Much Ado About Michelle Obama's Dress

The sight is already permanently etched in our nation's psyche: standing on the steps of the Capitol's West Front on the day after the nation honored Martin Luther King Jr., his hand on the Bible once owned by the president who abolished slavery, Barack Obama became the nation's first black president. To many, including the candidate himself, his inauguration was a sign that America had transcended its racist past.

Yet even as people continued to talk about Aretha Franklin's Church Lady hat, as the literati debated the style and meaning of Elizabeth Alexander's inaugural poem, as the first couple danced together while Beyonce Knowles sang Etta James' immortal tune, the Black Artists Association was already seeing red over the fact that Michelle Obama wore a white dress created by an Asian designer.

According to the association's cofounder, Amnau Eele, the first lady had an obligation to represent her race through her fashion choices for the momentous occasion.

It's one thing to look at the world without color but she had seven slots to wear designer clothes. Why wasn't she wearing the clothes of a black designer? That was our moment.

To many within the black community, Inauguration Day represented so much more than a change in governmental administration. For some, it was a day on which healing America's racist past truly began. Another described it as a day of brotherhood between the races. So how, many wonder, could the first lady have neglected to reflect that moment by consciously choosing a black designer?

Such are the contradictory pressures the first couple now face: to not only fulfill Barack Obama's campaign promises -- including his promise of a post-racial presidency -- but to raise the profile of other black Americans as well.

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.