This So-Called Post-Post-Racial Life

October 29, 2009

The Obamas and The (Re)Discovery of Blackness

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , , — pprscribe @ 4:09 pm

The past few months have seen a constant string by the mainstream media of discoveries about Black people. I use the word “discoveries” in the same sense of Christopher Columbus and his discovery of what we now call the United States of America. Of course the land mass already existed. Of course other people were already living on it. And indeed, others from other places had previously “discovered” it.

We Black people—like the land mass and folks living there—did not become that interesting, that open for analysis, that ripe for exploration (and exploitation) until others discovered us.

There have been other times when attention has been focused on Black people and all things Black. But the most recent interest is the direct result of Barack H. Obama and his family.

I am sure someone has the data:

The number of news stories on interracial marriages and multiracial people pre- and post-Barack Obama (e.g., “Should we call Obama ‘black’ or ‘biracial’?” NY Times).

The amount of discussion about Black people’s (men, women and children) hair pre- and post-Barack (e.g., re: his barber), -Michelle (e.g., “Why Michelle’s Hair Matters,” Time Magazine), and -Malia (e.g., re: her hair style during a trip to Russia).

The level of fascination about Black women’s bodies pre- and post-Michelle (e.g., “First Lady Got Back“).

We have even been exposed to the shocking!yes,shocking! news that the First Lady has Whiteblood!yes,whiteblood! in her genetic ancestry.

Now comes the latest (for the moment) oddity of the Obamas: their marriage. Of course, married presidents are not something new. But according to the writer of this New York Times Magazine cover story, “the Obamas mix politics and romance in a way that no first couple quite have before.”

The entire article is worth a read. And in fairness, I cannot blame the media for being somewhat fascinated by, or at least interested in, the Obamas. What’s there not to be interested in?

But I suspect that with this NY Times Magazine story may follow a rush of articles trying to figure out What is going on with marriages between Black professional men and Black professional women? … to uncover the truths about What forces are challenging these unions in the 21st Century? …to declare that the Health and Future of The Black Family is dependent upon these Black Marriages! …to headline all manner of other questions, and problems, and observations about a demographic that—I am sure it will seem—sprung up out of nowhere. I would like to supply some perspectives from one woman involved in such a fascinating Black Marriage, so as to save some writers some research effort when it comes time to produce these news pieces.

* I have been half of a Black Marriage for almost as long as Michelle and Barack. (They’ve got us beat by almost exactly 1 year.) Our circle of friends include other Black couples who have been married as long or longer than the First Couple.

* “The centrality of the Obama marriage to the president’s political brand opens a new chapter in the debate that has run through, even helped define, their union….” Though my spouse’s and my marriage is not a capital-P political one, that we are both Black and married (to each other) seems to be very political in some people’s eyes. For example, my spouse has had Black women in his workplace act warm and friendly toward him after previously being cold and aloof once they find out that his wife is Black. Part of our “brand” very much seems to be that we are individually successful, individually well-educated, and yoked to each other. Like the Obamas, we have learned to deal with and even embrace this.

* We’ve dealt with those imbalances that come from managing continuing educations/training, jobs, a marriage, and two children. Like the First Lady, I have usually been the one who has had to put something on hold, take up some slack, slide something to the back burner, make some extra adjustments. Many women of many different races deal with this. However, the racial component makes things that much more interesting for me. For example, I once had a fellow mother at a private school where our daughters attended express surprise when she found out that (a) I had an advanced degree and (b) my husband was a physician. (I suppose, when she heard that we both worked, that she assumed we were what was euphemistically called a “scholarship family.”) She—a stay-at-home-mother—asked me why I didn’t just stay home, as she had done. Further, she couldn’t understand why I did not hire a nanny to help me with my twins when they were younger as she had with her twins. That was not a very pleasant conversation after that, and as a result, this woman avoided me for the next two years.

* Black married couples have all sorts of married models they are drawing on for inspiration. I know part of the fascination with Michelle is that, unlike her spouse, she grew up in an “intact” family. Both my own spouse and I spent our childhoods in such homes. And in my case, both my parents had advanced degrees. There was nothing necessarily “unique” about this upbringing. Once during the run of “The Cosby Show” a White colleague on a college campus expressed how “unrealistic” the family was. I probed her to explain to me what made the family such an inauthentic portrayal of Black life. (You can probably guess where the conversation went from there.) I certainly knew of Black single mothers, or men who had second (or third) simultaneous families. But I also had “traditional” couples to draw from, and those are the ones that have informed my own relationship ideas. (Not to mention my relationship models that were “non-traditional” same-sex couples…a different story for a different day.)

When she interviewed for a job at the University of Chicago Medical Center, her baby sitter canceled at the last moment, and so Michelle strapped a newborn Sasha into a stroller, and the two rolled off together to meet the hospital president. “She was in a lot of ways a single mom, and that was not her plan,” recalls Susan Sher, who became her boss at the hospital and is now her chief of staff….

* I can relate. Because of my spouse’s schedule at one time, I was the one rolling around a stroller, alone, with two little babies strapped in. But this comment by Mrs. Obama’s old boss reminds me of an additional element to all this that I never quite got used to:  Frequently people assumed, just by the sight of me, that I was a single mother. Once, a colleague I had known for just a few weeks told me that if there was anything she could do—anything at all—to help me out, to just give her a call. This, because she had “so much respect for what it must be like for a single Mom.” Another time, a woman pushing her child-filled stroller on the sidewalk in the opposite direction from me stopped to comment. “Are they twins? My hat is off to you! You are one strong sister to be able to raise two by yourself.” (The first woman was White; the second was Black.)

* I cannot relate to complaints from some of my married friends (of any race) about their husband’s lack of help around the house. In addition to working full time my spouse also cleans and cooks. He even does little girls’ hair so long as what is required is a basic symmetrical afro. I once had a woman at an academic conference tell me that this was because we were a Black couple and Black couples are a lot more egalitarian than White couples and White men had a lot to learn from Black men. (You might be able to imagine where that conversation went from there.) Once again, the way that we have organized our lives, our parenting, and our household has become political. Yet our arrangements are really just what work for us. We do not join each other in a round of “I (She) Am (Is) Woman, Hear Me (Her) Roar” following a joint clothes-folding session or after tucking our children in bed at night. Things do not always go smoothly. There are “bumps,” as Michelle Obama said about her own marriage, and yes they are pretty continuous. But in general, things are good.

I often find it strange that I sometimes feel disloyal or embarrassed for saying so.

* “…Parenting in the White House is more complicated….” Actually, Parenting-While-Black is complicated enough already. The biggest challenges my husband and I face as a couple have less to do with us as individuals or a couple, and more to do with our roles as parents. As my battle conversation with my children’s school personnel over their decision regarding the President’s back-to-school speech illustrates, raising Black children in the USA can, indeed, be life on a battlefield. There are some negative things my children have faced that I thought were over with. There are new negative things they’ve faced that have completely bewildered me. They have also, however, been fortunate to be exposed to a similar diversity as I was in my parents’ 70s college-era environment. (Alas, not so much now as when we were in the Twin Cities.) Life as a Black couple parenting Black children is challenging—but not all gloom and doom.

As the great experiment of the presidency rolls on, the Obamas may finally learn definitive answers to the issues they have been debating over the course of their partnership. The questions they have long asked each other in private will likely be answered on the largest possible stage. They will discern whether politics can bring about the kind of change they have longed for and promised to others, or whether the compromises and defeats are too great. They will learn whether they were too ambitious or not ambitious enough. And even if they share the answer with no one else, the two will know better if everything does in fact become political — if their marriage can both embrace politics and also at some level stay free of it.

Then, in three or seven years, the president’s political career will end. There will be no more offices to win or hold, and the Obamas will most likely renegotiate their compact once more — this time, perhaps more on Michelle Obama’s terms.

The equality of any partnership “is measured over the scope of the marriage. It’s not just four years or eight years or two,” the first lady said. “We’re going to be married for a very long time.”

* In the end, that is what it is about with my own Black marriage, too. A belief in the long-range. A faith in the this-too-shall-pass. That to some my spouse and I are considered an anomaly, an outlier far beyond the normal data points—none of that matters. It should not make me feel more special than anyone else, or less “authentic” than anyone else.

There is no Black Marriage. There are Black Marriages. And mine is just one of them.

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