Last week Jessica Valenti was a guest on MSNBC discussing the 2012 DNC while promoting her new book about parenting while feminist. Specifically, she was criticizing First Lady Michelle Obama’s choice to end her convention speech with the assertion that her most important role is “mom-in-chief.” Because for feminism, or Valenti’s version of it, it is apparently harmful for the first Lady to display pride in her parenting roles on a national stage.
These comments left many calling out Valenti’s hypocrisy and the idea that strong female figures must hide the joy they have for parenting in the name of feminism. But more importantly, in dismissing The First Lady’s sole decision to self-identify with the title of “Mom in Chief,” Valenti not only denied the first lady autonomy over her own personal choice, she also dismissed the monumental symbol that the first family is for black families all over America. While imposing her short sighted beliefs on the meaning behind the importance of the first lady, Valenti highlighted just why intersectionality within feminism is of dire importance.
Mothering While Black: A Feminist Act
The issue of parenting goes way deeper than the motherhood vs. independence dichotomy that Valenti tried to construct. In Valenti’s world, the issue of motherhood only goes as deep as her own personal experiences. Valenti has no doubt been assailed by the idea that all women are expected to grow up and become loving mothers whose lives revolve only around their children and taking care of their family. This is a trope we see everywhere, in most media.
But if we unpack this trope, we can see that this isn’t actually a universal idea of motherhood. This “universal” stereotype actually only applies to middle class white women. Look closely as the marketing and imagery surrounding mothers; it becomes clear that only a certain image of motherhood is celebrated in our culture. You will be hard pressed to find positive imagery of black mothers in the media. Black mothers are constructed as a stark contrast to conventional images of motherhood. Even political discourse on welfare and government aid is worded around the idea of a mythological “welfare queen” trope that has been forced upon black mothers for decades.
Too often the discourse of motherhood and pregnancy is shaped around a privileged lens. We discuss what it means for white middle class mothers in America to go through pregnancy, the pressures they feel to live up to a certain lifestyle, and the countless parenting resources marketed to them. We know that the middle class white mother is pressured to live up to being the best mother she could be. The black mother, on the other hand, has an entirely different reality. The black pregnant body is received by society in an entirely different way, more likely to be met with scorn than joy. It is assumed that the father is unknown or out of the picture.
To have a discussion about the implication of the First Lady calling herself the Mom-in-Chief without once bringing attention to her destruction of the “all black women are terrible mothers” notion is so intellectually dishonest it’s criminal. At best, it is disingenuous to the discourse. Yes, the First Lady is a smart woman who should never have her accomplishments minimized, but I reject the idea that she is not allowed to take pride in doing something that black women are told repeatedly that they are unable to do. Who is to say that her challenge to the negative stereotypes ascribed to black motherhood on a national stage isn’t just as big of an accomplishment as her awards and degrees?
An All-American Family
The moment I heard Michelle utter the words mom-in-chief, I was flooded with feelings. I was so proud of the first lady for being that figure that I’ve been deprived of in all other aspects of the media. It took that moment for me to realize how remarkable it is for our nation’s leading family to present such a strong contrast to popular culture and public opinion. But when I heard other feminists denouncing her words in the name of the movement, I went from proud to furious. At that moment Black Motherhood became a double edged sword. While our default is pathologized as negligent and crass, to express any pride at representing anything other than the definitions imposed on us is going to be silenced because other women have control over the discourse of motherhood.
Pro-tip: if the strides of black women are getting in the way your women’s movement, you need to seriously reconsider what you think your movements priorities are.
As much public affection the Obama’s receive through the media, we rarely talk about how it took Barack Obama becoming president to see positive imagery of a black family in the media. I should be very clear, while the Obamas represent an image of black family life that we are not used to seeing, we should be careful to not hold them as the new expectation. They are not the new black model or an example that black America needs to live up to. The family that I grew up in looked nothing like the Obama’s, nor do I think having the Obama family structure is necessarily ideal.
But what I hated was someone looking at my family and attributing it to some pathological deficiency that black families were all assumed to have. I am just noting how significant it is to see how the existence of the president forces alternate depictions of blackness of a national scale. It really exposes how all other media pretends that this type of family doesn’t exist, and cannot exist. It highlights just how much our media still depends on dangerous caricatures of blackness. They represent that black people are able to care about family just like white parents. Black mothers can be nurturing to her own children, black fathers can be present, black children are loved.
The Obama family represents far more than white America realizes.