Much Ado About Michelle Obama’s Dress
Umbrage is taken over Mrs. Obama's presumed snub of black designers.
January 26, 2009 - 12:00 am
Some look to Obama to shatter the racial stereotypes about black men, who have been “used and valued for their physical strength since they stepped (chained) foot into this country.” Educators hope his example will lift black academic performance. Parents cite him as a role model to inspire unruly children toward good behavior and diligence.
And while many dispute that he is the new Superman, there is a deep sense within the African-American community that Obama is, in the words of Time essayist Ta-Nehisi Coates, “a p.r. campaign for our side of the tracks.” Or in the words of a grandson of slaves: “He is our Moses.”
The expectations for his wife, Michelle, are equally high. As the first lady, she is considered by many to be the nation’s most preeminent style icon for young and old alike, an example of the new feminism, and an assurance to black women that doors they once had closed to them are now — if not outright flung wide — at least beginning to open.
[Michelle] Obama is an affirmation that black women can have a successful marriage, a family and a career, despite a bombardment of messages over the last two decades that it is not possible, according to Tarshia Stanley, an English professor who teaches a course on media images at Spelman College, a historically black college for women in Atlanta.
Unlike her husband, Michelle Obama made no spoken promises to the American people. The expectations of her — including that she would pay homage to black fashion designers on Inauguration Day — are unspoken, drawn from inference more than anything else.
Therein lies the basis for the outrage over the white gown worn by the nation’s black first lady, for Michelle Obama, at least until her husband officially became the Democratic Party’s nominee for president, had been adamant in her support of the black community.
This is, after all, the very same woman whose Princeton thesis on black identification was based “on the premise that there is a distinctive black culture very different from white culture.” Lest we forget, Michelle Obama was a woman who was not proud of her country until it surprised her by nominating a black man to be president. A woman whose militant pro-black stance was the subject of parody. A woman whose aggressiveness resulted in such horrible voter approval ratings that her husband’s campaign repackaged her to make her more palatable to white voters.
Even as that repackaging took place, perhaps some anticipated that after victory Michelle Obama would return to her previous patronage and support of African-American artists. To those sharing such a view, Mrs. Obama’s omission of even one black designer seems somehow a snub, a violation of the politics of style.
But the umbrage taken over Mrs. Obama’s failure to wear a gown by a black designer, and the feeling which led the co-founder of the Black Artist’s Association to describe the inauguration as “our moment,” hides an unspoken sentiment: that the Obamas not only owe African-Americans but are, somehow, owned by the black community, too.