By Elwood Watson
From the moment her husband became a serious contender for the Democratic nomination, Michelle Obama has been a perennial figure in the media spotlight. With this level of exposure has also come a significant amount of controversy. Unlike previous first ladies such as Rosalyn Carter, the late former first lady, Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson, Pat Nixon and others, Mrs. Obama seems to evoke rabid passion among her supporters and detractors alike. There is no middle ground or indifference in their feelings toward her. Her proponents see her as intelligent, classy, elegant, no-nonsense, charismatic and socially conscious. Her opponents denounce her as being arrogant, aloof, unpatriotic, and racially bigoted and harboring a socialist agenda.
For her critics, the already high level of suspicion toward both Obamas reached a fever pitch in the 2008 presidential campaign when the then-future first lady stated that for the first time in her adult life she was really proud of America. While many reasonable and rational people totally understood what she meant (even Laura Bush later in the same year in an interview stated that she did) and were well aware of the fact that there was not one hint of unpatriotic rhetoric in her comments, the political right led by Cindy McCain and company wasted no time in perversely exploiting a sincere statement, misconstruing it to imply that Mrs. Obama was an anti-American who harbored Black nationalist sentiments.
Sensing a possible campaign issue, the Republican right seized on Mrs. Obama making her the target of vicious assaults. She was accused of hating Whites and using the term “whitey” on tape. Terms such as “baby mama,” “angry Black woman,” “jezebel,” “Black Lady Macbeth,” “Ms. Grievance,” “bitch” (in many cases preceded by the word Black), “uppity” and other derogatory and disrespectful labels were ascribed to her. In fact, on some far right wing websites, the language used to describe both her and her husband was so inflammatory and intolerant that some website moderators decided to shut down for a few days to reissue stricter guidelines for bloggers. I could not even repeat such incendiary rhetoric here.
Not content enough to just take a quote grossly out of context, the anti-Michelle crowd posted copies of her Princeton undergraduate thesis on anti-Obama websites in an effort to demonstrate that she was obsessed with being Black, attacked her University of Chicago administrative job as a “diversity position,” spread false rumors that she only wanted Black and other non-whites at campaign rallies, that she was on tape yelling anti-American statements and other such nonsense. A couple of talk show hosts referred to Michelle Obama by invoking the term “lynching party.” YES INDEED! THINGS WERE GETTING UGLY! The McCain campaign fall rallies demonstrated the vile, seething anti-Obama paranoia and hatred that was evident. But that’s another story that has been effectively covered.
In regards to the tapes, the interesting thing is that none of them ever surfaced. This is probably due to the fact that no such tapes ever existed. The Republican architects of such sinister schemes were well aware of this; however, they knew that it was not necessary for them to produce any concrete evidence. For their jingoistic, wild-eyed, racist, sexist, xenophobic right-winged supporters, just the thought of such images was enough to whip them into an anti-Michelle Obama frenzy.
Some people argue that there have been other first ladies like Hillary Clinton and Nancy Reagan who have undergone critical and hostile scrutiny. While true, neither Mrs. Clinton nor Mrs. Reagan were subjected to acerbic racial overtones. They were criticized for certain excesses, but never were the attacks, especially in the case of Nancy Reagan, so racially charged or personal. Race has undoubtedly been a factor in such treatment. However, like many strong, radiant and viable Black women before her, Mrs. Obama has managed to admirably shrug off such criticism and resentment and focus on the goals that are important to her, such as speaking to young girls in elementary and middle schools and meeting with military families.
More recently, the current first lady has charmed the world demonstrated with her impeccable fashion sense. She warmly embraced Queen Elizabeth (the queen reciprocated). She demonstrated that she is just as elegant as any European leader’s wife and endeared herself into the minds and hearts of millions of people all over the world. In fact, many people have compared her to a previous first lady, Jackie Kennedy.
Whether this deep admiration for her will last remains to be seen. Nonetheless, for the present moment, it seems that many individuals see her diverse, flexible, sincere personality as one that is refreshing to them. Recently, even her most strident, bigoted critics, a number of whom would rather have her cleaning their houses as opposed to living in the White House, have been unable to demonize her. One thing is probably for certain and that is Michelle Obama will remain true to herself and to her constituencies. She is indeed one classy, resilient, intelligent first lady.
Dr. Elwood Watson is a full professor of History and African American Studies at East Tennessee State University. He is the author of several award-winning academic articles, several anthologies and is the author of the book Outsiders Within: Black Women in the Legal Academy After Brown v. Board (Rowman and Littlefield Publishers Spring 2008)