As has been breathlessly reported in every news outlet from the Washington Post to The Australian, Barack Obama has stepped up his bid for the Democratic nomination with the help of one Oprah Winfrey, the talk-show host and billionaire who traveled with him from Iowa to South Carolina to New Hampshire this past weekend to inspire the undecided. It was an awe-inspiring show of celebrity, but, looking over the many photographs of the duo's three-state tour on Saturday and Sunday — something other than Oprah's outfits stood out: The fact that Michelle Obama, the personable, whip-smart 43-year old Harvard law grad and take-no-prisoners wife of the senator from Illinois... is black.
"Black" is both a commonly-accepted and extremely loaded description of skin color in this country. (And no wonder: used as an adjective, the word connotes everything from "characterized by absence of light" to "throughly sinister or evil" to "sad, gloomy or calamitous.") It is also a description, I've noticed, that rarely pertains to the spouse, girlfriend or life partner of most well-known, extremely successful and/or powerful black man. From Clarence Thomas to Bill Cosby to Spike Lee to Chris Rock, the commonly-seen and accepted assumption in America is that behind every successful black man is a lighter-skinned (or white) woman.
Are those lighter-skinned women "trophy wives"? Absolutely not. Many, if not most, are accomplished and successful in their own right. But its hard to deny that the aspirational undercurrent when so many black men in the public eye — (See also: Barkley, Charles; Murphy, Eddie; Powell, Colin; Strawberry, Darryl; Diggs, Taye; Johnson, Jack) — step out with women of lighter complexions. And it's hard not to think of them as trophies. After all, throughout the whole of American history, literature and pop culture, light-skinned black women have been favored — by both whites and blacks — over their darker sisters as more beautiful, desirable, acceptable and stylish.
Michelle Obama's marriage to Barack turns that template on its head. As she stood next to Barack and Oprah on the Des Moines dais, it was difficult (for me at least) not to notice that Michelle was the "darkest" of the three. And as much as Barack's candidacy and its nexis of idealism, diversity and celebrity can't help but foment the feeling that history is in the making, for me, a woman of color bombarded by Caucasian ideals of beauty and sex appeal as seen in everything from Reese Witherspoon's button nose to Beyonce Knowles' highlighted hair, Michelle's presence feels just as revolutionary.
Maybe that's because, although the 2000 Census finally gave me the opportunity to declare myself not just "black" but "mixed race", I am one of those women one would expect to see on the arm of a successful black man: Light-skinned, narrow-nosed, hazel-eyed. ("Black" enough to earn a certain respect among blacks; "white" enough to inspire an easy familiarity among whites.) Just as few in this country actually ever talk about race, even fewer bring up shades of race (yeah, I'll give Spike Lee a pass on that one).
The fact of the matter is that, while Barack Obama's highly-charged run for the presidency can give us something to hold onto in an era in which black men are more likely to die or end up in jail than to graduate college, the presence of his wife — his unplasticized, uncontoured, undeniably black wife — gives those of us tired of the disproportionate amount of attention given to the Halle Berrys, Vanessa Williamses and Beyonces of the world a little hope as well. (And for those who say that skin color doesn't matter, well, for one, take note that lighter-skinned black women are more likely to land a job than their darker skinned sisters). Am I an asshole for calling attention to the color of Michelle Obama's skin?? Making a mountain out of a molehill? Maybe. Hell, perhaps the very fact that no one has brought it up before is a triumph of substance over style.
Earlier: Color Me Bad
Michelle Obama Won't Let Hubby Run Again Because It Makes Him Too Smelly And "Snore-y"
Michelle Obama Tells 'Vogue' Its Readers Are Too Cynical, Desensitized By Fashion Magazines To Vote For Her Husband