oh, hello, we back.
2019 is already 🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥.
in updates on this mess, i wrote the new england historical society a very proper, emotionally detached, peer reviewed email taking research-based issue with their masterpiece, “Using Jim Crow-era Race Laws And Assorted Racist/Misogynist Writings Of Cecil Beaton, We’re Gonna Half-Assedly Argue That Jackie Kennedy Was The First Black First Lady And Michelle Obama Totally Doesn’t Count Because Black People Are Not Fully Human.”
(be real: i soooooo should be writing headlines for the daily mail. this is the genre in which i most excel.)
somewhat not surprisingly, though i had hoped for their better angels, they have not written me back.
and LO. we are here again.
not exactly in the same place but a street nearby.
and, truly, this is not a neighborhood in which i expected we would keep cruising, but, yo, i’ve got this phd in american first ladies, so, upon noting that this shite is apparently rife, i feel compelled by whatever the humanities equivalent of the hippocratic oath is to relentlessly dig in.
this is not the daily mail. this is a january 10, 2019 op-ed in the daily times– which, as best i can tell, is the delaware county daily times, out of swathmore, pennsylvania.
it seems straightforwardly enough about political disagreement:
“bleeding-heart liberals” kinda gives it away.
full disclosure: it is unlikely this author and i politically agree.
but that is not what i am writing about here. what interests me is the rhetorical choices, the system and historical moment in which they are occurring, and what they tell us about the status of first ladies in american life now.
the op-ed itself is a fairly boiler plate compliant about “filthy rich” liberal celebrities (a recognizable crowd, tho who knew jimmy kimmel was their standard bearer?!) who don’t get it and think all conservatives are dumb and all conservatives are “filthy rich, drug users”…
this argument begs the question of whether, if people on both sides of the political spectrum think everyone on the other side of the political spectrum is “filthy rich”, our time would be better spent asking why so many of us are so very poor…
but that’s a question for another day.
i am here to discuss this:
very inconveniently, at this precise moment, an article i have been working on for the last year about this very thing is still winding its way through peer review. so, unfortunately, i can’t point to a peer reviewed piece of academic LITERATOOOOOORE that the institutionally unaffiliated could rent for an hour for $24.95 and say, “lookit”.
what i can do it use microsoft paintbrush and point out that this:
is about race.
increasingly, having looked at the historical evolution of this discourse– what i call the dignity discourse in jackie’s life-narrative– in relation to first ladies across the mid-20th century and into the 21st, i am convinced that this is always about race.
in eloquent rage (2018), brittney cooper writes: “white women’s sexuality and femininity is used not just as a tool of patriarchy but also as a tool for the maintenance of white supremacy” (185-186).
how might that look, you wonder? et voilá: “class, style, correct behavior”!!
it’s easy to see how that’s about femininity, “correct” and “appropriate” femininity. but, to be pedantic for a mo, we need to start training our eyes, especially our white eyes, to see how in being about that this is also very very very often also about race. because, in america, “correct”, “good”, “appropriate” femininity is white.
this seems an especially vital skill to cultivate in a universe where we are so eager to erase the contributions of a Black first lady that Blackness is claimed for jackie using early 20th century race law.
notice how deftly this is done.notice how race is never once mentioned.
notice how these grafs, bless their hearts, appear totally race-free.
notice how they appear so race-free that i probably sound like a total killjoy/conspiracy theorist for even bringing up the subject of race in this delightfully race-free space.
notice how you would never know that michelle obama is Black just from reading this.
notice how you might not even know she existed because she is not even named. instead, she is…
this last one.
notice how, because this is an op-ed that opens with discussion of celebrities, it appears to be a critique of 21st century first lady-ness, particularly former first lady-ness.
former first ladies should go quietly into the night, is the argument. they should not appear on talk shows or write memoirs and have opinions.
um… wherefore art thou, laura bush?
jackie, lady bird, pat, nancy.
notice who is not here. notice how this list’s exclusions reveal betty, rosalynn, and hillz to be emblems of “inappropriate” femininity.
but notice how their “inappropriate” femininity is “inappropriate” femininity, white style. because they have the power of invisibility.
here, michelle obama has neither the privilege of invisibility, nor a name.
culturally, these names have a power beyond the women who held them. culturally, this position in american life has a power that still isn’t properly acknowledged.
increasingly i’m convinced we need to flip the equation. this is not about michelle obama’s Blackness– that others her, and it lets everyone else off the hook.
this is about the position of first lady’s historical whiteness, the whiteness of the institution and americans’ conceptualization of it.
this is about the ways in which that position, in its embodiment of what it is to be a “good,” “proper”, “classy”, “dignified”, “american” “woman”, continues to enable critiques of inappropriate femininity in the public sphere, which are, in reality, coded critiques of Black femininity.
this is about how, as a result of that long-existing, historical dynamic, we fail to appreciate how the casual rhetorical deployment of these names and ideas and critiques in american media occur within and work to support a broader structure of racism. and, in doing so, empower some truly gross, white supremacist shit in american culture.