Thursday, July 2, 2009

Khadijah White on The First Lady's Sacrifices

"When Men Should Learn from Michelle"
by Khadijah White

She’s the perfect woman, right? Tall, good-looking, well-educated, stylish and endlessly devoted to her family. Michelle Obama is The Cosby Show's Clair Huxtable personified.

Especially important to the public’s obsession with Michelle Obama is her relationship with husband Barack. Between the couple’s affectionate photos on the cover of various magazines and the love story that warmed our hearts on the campaign trail, it’s hard to avoid getting wrapped up in the bigger-than-life fantasy of idealized Black coupledom that the Obama union seems to represent. But while people are falling all over themselves to tell Black women how to land a man like Barack, I rarely hear anyone talk about what Michelle had to give up to be with a man like Barack. What would make her eventually tell her highly coveted husband, "You only think of yourself... I never thought I’d have to raise a family alone"? For all the single men looking for their own Michelle, the answer to that question might help reduce any of their Barack-sized expectations.

Michelle was working for a law firm in Chicago when her future partner arrived as a summer intern. Barack often talks about how hard it was to get Michelle out on a first date. No surprise there. She was a young, Black female lawyer in a corporate firm, and a colleague that she had been assigned to mentor was pursuing her as a romantic interest. But we know how that story ends. At some point, Michelle accompanied Barack to a community organization meeting and quickly fell in love.

Soon after they started dating, Barack went into a superior’s office and announced he was going—and taking Michelle with him. Despite the pay cut, her move to work in the public sector would be extremely helpful in establishing important political networks for Barack’s career. His continued influence upon her professional life became clear when Michelle subsequently applied for a position in the mayor’s office. Before accepting the offer, she had to get her fiancee’s approval and set up a face-to-face meeting for Barack and her prospective employer. With his consent, Michelle began her new post.

Once Malia and Sasha arrived on the scene, the Obama marriage was in a tense state. By this point in time, Barack was a State Senator and spent three days a week away from home much of the year. Michelle was both the primary breadwinner and caretaker in the Obama family. She was exhausted, and angry and resentful towards her career-driven husband who, in return, thought of her as "cold and ungrateful." It was Michelle who dressed, fed, bathed, chauffeured, and read to Sasha and Malia every morning and night, even while serving as an extremely successful director of a nationally recognized community service group during the hours in between. Somehow, she had become both a married woman and a single parent at the same time. "What I notice about men, all men," Michelle would later tell a reporter, "is that their order is me, my family, God is in there somewhere, but me is first….And for women, me is fourth, and that’s not healthy."

On inauguration night, Michelle dressed up like a Princess and danced with her husband to Beyonce’s melodic rendition of “At Last” at the inaugural ball. And, in a way, Michelle had become a fairytale princess in a manner that mirrors the most paternalistic aspects of Disney's tradition. She had met a man, left her job, moved into his castle, transformed herself into a beauty icon and began an unpaid gig as a White House debutante and spouse premier.

"Michelle and Barack" may be an ideal in some ways, but let’s be truthful about what sacrifices she has (and he hasn’t) made along the way. Black women, no matter the education or accomplishment, are still shouldering way too much of the responsibility in the Black family. In recognizing Michelle's sacrifices and struggles, Black men should consider very carefully what it means to be a life partner, in every sense of the word.

White is a PhD student and Fontaine Scholar in the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. Previously, she worked as an Associate Producer at NOW on PBS.

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