I conceptualize Michelle Obama as a metaphor for modern black womanhood. Not representative of individual black women, but rather the perpetual tightrope walk that black femininity entails. If you watch her closely, you can see her perform the acts of juggling race and gender with expectations of assimilation and respectability. The way she negotiates her identities with the duties of First Lady and the subsequent sacrifices. She embodies an exhaustive catch-22: the controlling images that trap black women with the very tactics they use to escape them.
We can examine this metaphor within the context of Tuesdays ordeal: the First Lady’s confrontation of the heckler who interrupted her speech at a fundraising event.
The heckler–Ellen Sturtz–told the Washington Post that Michelle Obama “came right down” in her face, that she was “taken aback” by her reaction. Reports of the First Lady as “monster” with “unscripted anger” from various new outlets immediately followed. And Nicholas Kristof tweeted that it was “not her finest moment.”
From the other side, supporters applauded the confrontation using equally dominating imagery: claims that Michelle Obama “handled” her heckler, “told her off”, that she “put her in her place.”
The forceful language used to describe her behavior on both sides served as a cultural reminder: black women in America do not have a right to anger.
Black women are aware of how the stereotypical representations of our bodies have made “anger” a colored and gendered term; the threat of the Angry Black Woman and her inevitable consequences. The way she seamlessly morphs us into caricatures, reinterprets our legitimate anger as irrational, negates respectability, and marks us as aggressive, “scary”, and domineering.
White women, although limited by gender, gain access to anger through white privilege, evident in their ability to inhabit it without the residue of historical connotations. Middle-class status for black women is dependent on their navigation of anger in white spaces; to tip-toe around it like a landmine we’re afraid of detonating.
The Angry Black Woman’s proximity to black femininity means that it inherently limits black womens’ ability to be emotionally nuanced.
We never assumed that Michelle Obama may have also felt vulnerable, uncomfortable, or sad the night she was heckled. Our unwillingness to assess anything but anger to her experience absolves her ability to feel anything else.
The essentialism of Angry Black Womanhood creates a restrictive space for emotional expression where anger (and its variants) are the only valid options-both in our assumption that black women don’t feel other emotions, and our inability to recognize it once they do.
So then comes the irony: we arm ourselves with notions of white femininity to eschew the Angry label and run headfirst into Strong Black Womanhood on the other side. Though born out of Womanist efforts to acknowledge our ability to overcome racist/sexist obstacles, the flipside of the Strong Black Woman can be problematic. In adhering to the expectations of strength we implicitly agree that any show of weakness, sadness, or defeat equates to collective failure.
And so black women are caught in an almost inescapable trap; to either using anger as catharsis at the expense of all other feelings, or to mute it entirely behind the calloused posturing of “strength”. Two cultural archetypes that engage us in a bizarre sort of tug-of-war wherein humanity is stolen regardless of who wins.
The personification of anger within a historical context means that it will always present itself in a black female form. To be a mark of authentic black femininity and to feel, even to us, so attached to our bodies that we mistake it for innateness.
The consequences of anger also manifests itself in the further silencing of black women. That whenever we chose to validate the pain (or pleasure) of our lived experiences, it is filtered through oppressive concepts and gets lost in translation. That whenever we exercise vocal autonomy-like Michelle Obama–only to have it mischaracterized as “angry”, it is sometimes easier to say nothing at all.
Just once, in my black female body, I’d like to move through the emotional spectrum as freely as white women often do. I want to identify with notions of strength without it encapsulating my entire being. I wish I could get angry, really fucking angry, and have it mean only that.