The Homegirl and the Trailblazer: Why Black Womanhood needs Michelle Obama and Condoleezza Rice
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For the first time, both the RNC and the DNC had black women as primetime speakers during their respective conventions—former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at the RNC and First Lady Michelle Obama at the DNC. When I saw Michelle Obama’s speech at the 2008 DNC, I was almost moved to tears because I felt as though she was speaking to me. This year, being able to see both women was a historic moment that I felt privileged to witness.
As a black woman, I admire both Rice and Obama for very different reasons. In Michelle Obama, I see myself—the kind of black woman I hope to be one day. She has navigated her roles as wife, mother and career woman in a way that is admirable. Prior to meeting President Obama, Michelle Obama was already an attorney at Sidley Austin, a prominent law firm in Chicago. She also held down executive positions at the University of Chicago and many times she was holding down her job and taking care of her two daughters while her husband was doing work as a senator in Springfield. I can relate to her background, growing up in a working-class family and receiving her degree from some of the best schools in the nation.
In Rice I see a trailblazer, the first black woman to serve as Secretary of State, a black woman working and living in a good ol' boy’s world. That said, it is hard to think about Rice’s accomplishments in life without thinking about the compromises she has had to make. I often wonder about what she had to sacrifice politically in order to become a primary member of the Bush cabinet. I’ve never agreed with Rice's politics; her foreign policy record and the war on Iraq are points of contention for me. Regardless of that, I have always respected Rice and her journey.
Condoleezza Rice and Michelle Obama are prime examples of the fact that the experience of the black woman in America is not a monolithic one. More importantly, these two women represent what is possible for black women and girls in this country.
In many ways, black women see a “homegirl” in Michelle Obama—a successful, educated, black woman who grew up on the south side of Chicago in a family with limited means, a narrative many of us can identify with. In thinking about evolving images of black women, I spoke with my mother, my grandmother and my sister about their perceptions of both Michelle Obama and Condoleezza Rice. The one thing that was consistent was the idea that Michelle Obama is accessible; she is “real” to the matriarchs in my family. “Michelle Obama is touchable,” my mother said to me. “I feel like I know her.”
Michelle Obama’s commitment to health in her “Let’s Move” campaign was started to address childhood obesity, but it also resonates with health and body image issues that real black women face, such as diabetes and obesity. The Department of Health and Human Services reported that four out of five black women are obese, and just a few months ago, Alice Randall wrote a now-infamous essay suggesting that many black women will risk obesity to appeal to black men. But the truth is that black women really do care about health and exercise, and Obama’s commitment to it is proof of that. Black women can look at Michelle Obama as a model we can really aspire to.
Michelle Obama’s celebration of her role as “Mom-In-Chief” also resonates with black women. Some white feminists criticize her for emphasizing motherhood, but in a world where black women are constantly portrayed as pathologically bad mothers and welfare queens, Michelle Obama as Mom-In-Chief is an important image for us. “Black women have always worked outside of the home…even when society forbade ‘good’ white women from leaving their pedestals,” writes Tami Winfrey Harris in her piece, " A Black Mom-in-Chief is Revolutionary: What White Feminists Get Wrong About Michelle Obama." “We have plowed the fields and raised other folk’s babies, as well as our own.” Even though not every black woman wishes to start a family, motherhood is still something that many of us deeply value, and the First Lady’s decision to share that part of her story indicates that we don’t have to choose between being good mothers and having successful careers.