Commentary: Michelle Obama and our definitions of beauty
02/18/2013 3:23 AM
04/04/2013 4:56 PM
Black History Month is a fine time to talk about First Lady Michelle Obama’s “big butt” and the death of Strom Thurmond’s black love child.
It’s an even better time to revisit the scene from the 2000 movie “Charlie’s Angels” that showed a not-too-curvy Cameron Diaz jamming to a song that begins: “I like big butts and I can not lie.”
There was Diaz, the personification of the type of American beauty (white, attractive, tall, thin, blonde) that led to the creation of the song, having fun to a rapper’s homage to big-booty black women.
Three years later, there was Essie Mae Washington-Williams doing a round of interviews after having kept a secret for 70 years that she was the black (or biracial) daughter of one of history’s best known white segregationists.
Washington-Williams’ existence was the culmination of the centuries-old line that resulted from the type of thinking that convinced Thomas Jefferson it was OK to write powerfully about all men being created equal while simultaneously arguing that black people were inferior – even as he was having a secret relationship with one of his hundreds of black slaves.
Washington-Williams was the product of a woman – a 16-year-old black maid in a white home during Jim Crow – who happened to be born on the side of the racial divide that deemed black women either unattractive or oversexed, but unworthy of public adoration either way.
Diaz is a good-natured popular beneficiary of having been born with the sorts of features that for most of this country’s history were considered worthy of adorning magazine covers and dominating the silver screen as leading lady.
Diaz’s joyous, small-butted white dance to the beat of a song made for big-butted black women and Washington-Williams’ exit from the country’s polarized racial closet happened a decade ago.
Today, we are living through an era during which a black couple sleeps in the White House in the heart of a city in the freest country in the world that was partially built by black slaves. That complexity is being borne out in how the public is responding to First Lady’s most prominent black features, which are both revered and ridiculed.
The country is still having trouble processing this new image, not because of a racist intent, but because it is new, startling even.
A woman shaped like Diaz on the arm of the president or on the cover of Sports Illustrated fits a paradigm that has been in place for almost all of this country’s history.
It’s what we know.
It’s what we’ve been taught in ways subtle and not so.
That’s why we are comfortable seeing Diaz in just about any setting and why many of us are still a bit startled by Michelle Obama’s butt.
It doesn’t fit our image of what’s right, what’s beautiful, at least not yet.
That unease isn’t the sole province of white people.
While black women and men publicly express pride in seeing a black woman being fawned over by the world’s top designers and setting fashion trends, in their quiet moments, if they were honest, they would admit it is still a bit jarring, even into the fifth year of this new reality.
The country’s ugly racial legacy didn’t get wiped from their memory in November of 2008.
The years of having it pounded into their heads that women shaped like Obama aren’t desirable have taken a toll.
Such deep scars don’t simply disappear into the good night.
That’s why it was fitting that only a few days separated Washington-Williams death at the age of 87 and the suspension of a high school coach for saying something ugly about Obama’s butt, which created national headlines and a reminder that Obama has been dealing with similar comments from politicians and talk show hosts for the past four years.
Racism is neither the cause of (most) of the comments about Obama nor our unease with the existence of countless, unknown Washington-Williamses across the country and in the form of domestic workers bused into Myrtle Beach from Georgetown and Williamsburg to clean hotel rooms today.
Profound yet imperfect and incomplete change is.
Obama’s presence means black women have been moved out of the servants’ quarters into the master’s bedroom in the big house.
And this time, they want to be there.
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