Movin’ On Up

Portrait by Hank Willis Thomas

Last summer, rumor spread that Michelle had been caught—on tape and in the company of Louis Farrakhan—hurling the sneer “Whitey” at the people her husband was busily courting. Already she’d been accused of a lack of patriotism, a near-sullen reserve, a militant fist bump, and a tendency to belittle (or was to verbally emasculate?) her husband. She’d defended and explained. This time, she just deadpanned.

“ ‘Whitey?’ That’s something George Jefferson would say.”

It was perfect. She got that some people truly believed she had a secret life as a black supremacist. But many more saw her (and him) as black parvenus, cocky upstarts who were gloating, sitcom style, “We’re got degrees from your dee-luxe schools/we’re movin’ on up to your dee-luxe House/We’ve finally got a piece of the pie, Whitey!” Along the way she’d been masculinized too, turned into George, not Louise Jefferson. Barack was outgoing and comforting; she was bossy and touchy.

» The Meaning of an Icon» Her Body, Ourselves» Her Old-school Parenting» Her Father’s Daughter More Essays Why We Crave a Royal MichelleGood White House KeepingThe First Couple’s Sexual PoliticsFrom ‘Militant’ to ‘Princess’Extending the Obama BrandNormalizing the PresidentAbout FaceThe First Wives’ ClubLittle SisterThe Fashion QuestionThe Edible & PoliticalThat’s One Tall WomanWhy She Left Her Law FirmThe Suggestions in Her EyesMichelle: A LifeArtists’ Interpretations

Now she’s the Mistress of the ultimate Big House. She presides over art and antiques, guest lists and worthy causes. Her thoughts on china patterns are solicited. It’s all so decorous and genteel. She’s gone from upstart to feminine role model. After all, “First Lady” isn’t a job, it’s a cornerstone of the feminine mystique. And since pre-Emancipation, black “females” have had to fight for the whites-only privilege of being deemed “ladies”: cultured, educated, sexually desirable in a socially respected way. Michelle Obama has managed to get all this without yielding her right to be smart and strong-willed. And though, she’s our self-appointed Mom-in-Chief, she’s not that old standby, the Black Matriarch whose warmth is linked to her corpulence. (Even Oprah hasn’t gotten past that one.)

As the response to Michelle has shifted, people are happily retooling their fantasies. Last week, a friend told me about watching a father show pictures of the inauguration to his very young daughter. “What do you think is going on?” he asked. “He kissed the princess and became president,” she answered.

Movin’ On Up