Like Ida B. Wells-Barnett, my experience as a Black woman in the academy has been that my choice to be committed to supporting my Black husband and raising Black children has been interpreted as a “divided duty,” more than 100 years after Wells-Barnett blazed the trail. I entered the tenure-track 15 years ago when I was five months pregnant. I have taken three parental leaves, which were all met with resentment. This is not unusual, but what I am confident of is that if I had chosen to stay home, I would have faced as much hostility, if not more. America is comfortable with Black women raising white children (TheHelp, To Kill A Mockingbird, Clara’s Heart, I’ll Fly Away…need I go on?), but the minute we try to take care of our own, we’re reduced to “letting down the team,” which is what white feminist Linda Hirshman is claiming about Lady “O.” I’m confused. Just because I have five letters behind my name (Ph.D. and JD) and a substantive career does not mean I am, ever have been, or ever will be on their team.
Why? Because I am raising a daughter the same age as Quvenzhané Wallis, and it’s not the same as raising Dakota Fanning. After receiving an Oscar nomination for her role in Beastsof the Southern Wild, Wallis, the youngest Best Actress nominee ever,landed the leading role in Sony Pictures/Overbrook Entertainment’s upcoming Annie. Despite this, as many people know, The Onion degraded her childhood by calling her a “cunt.” This is where there is a divide between white Moms and “Mocha Moms.” Leslie Morgan Steiner is not raising Quvenzhané, but we are
Although Mrs. Obama did not stay at home until being married to the President, she knows that she is not entirely different from the Black women who stay at home for other reasons. She is also trying to protect her daughter from being “satired.” When Malia was only 11, she was ridiculed for wearing natural hair and a t-shirt promoting Peace. Lady “O” knows that Malia is Quvenzhané, which is why she invited the Mocha Moms to the White House. It’s an ethos Black feminists have understood all along; we need to support each other, value each other, and not degrade a sister whether she goes into the workforce or not. That’s what being on the same team is all about.
The Post’s treatment of feminism and Michelle Obama has more B.S. than intersectionality. The obfuscations abound. First, there is this odd aside to “feminist Americans” later placed in opposition to “black feminists.” It is unclear who the former is but it is particularly clear who the latter is not: black feminists are not mainstream feminists. This treatment of feminism sets up the premise that Michelle Obama may be living some black feminist fantasy but she has not ascended to acceptable “feminist American” ideals. The idea of being a “mom-in-chief” is apparently antithetical to acceptable choices that feminist Americans make. I do not want to pile on the writer. Frankly, her artlessness only reveals what many believe. Her problem is not that she has said that Michelle Obama is failing at feminism; it’s that she did not obscure that belief in the elitism that Slaughter so casually tosses about her “having it all” thesis.
Black feminists have been fighting this fight for a long time. The tension is grounded in the relative position to power that the Anne Marie Slaughters of the world have enjoyed by their proximity to white men. But Michelle turns that equation on its head. She is as close to power as any white woman has ever been. She is making choices afforded to her by the role of First Lady. That her choice is to work in the home rather than the workforce is only revolutionary because she is black. Every white First Lady has made the same decision. They were chided but they were not unilaterally cast as feminist failures. Neither was feminism constructed as “feminist Americans” versus black feminists to deconstruct the choices of white First Ladies. I do not recall a single instance of mainstream reporting on the black feminist response to Hillary Clinton as she reshaped the role of First Lady. Why, then, is it salient now?
Well, we know why, of course. We cannot reconcile Michelle Obama in the feminist imaginary anymore than we have been able to reconcile the reality of black women or poor women or immigrant women or trans women or any non-middle class white woman with “feminist Americans.” No matter how you define it, black women have always worked. Our bodies were literally constructed through enslavement as work units and modes of production. Our reproduction was a capitalist endeavor in labor production. If no black woman ever again works in the paid labor force in any position ever again ever, we are all rightful heirs to feminism by virtue of our lived historical experience in the U.S. Black women do not have to earn feminism. If anything, feminism should be earning black women. Even if we put aside the issues of terming motherhood as non-work as compatible with feminism (which it is not), the idea that someone who has come through black women, as has Michelle Obama, would need to prove her feminist bona fides to “feminist Americans” is ahistorical and disingenuous.
It is also why “having it all” debates hold very little appeal for me.