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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Original article in WashingtonPost

Defined by Her Times and Defining Them, Michelle Obama Is a First Among First Ladies

By Lonnae O'Neal Parker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 19, 2009; 6:33 PM

The space underneath the photo of Michelle Robinson Obama in the "First Ladies" exhibit at the National Museum of American History is blank. The only thing that fills it is imagination.

The picture of Obama, wearing a short-sleeved turtleneck and tasteful stud earrings, sits across from Martha Washington's silk taffeta gown and down from the parasol of Sarah Polk.

Martha capably managed the family slave plantation when George was away and Sarah once said that framers of the Declaration of Independence had it wrong when they wrote that all men were created equal. Slaves, the first lady mused, and the mistresses who fanned themselves at the window while watching them work, "were created" for their roles.

Standing in front of the Obama picture, the low whispers of the room mix with echoes from the culture. A "Sesame Street" game: One of these things is not like the others.

Obama's picture, at the end of a long line of first ladies' images and artifacts, is a natural place for visitors to linger and project. It's what Americans have been doing with Michelle Obama since she first strode across a campaign stage two years ago. The attention has turned blinding since her husband, Barack Obama, was elected the 44th president and Barack, 47, Michelle, 45, Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7, the youngest first family in decades, the first African American first family, moved to Washington; since Michelle Obama became a standard-bearer for the nation.

"Over the years, the role of first lady has been perceived as largely symbolic," former first lady Hillary Clinton once said of the position. "She is expected to represent an ideal -- and largely mythical -- concept of American womanhood."

First lady is a position without constitutionally prescribed duties, but it's the closest person to the most powerful man in the world -- a position of unaccountable influence. To the weight of it all, Obama brings degrees from Princeton and Harvard Law, attractiveness, vitality, fitness. And she's a mother of two. A mommy.

"Michelle was so great in the campaign," Clair Ward enthuses, leaving the exhibit with three other 17-year-old classmates from Woodstock, Va. "It's kind of awesome that, like, we're around" to see history. Ward wants her to focus on environmental issues.

"I hope she gets involved more on a global scale," says Margot Gurganus.

"While maintaining her motherly role," says Hanna Lehnen.

"That's important, too," Jenny Hoye chimes in.

"She's going to be a role model for us all in the upcoming year -- like you really can have it all," Gurganus says.

Bethesda residents Joel Happy, a 27-year-old accountant, and his wife, Keisha, a 28-year-old academic coordinator at the University of Maryland, stand close to the Obama picture, whispering. "I feel like now that Michelle is there, I can come and have a history to talk about," says Joel, who was born in France to parents from Cameroon. "Before, it was like, 'Why are you in this room looking at all the white ladies?' "

Now, "I can really feel part of this country," says Keisha, whose mother is from Guyana.

Their excitement about Michelle Obama is emblematic of a wider appeal, the carefully honed image connoting an all-American archetype. It's functional-family time.

J. Crew spams us with pop-up ads for the outfit Obama wore on "The Tonight Show," and the Donna Ricco dress she wears on "The View" sells out at White House/Black Market. And the forever-ago fist bump the night her husband secured the Democratic nomination, why, that's just the new sign for Pax Americana.

The fact that they are black is icing or incidental, a shimmery piece of that urban cool, or at best a side calculation, in some reckonings. But others note the image of an African American family is one you rarely find even these days on the major television networks. Perhaps today is also the beginning of a new understanding; there are conversations we have yet to have.

Who you think Michelle Obama is depends on who you are; depends on race, depends on class, depends on the things your mother used to say when she felt frustrated with her own life. Or perhaps it is that the Obamas are like a national jigsaw puzzle. They only fit together this one way in this one unique time, but all of us feel like we recognize little pieces of them.

"There are things that we look at in a first family and in a first lady that we don't see in a president," says first ladies historian Myra Gutin. They become "a window to learn a little about the character of the president." With each administration there are new questions about the role and significance of the first lady and whether she reflects the role of women in the society. "Will the times permit Michelle Obama to be groundbreaking, or is she going to be more traditional? We're going to learn a lot through smaller details."

Janet Lindsey lives "in a very WASPy" area of Severna Park. She didn't vote for Barack Obama but thinks Michelle Obama will be a strong first lady. "Despite being well educated, she's a good balance," Lindsey says. She appreciates that "her number one thing is her kids. And being a good wife to her husband. That sounds old school, but that's a big job."

Historian Betty Boyd noted a "striking pattern" among men who become president. They marry up. They choose women with more money or better connections, a more discerning eye for spotting friends, enemies and opportunities.

It's like Mary Todd Lincoln once said: Men have the advantage of us women.

"Michelle just did what we all do," says Kamyra Harding, a partner at a resource development firm in Manhattan. "You find this guy and you mold him, he's got the raw material, but he had to be polished before anyone would pay attention to him. You want the house, check, the little girls, check, check."

Women and children have always acted as a bridge to the community. Add a layer to this in the black community.

In fact, add five.

Black people revel in the "us-ness" of Michelle. Her Chicago South Side bona fides. Her well-coiffed brownness. It made instant stakeholders of people who had been, for an age, invited only to press their noses against the glass.

Her Princeton roommate Angela Kennedy Acree, a lawyer with the Public Defenders Service in Washington, predicts that Michelle Obama's White House "will be much more accessible."

"She said to me before the election and since that she's going to open up the White House to the community and particularly to children." The Obama girls will have "friends in and out" and "there'll be many, many more regular D.C. kids saying, 'I went to the White House,' " Acree says. "Not just for the Easter Egg Roll. Kids whose parents don't have connections or money."

A couple of weeks ago, Acree had dinner with her old friend at the Hay-Adams Hotel. Obama is a believer in "clean foods," largely devoid of chemicals. As the girls popped in and out to ask about homework, Obama talked about the obesity epidemic. "She was just saying she wanted to be a role model for how you can manage to be a busy working mom and still taking care of yourself, getting a little exercise and eating as healthy as you can."

As first lady, she's "going to be worried about health and nutrition for regular people who cannot necessarily shop at Whole Foods," Acree says. "I believe there are going to be groups of little kids going to the White House kitchen to eat clean foods."

Since the election, feminist writers have fretted over the "Mommification of Michelle," concerned about the focus on the new first lady, a former vice president with the University of Chicago Hospitals, as "mom in chief." Especially with Hillary Clinton having come so close to winning the nomination, they worry that Obama's promoting a retrograde image of women. Others are still marveling that there's a first lady on the front of Ebony. It's become something of a cultural fault line.

Black women don't often publicly inveigh on the work/family divide. Although Michelle Obama's mother, Marian Robinson, stayed home, most black women work outside the home. Often it's taken two incomes to keep black families afloat. And more than 100 years ago, middle-class black women who had the option to stay home decided true womanhood included careers.

Still -- if Obama does nothing but tend to her children, she will nevertheless be a powerful symbol. One of the biggest poverties in the black community is a poverty of images. Black women have been desexualized or oversexed: The hoochie mama, the baby mama, the faithful Aunt Jemima. The new first family, with two little girls in two-strand twists, changes all that, says Daphne Valerius, a freelance journalist and filmmaker. Her documentary "The Souls of Black Girls" is a look at image disorders in African American girls.

With Malia and Sasha, their influence "is much larger than any show, than any rap video, than any commercial, than any magazine article. It's bigger than the Italian Vogue issue with all black girls."

Stephanie Jackson-Rowe, a mother of four whose oldest daughter used to take ballet classes with Malia in Chicago, sometimes chatted with Obama about their mutual interest in fitness as they waited for the girls. Last year, Rowe started the fundraising group Moms for Michelle so her daughter and others could feel included in the campaign. She's thinking now of turning it into a kind of Michelle Obama society.

"All of those concerned about Michelle need to give her time," Rowe says. "She's not just going to sit up there and eat bonbons. Whatever she does is going to be right for the American people, not just African Americans. She wants to fight the good fight."

Ultimately Obama's appeal has everything to do with our own hunger. Some want to see a family. Some want to see the engaged career woman making a difference. Some want to see an egalitarian marriage. Some just love seeing black love.

"We're all in this together," Michelle Obama said repeatedly during the campaign. And today that truth is self-evident.

At the first ladies exhibit, distant echoes fill the space. Surrounded by so much history, it's easy to let the imagination wander -- to see better angels. And ghosts, chained by the weight of history. Here is the lorgnette of Mary Todd Lincoln, a rabid abolitionist. One of her dresses is in the Abraham Lincoln display in another part of the museum. It was made by her faithful servant and friend, Elizabeth Keckly, who died at the National Home for Destitute Colored Women and Children in Washington. Her remains have been lost to time.

Michelle Obama represents a convergence point in our national journey. It is, in some ways, unrealistic to have such unbounded expectations for one person and one family. But that's what hope is.

We can't know what her artifacts will be at the end of four years, or eight, just as we couldn't have known this daughter of black, working-class Chicago could even have claimed a space on the wall.

We can only imagine.

Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.


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