The Homegirl and the Trailblazer: Why Black Womanhood needs Michelle Obama and Condoleezza Rice
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.
While many black women admire Condoleezza Rice for her accomplishments, we don’t always identify with her story. During Secretary Rice’s speech, we got a glimpse of her experience as a black woman—she told us about how she grew up in Jim Crow Birmingham—but we still don’t feel like we “know” her the way we know Michelle Obama. When I was watching her speech I saw a woman who had overcome many obstacles to get to where she is, but she still didn’t tell us why Republican values speak to her as a woman in general and as a black woman in particular. Rice’s “up from the bootstraps” narrative is a familiar one, though in a lot of ways it is not relatable to many black women’s experiences in climbing up the career or social ladder. When we hear Rice, we hear a story about a black woman who has “made it” but there is no mention of the ways in which she had to overcome racism and sexism, and break the glass ceiling to get to where she is today. It is as if those factors don’t even exist in her world, perhaps because the Republican party does not embrace identity politics in its party platform or its overall narrative. Rejecting—and perhaps denying—that race and gender play key roles in an individual’s success is in fact a Republican value, so it is not surprising that Rice would choose to de-emphasize the ways in which race and gender intersect in her own life.
But Rice’s position as a single black woman who has never married is just as meaningful as Michelle Obama’s position as a wife and mother. By now we are aware of the “single, lonely, black woman” meme that is so talked about in the media, from essays written by single black women to articles pondering why black women are supposedly not getting married. The stereotype implies that black women who choose not to get married are somehow flawed, as if our relationship status is what defines us. One of the things we love about Rice is that she is a single woman with a full life, and is not defined by her singlehood. In her "60 Minutes" interview from 2006, Rice gave us a window into her personal life, introducing herself as a black woman who is not consumed with being single; she is a concert pianist, a football aficionado, a college professor, and an avid golfer—all facts that come before her relationship status.
Condoleezza Rice and Michelle Obama are very different black women, though room exists for both of them. Through them, we see that there are plenty of ways to be a black woman in America.