Sunday, March 10, 2013

Who's Afraid of Michelle Obama: A Black Woman's Search for Conscious Glamour

 It is The Eye That Rolled All Over the World: Michelle Obama’s disgusted, contemptuous reaction to the man who has spent four years leading the Republican Party’s obstructionist tactics against every piece of legislation proposed by the President of the United States of America. Like everything that Michelle does this, too, was gracefully performed. No Jerry Springer antics here. No hand-in-face. The head roll was controlled, pert, yet subtle. The mouth pursed in disapproval. It was perhaps the most eloquent non-verbal comment on John Boehner ever made, the entire performance enacted without a sound issuing from the First Lady’s lips. I loved that moment. So. Much.

Somehow one cannot imagine a similar exchange involving Jackie Kennedy. This ain’t your mama’s First Lady. Except that she is.

Watching that exchange of non-verbal rebellion by the most visible black woman in the world produced a frisson of glee that rippled throughout my whole body for the rest of the day. More elegant than a raised third finger, less vulgar than a Fuck You, and unmistakably Black, the First Lady communicated her opinion through side-eye, her meaning clear to all watching. Clearest of all to a nation of black women, the secret army laying in wait to come to her defense if called. Millions. We are an indomitable force.
I sat at home (unemployed), while watching the Inaugural celebrations on television (NBC – cable is too expensive). I was about to reach for the phone (unpaid – disconnected) to call my girlfriends but luckily mom was there next to me and we laughed and laughed.


Boys with small talk and small minds
Really don’t impress me in bed
She said “I need a man’s man, diamonds and furs
Love would only conquer my head.”

She wants the glamorous life
She don’t need a man’s touch
She wants to lead the glamorous life
Without love it ain’t much
“The Glamorous Life” – Sheila E.

Olivia Pope is marching to President Fitzgerald’s hospital room as she removes her three-quarter length kid skin gloves one finger at a time. She catches her breath bravely, preparing herself to see the tragic inert body of her secret lover as he lays connected to the many tubes from the life support machine. She pauses. Enters. The First Lady is sitting dutifully at his bedside. The two women take a moment to size-up one another like the rivals and sisters-in-mourning that they are.

I’ve developed an addiction to Scandal. As a commentary on  American history and politics it is a travesty, and the romance is ridiculous at best. But Kerry Washington’s portrayal of the sorrowful wise-eyed yet amoral Olivia Pope is riveting. And her wardrobe is absolutely divine. She has as many as six or seven wardrobe changes per episode. I was never able to afford clothes of such elegance  during my time as a Congressional staffer, but of course as a Staff Assistant and Legislative Correspondent I never made the big bucks that Olivia Pope the Fixer does. Still the chemistry between Tony Goldwyn and Kerry Washington is electric.

Shonda Rimes being Shonda Rimes she can’t NOT mention the Thomas Jeffersonian-overtones of the relationship:

Olivia: “No! This is…I smile at her and I take off my clothes for you. I wait for you. I watch for you. My whole life is you. I can’t breathe because I’m waiting for you. You own me. You control me. I belong to you…”

“You own me! You control me. I belong to you… I love you. I’m in love with you. You’re the love of my life. My every feeling is controlled by the look on your face. I can’t breathe without you. I can’t sleep without you. I wait for you. I watch for you. I exist for you. If I could escape all of this and run away with you…there’s no Sally or Thomas here. You’re nobody’s victim, Liv. I belong to you. We’re in this together.”

None of my white boyfriends ever said anything so drippy or passionate.  But I admit that I also watch Scandal to discover what this Shonda Rimes interracial relationship will look like. Will there be something there that resembles what has transpired in mine and my black girlfriend’s lives? While Olivia Pope was given a hyper-emotional love sonnet from a somewhat insecure and confused lover with a cheating wife I got a climactic shout of “Oh my god I love beautiful black pussy.” This made me feel very confused. Should I be concerned that he qualified the beauty of my pussy? Was it the blackness that was problematic? Should this ode to the joy of  pussy just be taken as an in the moment I’m-Coming-And-I-Say-Things-Like-This-In –That-Climax-Moment kind of thing? What would Olivia Pope have done?  As for me, overthinking the implications of the statement in the moment, I missed. 

Not to be all Taylor Swift but the Samuel Jackson re-mix of We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together is exceptionally poignant and relevant here.

And while it may seem like Shonda Rimes’ creation is over the top and far more wishful of a world that is equal in terms of sexuality and multi-culturalism it was certainly awkward to be a “good-girl” dating a white man in the world of politics. This is Chocolate City of course and from my view it didn’t seem quite the done thing to be dating outside the fold.

(Perhaps if I had been getting Presidential favors things would have been different? Except the President at the time was Bill Clinton so I’m sure it would have been very different indeed, if the Starr Report is to be believed. It was actually quite a head turning thing in those long-ago heady days to see interracial couples in Washington DC, on the Hill.) 

Scandal is Shonda Rimes at her most idiosyncratic,  and she has once again created riveting television made for drinking games and Kleenex tax havens. But she has also created a new mythical figure in a narrative where there are precious few heroines for black women to identify with.

Olivia Pope may be an adulterer who fixes lies for bad rich people but she’s a smart and glamorous fixer. She is crafty and clever like the tricksters of folklore from such classics as the Signifying Monkey and Br’er Rabbit. She outsmarts the Man, makes him love her and still goes home to her other (black) man at the end of the story. At least until Shonda Rimes decides to stop teasing us and decides to throw the star-crossed lovers together for a serious go at monogamy as she’s done in the past with MerDer and all her other cheaters-heroines. But that will take at least four seasons and more likely five for the win.

Enter The Power Broker into the lexicon of American race narrative and mythology. Olivia Pope’s background has not yet been revealed to us so we can’t blame her career choice and love affairs on her upbringing  Does it really matter if she is a bougie high-class dame or a round the way girl? Whether she is Ivy educated like Michelle Obama or an alum of a historically black college may add some dimension to the so far single dimensioned character remains to be seen. Nevertheless, as Dave Chappelle says, “All black people are bilingual: we speak job interview and street.” Race isn’t Scandal’s primary preoccupation beyond the mild eyebrow raising prompted by the inter-racial love affair, which frankly is barely worth an eyebrow raise anymore; this is Shonda Rimes.

The Glamorous Power Broker trope allows us to add to the limited scope of fictional narrative concerning black women. This goes beyond Terry MacMillan and Waiting to Exhale. Olivia Pope is morally flawed and that flaw informs both her professional choices and her love affair but it doesn’t take anything away from her other distinguishing characteristics. She’s an extraordinarily capable and talented woman for whom, we are told many times, other talented people would kill for the chance to be one of her “gladiators in a suit.” For once, a black woman in fiction can possess flaws and talent without one diminishing her as an individual. Indeed it is her emotional vulnerability is part of her attractiveness, a point which Kerry Washington plays skillfully, tantalizing the viewer by her quivering full lips and soft brown eyes. Her portrayal has all the memorable elements of a signature role.

While there is a rich literary tradition that expresses the struggle of the black man from W.E.B DuBois to The Invisible Man there is little that imagines black women and their struggle. Or perhaps there is little imagination of what she could be without the struggle. Even the fictional stories told about black women rarely stray outside the established parables of struggle. For once in a country that spins fairy tales endlessly, fiction has failed to provide a figure to foretell  the class and elegance of Michelle Obama. It is not that figures of style, grace, charm and poise are absent in real life, they exist prominently – Oprah, Michelle Obama,  Condeleezza Rice, Beyonce, Serena Williams.

 Yet it seems that so many have difficulty in accepting a positive intellectual real life heroine if she does not first exist as a fictional creation or at least an entertainer.

I have to be forgiving of myself for enjoying Scandal as poor as it is at reflecting any true semblance of politics and culture because there are still so many rules of engagement among professional black women about how to behave; what to say and not to say; how not to be perceived the Angry Black Woman; how not to seem to culturally intense that it is enjoyable to see Kerry Washington rock her thing; even if it is in the Shonda Rimes pretend world. But one must also consider that so often the pretend world has only depicted the reflections of women who have lived in great sorrow.   The Miss Celies and the Preciouses of the world. Scandal may have little to do with real life but its standards of glamour remain a plane of existence that has been rarely accessible to black women.

Dr. Mark Naison co-founder of the Urban and African-American Studies Department of Fordham, the Bronx African-American History Project and author of White Boy: A Memoir comments that, “Being black in America is paradoxical, ironic, and absurd. And [for blacks] dealing with this weirdness is going to be unpredictable. You can’t control black glamour, the insurgent creativity because you don’t know what form it will take. Black people are with people but they are the part of white people that white people don’t know.”

Much of Dr. Naison’s memoir White Boy discusses his love affair with a black woman during the turbulent Sixties, an affair that moved him to seek out the Communist Party which was the only political party that provided a race critique that made sense to him at the time. But the memoir is also very powerful in its treatment of the strange dynamics of love between white men and black women and the heavy weight of history attached.

As we discussed Michelle Obama and Scandal’s Olivia Pope he mused “Glamour gives black women power. People looking through the lens of the White Gaze at black women, that can fuck you up. Which is why black art and creativity in America is always so powerful and unpredictable. Black creativity is designed to create something that they can’t touch. You’ll never see a hair out of place on Michelle Obama.”
“Yet still,” mused Dr. Naison, “I see such wonderfully intelligent and beautiful black women whom black men don’t appreciate and white men are totally afraid of!!”

I know you think I don’t know nothing
But singing the blues but Sister
Have I got news for you
I’m something and I hope you think
That you’re something too
~The Color Purple “Miss Celie’s Blues (Sister)”

The site Vintage Black Glamour run by writer Nichelle Gainer is one glimpse into a world of black glamour that is entirely intriguing for the surprising content one finds both in the history of the  photographs and  in the images themselves.The historical background of each image presents a world of depth that has been often overlooked.If the story of the black odyssey in America is simply one of tragedy the Vintage Black Glamour fits into a space that challenges that narrative and the nature of what we think we know. The photos show startling glimpses of life. The mind boggles.  Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis marching with signs around their necks demanding equal rights. A photograph of Eartha Kitt and Sammy Davis Jr. taken when they were engaged to be married.

A Jet cover of Ebony Fashion Fair’s premier model Terri Springer “recalls the grace and beauty of the regal, mocha-colored model…. during a day and age when women with dark skin weren’t eager to wear bright colors.” Ms. Gainer, who celebrated the second anniversary of her tumblr site this January, offers nearly a century of hidden treasures within Vintage Black Glamour.

I asked Ms. Gainer about her site’s focus on glamour and what it meant to the more traditional narrative of black history. “This is absolutely outside the narrative and I’m changing the narrative,” she said. “It’s not that this stuff isn’t out there but [as black people] there’s so much we don’t know about our own history.

“I’m showing people what they don’t know. So often I get comments on my page where people say “I never saw this before” or “I never knew this before”. Because this stuff was not shown to us.  There was no value placed on it. Glamour exists in fictional narrative. We understand and appreciate the contributions [that we didn’t know about it before]. I’m thinking of Diahnn Caroll and her beauty, style and class.”

Once one begins to truly study Vintage Black Glamour then it becomes clear that many performers, though unknown today, inspired greater acts of the Silver Screen. Gladys Bentley, the openly gay, singer-cabaret performer sported the tux, top hot and cane look that pre-dated Marlene Dietrich. The life and times of celebutantes like Blanche Dunn show that the errant, lavish living we attribute to Paris Hilton and the Kardashians existed decades earlier  in black culture as well. Richard Bruce Nugent, an openly gay pioneer of the Harlem Renaissance, is chronicled along with many enthralling images of Langston Hughes, a writer and poet who appears frequently in the images in Vintage Black Glamour.

“I love the white divas. I’m wild about Jean Harlowe, Marlene Dietrich. They show that there’s something of value to tell the story behind the picture” says Ms. Gainer.

“Do you feel that you have a responsibility to show the dark side of glamour?” I asked.

“Why do we have to “justify” the word glamour? I’m presenting these images and deliberately not showing the dirty, seedy under-side of glamour. We know that story. We’ve been inundated with that. People were scandalous and tacky back then [which isn’t changed because] they took a pretty picture. Vintage Black Glamour is not limited to one element; it is a diverse glamour. It’s not just about fashion, not limited to one element. But [a pretty picture] also doesn’t mean that morality was any better. But I’m not showing the poor and downtrodden. And I’m not placing a value judgement. There has to be a certain beauty to the picture.”

Vintage Black Glamour is a marriage of politics, history, entertainment, and artistic consciousness through still imagery. Its allure goes beyond pretty pictures however into a subversive tone that becomes clear with close study. Chronicling the glamorous from 1900 – 1980 one frequently finds images with disparate personalities politicians and actors and literary figures in one photo. These people are united by race of course but also in the struggle to be recognized as equal Americans.

A simple post from 2011 is a quote by actress Rosalind Cash who played Mary Mae Ward on the daytime soap opera General Hospital: “There are a lot of us who would like to assimilate all the glamour and fluff, but the hard truth is, were all out here trying to make a living.” The narrative of celebrity tells us that it is one big club of rich folks being happy and skinny and rich together. But the reality for black entertainers, politicians, and artists was complicated by the times in which they lived when freedom was qualified by one’s color. The Cause can be detected even in this enthralling catalogue of the glamorous; for blacks high and low the right to make a living freely and fairly is applied to the glamorous ones.

Vintage Black Glamour proves that a search to achieve consciousness in the cause of equality is not trivialized by the prideful spice of glamour. In particular,  Conscious Glamour  is the black woman's ultimate achievement of success in her professional life as well as balance in her personal wellbeing. It is realizing and implementing the goal of spiritual fulfillment, health in body and peace of mind in a racist and sexist society. It is freedom from the belief that saving the world, her family and everyone but herself is merely a form of multi-tasking. It is emancipation from the attitudes and habits that kill more black women through HIV/AIDS, strokes, heart disease, obesity and stress. 

It is not merely their race that make Michelle and Barama unique figures to black American women: it is the determined principles by which they raise their family, their dual degrees from Harvard Law School, their mutual and unwavering support to seeing each other succeed in their careers, their commitment to living a healthy lifestyle. Michelle Obama is the First Lady in the hearts of so many black women because she has all the elements of the Total Package that so many women, black and white, aspire to. But that Total Package that is Michelle Obama is not as visible as the Total Packages of our white sisters. Michelle has inherited from rich parents or acquired her success through any means other than hard work, unwavering courage and commitment

Against all the odds in a society that is still not post-racial, where black women compromise their own dreams due to economic and social inequalities,  succumb to defeatthat ultimately destroys bodies through hard, low paying work, where minds are blunted by depression and battered by despair until the spirit becomes accustomed to the darkness that always seems to be lurking just outside the door because there is no white knight to save them, so many black women’s dreams die hard while still deep in REM stage. 

Yet here is Michelle, the most visible woman in the world, standing in the spotlight of news/reality TV with the support of her husband, her mother presence and wisdom guiding her, two daughters entering their teens. Michelle is considered the Total Package because she has not lost her sanity; she has not lost her health; she has not lost herself.. Michelle is the epitome of Conscious Glamour

Olivia Pope is introducing the Black Power Broker into the tropes of Black American fictional characters. Led by the powerful example of Michelle Obama, it is about time.

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