On Thursday night Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry, who I have a sizeable crush on as well, spoke at Spelman College. She talked about some of the themes from her book, “Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America,” and made a few off-the-cuff remarks, including a shout out to the now-defunct Atlanta celebration Freaknik.
The entire lecture was spellbinding and I left the auditorium that night determined to break up her marriage and convince her to move to Atlanta. But in addition detailing her own wisdom, Harris-Perry took a little time to break down the brash, ballsy brilliance of our First Lady.
Toward the end of her lecture, Harris-Perry made a few comments about the difference between Michelle Obama’s recently taken second official White House portrait and her first (pictured above). There are three spectacularly defiant parts of the first picture that a cursory glance doesn’t reveal.
The first element is the dress she chose. Obama had often been criticized or mocked for her decision to “bear arms” when she was in public during her time on the campaign trail and immediately after her husband took the Presidential Oath of Office.
The distaste for the First Lady’s arms was well documented, not only by the typical Obama bashing crowd, but by purists who believe it’s a First Lady’s job to blend into the scenery. So rather than hide her arms, she chose to put them on full display in the portrait of her that will be what future generations see when they learn about Michelle Obama for as long as they tell the history of the United States. This was bold.
Even more bold was her choice of stance. In the picture, her waist juts out in a way that subtly draws attention to the roundness of her figure. Many, including Harris-Perry, believe that it’s the inherent Blackness of Michelle’s body that causes so many people pause. With the picture, it’s as if she’s saying, “This is my body. It’s the body of a Black woman and it’s the body of the First Lady of the United States. Deal with it.”
The third element of the photo that speaks to just who Michelle Obama is and that she knows just what she’s doing is the photograph in the background. There are pictures of every President somewhere in the White House and she chose to have her picture taken right beneath the portrait of Thomas Jefferson, probably the most well-known slave owner of all the presidents and the one best known for having impregnating one of his slaves six times – a claim some historians and a few in the Jefferson family denied and still deny to this day.
The entire picture just say, without being ostentatious or courting controversy, that a Proud Black Woman is in the house; things done changed. The portrait is like a silent nod to the satirical New Yorker cover that pictured her as an Afroed, gun-toting revolutionary in the tradition of Angela Davis (who interestingly enough said she voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012, the first time she’s ever voted for a major party candidate).
All of the elements are subtle, but they’re all there if you look for them. In fact, they’re magnified by her latest photo, which is a closer shot of Obama in the green room, arms covered, sitting and smiling. It’s a photo that seems to say, “I got this.”
Then there was her Friday night appearance on “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” that has been shared across the internet since it happened in which the First Lady joins the comedian in a dance routine showcasing just how much the way your mother dances has changed over the years. It’s not just that she was lighthearted enough to join Fallon in “The Evolution of Mom Dancing,” but the fact that she seemed so human, so relatable and so real.
There are moments – like the infamous eye roll heard ’round the world during a congressional lunch after President Obama’s inauguration – where she seems to be the only real person in a world full of untouchable politicians and beltway bureaucrats all mechanically carrying out their tasks.
Moments like that show us that Michelle Obama is not perfect. But she’s imperfect in the most wonderful ways.
Lots of unreasonable people have found lots of nits to pick with her, but as the late poet laureate of Brooklyn, Christopher Wallace, would say, it comes with the territory.
She’s still fun, she’s still rebellious, she’s still Black, and she apologizes for none of it.