage assigned to her.
Part of being culturally competent is placing images and people in their proper context. It is a lack of cultural competence about black women that allows people to paint such narrow images of black women in the media. It is this same phenomenon that informs the ideology used to produce knowledge and culture, such that problematic images of black women, like Mammy and Mother Sally, are reproduced and circulated throughout the world.
As someone who travels internationally quite a bit, I can always count on some things happening: getting searched by airport security, being mistaken for some other ethnic- or national-group membership and having someone try to sell me a mammy figure, which brings me back to FLOTUS.
Michelle Obama is no more an angry black woman than Academy Award-winning actress Hattie McDaniel was actually a mammy. It was McDaniel who famously said, "I'd rather play a maid and make $700 a week than be a maid for $7," letting the world know that she was acutely aware of how she was being portrayed and had made a decision to play these roles for economic gain despite the harsh criticism from the black community.
First lady Obama is acutely aware of the desire by those in the media to portray her as an angry black woman, even though she appears to be far from it. Black women are attentive to the fact that people often put us into boxes because it feels safe and comfortable for them, while making the world an uncomfortable place for us.
It is this practice that makes the Mother Sally figure and others like her maddening. Will black women ever be able to just be in a world that has largely decided who we are without really knowing us or even wanting to know us? Will Michelle Obama ever be able to escape being stereotyped by those who claim to know her story, yet fail to give her an opportunity to fully live her life?
One thing is for sure: This struggle over stereotypical images of black women (some even perpetuated by black women), and the troublesome impact on our reality, will continue in politics, pop culture and real life. These factors just might make a black woman angry.
Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., is an editor-at-large for The Root.
Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., a media scholar, is digital editor in chief at Grady Newsource and a faculty member of the Cox Institute of Journalism, Innovation, Management & Leadership at the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia. She is founder and editor in chief of the award-winning news blog the Burton Wire. Follow her on Twitter here or here.