Maya Angelou’s poem, Phenomenal Woman, begins with "Pretty women wonder where my secret lies."  The moment Barack Obama was announced the President-Elect of the United States of America, I emailed my little sister a copy of this poem.  I knew she had read it many times before.  Still, I was curious to know if it somehow felt differently now, if seeing the Obama family together on stage made the words seem to resonate more explicitly.  I wanted to know if the idea of having Michelle Obama in the White House as the First Lady made Maya Angelou’s words seem more like a blueprint now than a testimony.

"Ah, how much more powerful these words are to me now," My sister responded, thrilled.  She cut-and-pasted this part back to me:

Men themselves have wondered
What they see in me
They try so much
But they can’t touch
My inner mystery.
When I try to show them
They say they still can’t see.
I say
It’s in the arch of my back
The sun of my smile
The ride of my breasts
The grace of my style.
I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman
That’s me.

A quick study of history reveals a war that has been waged on the image and rights of women for centuries.  Women have had to battle with openly misogynistic societies in virtually every country for years.  The struggle for equality has been a long and difficult one for women in America as well, both Black and White.  Furthermore, African-American women had to carry an extra burden within this struggle because of the dehumanizing history of slavery and racism in America.  Even as society slowly evolved and various rights were guaranteed, Black women had to fight on two sometimes separate fronts.  Today, the burden for African-American women is still heavy; the task is still daunting.  Sometimes their burden was made heavier by outside forces with malicious intent.  At other times it was, frankly, self-inflicted and co-opted.  Yet through it all, a host of phenomenal women remained "just as cool as you please."

A lot has been written about the affect Barack Obama’s presidential campaign and eventual victory had on millions of people in America and across the world.   I think it’s time we took a moment to examine the impact Michelle Obama’s role as America’s First Lady will have.  I imagine a lot of widely held stereotypes will come tumbling down with the force of an avalanche.  For millions of young Americans who relied heavily on the images and definitions force-fed to them by hip hop videos and MTV and BET, they will now have a visual alternative to Lil Kim and Wendy Williams so powerful it just may crumble giant mental barriers that have been obstacles since childhood.   When Michelle Obama smiled at the jubilant crowd in Grant Park on November 4th and waved her expression of thanks, I think millions of women across the world saw not only a beautiful, regal Black woman and dedicated mother and wife; I submit that they also saw hundreds of myths about Black women in America appear less believable and more absurd.

Without evidence or proof, I am allowing myself to believe that there were little eight year old girls all across the world who glanced at the television screen and saw Michelle Obama standing beside the President-Elect and subconsciously took in the visuals of that moment.  They may have paused only a second or two before returning to their Barbie sets or homework or makeshift Science kits, but the seeds of a new reality got planted deep inside their psyche.  They may not have comprehended the significance of the moment.  Still the visual evidence of a new world, of future possibilities, became apparent–even to those too young to appreciate history.  When a child sees an automobile, it becomes their reality.  So much so, they instinctively take it for granted and come to expect automobiles to be present when they grow older.  These same kids saw the penetrating images of a classy Black woman being broadcast to them–for some, maybe for the first time–amid vivid celebration.  It became, in that moment, a part of their reality.  They will only be aware of the true significance of this moment if they grow up and don’t see more of it.

A few weeks ago, I read an article in Newsweek by Allison Samuels, "What Michelle Obama Can Teach Us."  It was both insightful and direct:


Take this month’s issue of Town and Country magazine. An article—written by a white female reporter—offers advice to both potential First Ladies. The writer suggests Cindy McCain let her "personality and experience shine" and motivate others to give back.

   For Michelle, the writer suggests that she avoid "popping off when your guard is down" and to be careful "about how, when and if she injects her ethnicity ... into her platform as First Lady."

   The underlying message is that the last thing anyone needs to be reminded of is that Michelle Obama is all black, unlike her husband, who is mixed—as the writer points out for seemingly no reason.

   And that speaks to the larger issue that Michelle Obama could pose for the media. Because few mainstream publications have done in-depth features on regular African American women (and no, Halle Berry, Oprah and Beyoncé don’t count), little is known about who we are, what we think and what we face on a regular basis. For better or worse, Michelle will become a stand-in for us all.

Sometimes in life we make the mistake of viewing the world only from concrete, unyielding perspectives.  Based on our personal experiences, our cultural influences, and our environment, we create a perception of the universe that doesn’t leave room for growth or change or even error.  We accept people and their ideas only when those people or ideas conform to our version of reality.  But then something amazing happens, something unexpected, and we get forced or invited to see the world from another vantage point.  We get to discover that, though we may be different in many ways, we all still share common, fundamental truths which will link us together forever.

When my little sister re-read the words of Maya Angelou, I hope she paused a moment here:

When I try to show them
They say they still can’t see.

I hope she read this part over and over and over again.  Because I’m gambling, with a hopeful heart, that millions of people, young and old, men and women, Black and White, actually will see.  And they will want to see more once they do

Originally posted to The Black Critic on Thu Nov 13, 2008 at 06:37 AM PST.

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