Nov. 20, 2008—My erstwhile African-American-studies-minored self would love nothing more than to publish a dissertation on why this piece in Salon, written by Erin Aubry Kaplan of the Los Angeles Times, is destructive, superficial and historically unsound. But what would be the point?
I would say how dare you continue the objectification of a black woman, but mostly what I want to do is scream in outrage.
The article is, essentially, an ode to the black butt—specifically Michelle Obama's. It is titled, predictably: "First Lady Got Back." Lame title aside, it is a clear demonstration that despite the historic events of Nov. 4, there is still a lot to do about how we talk and think about black people in this country. This is especially true of black women who, whatever their accomplishments, are often seen as no more than the mere sum of their body parts, especially that part.
In Kaplan's piece, Michelle Obama is stripped of all of the non-physical attributes that make black people so proud to see her at Barack's side. Things like—oh, I don't know—her really huge, gigantic—brain! While reading this nonsense, it's almost tempting to forget about Michelle's brilliance. Her "coruscating intelligence" only gets a passing mention, while her, "…solid, round, black, class A boo-tay" and her perceived ability to "kick Barack's ass, if need be," are front and center in the discussion.
It is as if her intellect is subordinate to her physical features because she is a black woman. Kaplan, who is black, is practically jubilant: "…what really thrills me," she writes, "what really feels liberating in a very personal way, is the official new prominence of Michelle Obama. Barack's better half not only has stature but is statuesque. She has coruscating intelligence, beauty, style and—drumroll, please—a butt."
Thanks, but no thanks.
Let's be clear. The "signifier of blackness that [can't] be tamed, muted or otherwise made invisible," that Kaplan sees in Michelle Obama's butt comes not from our physical features, pronounced or not, but rather from a dogged determination and unrelenting self-assuredness that has been handed down from generation to generation.
That's why black women gravitate to Michelle. She had the gall as a little black girl from the South Side of Chicago, born to regular hard-working black folks, to dream big dreams and to achieve them; to go to universities that had not always been welcoming to people like her and succeed—and gave 'em hell while she was there. Then she had the nerve to go back to Chicago, not go to Wall Street and work on behalf of the people she grew up with and raise a lovely family.
So you could imagine my shock when, of all people, a black woman chose to collapse Michelle's whole history, all of the things she has accomplished in her own right—independent of Barack, in order to celebrate her "booty"?
I don't get it.
Yes, a nice butt is celebrated in the black community; one hour in any black barbershop would confirm it. But there is a certain self-mockery in that behavior. More importantly though, successful people like Michelle are more celebrated in those same communities.
If Michelle were built like Cindy McCain, would we have rejoiced any less? (OK, stupid question, but you get my point.) Black women need to be comfortable and confident with our "unsettling" features, regardless of what anyone else thinks. Michelle, if nothing else, is comfortable and confident, and her example deserves more than an objectified and belittling barbershop treatment.
Janelle Jolley is a writer in Washington, D.C.