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Michelle Obama credited with helping recast image of U.S. black women…

July 20, 2008 by  
Filed under News, Weekly Columns

(Akiit.com) There’s a new joy and excitement among many of the patrons of the Spiral Collective, a collection of businesses owned by black women in Detroit.

Their happiness centers on Michelle Obama, a woman they say puts a refreshing face on America’s image of African-American women.

People who come in here are absolutely in love with Michelle Obama,” says Janet Webster Jones, who owns the Source Booksellers, one of the four businesses in one building at the corner of Cass and Willis in Midtown. The others are an art gallery, a natural hair care salon and an eclectic boutique.

The ladies who come in here say they love how they love each other,” Jones, 71, says, referring to the affection between Michelle Obama and her husband, Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic candidate for president of the United States.

That excitement was evident in the crowd of women who lined up to see Michelle Obama in downtown Pontiac earlier this month, some of whom arrived three hours before the doors of the Crofoot ballroom opened to them.

Jones and others say that Michelle Obama knocks down old stereotypes of black women: Sapphire, the angry black woman; Mammy, the caretaker and nurturer of her own children and everybody else’s, and Jezebel, the loose woman.

Jones’ daughter, Alyson Jones, 34, says the modern-day jezebels are booty-shaking hoochie mamas popularized in hip-hop videos.

So Michelle comes along and she completely dispels all that,” Janet Jones says. “She represents someone who came from humble beginnings to achieve a high level of education. She has a strong self-identity as a female.

You know she likes to wear dresses and high heels and she’s almost 6 feet tall. And she’s a loving wife and a great mother.”

She normalizes black women,” says Alyson Jones, an elementary teacher at Nataki Talibah Schoolhouse, a charter school in Detroit. “She’s not the bitter black woman pundits have tried to make her out be.”

Negative images still hurt

The current New Yorker magazine cover shows a caricature of that angry, militant, black woman, featuring Michelle Obama with a huge afro, wearing military fatigues and brandishing an assault rifle. Barack Obama is dressed in traditional Muslim attire.

Magazine editors say the cover is satire typical of the magazine, meant solely to dramatize the politics of fear.

But Gail E. Wyatt, a UCLA professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences, says it fuels fears. “The image is reminiscent of the look and posture of Angela Davis and the Black Panther era,” says Wyatt, who authored the book, “Stolen Women” (Wiley, John & Sons, $14.95).

This is to incite images of the black woman as a militant, comrade and at war,” Wyatt says. The goal is to frighten people and to make this couple different and alien from mainstream America.”

This whole thing about Michelle Obama being a mad black woman is utterly ridiculous,” says Mandisa Smith, 54, a jewelry designer and fine arts appraiser.

But as far as I’m concerned, black women have a right to be mad,” Smith says. Black women, she says, are often paid less than any other demographic group, regardless of credentials. Black women typically have the worst health statistics.

Research bears out those concerns.

African-American women earn 15% less than white women and 10% less than African-American men, according to Faye Wattleton, president of the Center for the Advancement of Women. In a recent column on the organization’s Web site she noted that AIDS is the leading cause of death among black women between the ages of 25 and 44, yet one in five African-American women doesn’t have medical insurance.

Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control provide other examples of disparities. Black women on average die five years sooner than white women; black women have higher rates of diabetes and high blood pressure than white women, and while less likely than white women to get breast and cervical cancer, they are more likely to die from them.

Karen Fort Hood, Michigan Court of Appeals judge, calls Michelle Obama a role model for all women, not just African-American women.

She’s brilliant, she’s beautiful, she’s classy and she’s a warm caring individual,” Fort Hood, 54, says. “Not only is it great for black women to see a sister who could be the First Lady, it’s good for all women because she has the qualities we can all admire.”

Shirley Thomas, assistant professor of social work at Wayne State University, agrees that Michelle Obama’s popularity will have a positive impact on America’s image of black women.

We are a diverse population,” says Thomas, who has studied stress among African-American women. The achieving black woman is almost invisible in American society, she says. “Then you have a woman who is a mother, a very supportive wife, a very well-respected lawyer, who went to Princeton and Harvard Law.”

Thomas says the very fact that Barack Obama married a clearly African-American woman sends a message that you can marry a black woman and still be successful.

Typically, society has touted a narrow image of the attractive black woman, Thomas says. That woman has usually been a lighter-skinned black woman — something Whoopi Goldberg brought up when Michelle Obama recently cohosted the ABC television show “The View.”

Goldberg complimented Obama’s brown skin saying, “I know it sounds funny and silly, but if you are a black woman and you are tuning in and every time you see someone who is supposed to represent black women and … not very, very fair skin women, I am talking about dark black women, I just want to say thanks.”

Whoopi was right in a sense,” Thomas says. “There was a certain look you had to have. Michelle Obama is a real sister. She appears to be very down-to-earth. She will have a powerful impact.”

Art gallery owner Sherry Washington agrees. She says that when she saw that Michelle Obama was undeniably black, “and had African-American features, I was so happy. It says to me that Barack Obama sees a person for who they are and not superficial standards of beauty.

She’s creating a new standard of beauty, although it’s been there all along.”

Wyatt says America is not accustomed to seeing a black woman with breadth, depth, intelligence and beauty, and Michelle Obama has the potential to change that.

People need to realize she represents more of what they haven’t seen than what they have seen,” Wyatt says.

Michelle Obama’s brains, beauty and style were hot topics of conversation among the crowd of predominantly African-American women in Pontiac for Michelle Obama’s first public appearance in Michigan.

Oakland County Commissioner Mattie Hatchett was among several people who made introductory comments about Michelle Obama before she spoke.

In Hatchett’s enthusiastic introduction, she made a deliberate point of complimenting Obama’s intelligence and her beauty.

Hatchett later said she did so because she’s so happy and proud that finally there’s a woman who gives the world a more balanced and complete picture of African-American women.

She’s bright; she’s beautiful; she’s a mother; she’s powerful in her own right; she’s very supportive of her man and still doesn’t lose her identity,” Hatchett says.

Brenda Kirk, 42, brought her daughters Paige, 12, and Bria, 9, and a friend, Shaniya Douglass, 10, to see Obama.

I had to bring them here to see a black woman like Michelle Obama,” says Kirk, a day care provider who lives in Auburn Hills.

She is paving the way for so many of our young black girls. Michelle Obama shows our ancestors that the work and sacrifices they went through are not in vain. And she shows our daughters what’s possible, that you can work hard and achieve, and that you can be First Lady of the United States.”

Aesthetically, when you look at her you really do see a black woman,” says Detroit businesswoman Char Hackney-Goolsby, mother of 12-year-old Lauren Goolsby.

“When I was growing up — and still, to a certain extent — it was not fashionable to be black or brown. She kind of validates black women. For my little girl and for other little black girls, she represents a hopefulness that is exciting. I kept looking at her and thinking, ‘Wow!’ ”


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