If you've been following our recent discussion of Michelle Obama's image, you should check out Ta-Nehisi Coates' Atlantic profile of the woman he calls, simply, an "American girl." Yesterday I wrote that in her increasingly policy-driven role as first lady, Michelle has been distancing herself from the Jackie O image she seemed to cultivate during the general election, after she got into trouble for her "first time in my adult life" comment. But Coates, whose reporting dates back to the later part of the campaign season, has a different interpretation of Michelle. Early 1960s nostalgia is something she deeply feels, he writes, as it brings Michelle back to her stable, middle-class childhood on the segregated South Side of Chicago — a place where, unlike the elite institutions in which she would spend her young adulthood, being both black and high achieving felt completely "normal." The first lady truly laments, Coates posits, "our collective fall from motherhood, Chevrolet, and a chicken in every pot." Michelle tells Coates:
My mom and maybe a few others were some of the few who were able to stay at home. A lot of my friends, they weren't called latchkey kids, they were just kids whose parents worked. … We went to the public school right around the corner and we had lunch, and you could go home for lunch, and we had recess and there weren't closed campuses then. … They'd bring their bag lunch, they'd sit on the kitchen floor and talk to my mom.
The power of this reminiscence from Michelle isn't just that it hearkens back, comfortingly, to a time of traditional gender roles and single-income prosperity. It is that memories like this one are treasured by just as many white baby boomers as black ones. Indeed, the Obamas are quite adept at using "family values" to cut across racial divides; think of Barack's focus on responsible fatherhood, for example, or Michelle's vow to have her daughters make their beds each day, as if the family didn't have a small army of servants at their disposal.
What's important to remember though, is that the reality of the Obamas' lives haven't always comported to their PR push around traditional family values. When the couple met, Michelle was Barack's boss. They delayed parenting until their mid-thirties. Michelle didn't stop working full-time until her husband's presidential campaign was underway. As much as Michelle treasures her own stay-at-home mom, you can't really understand this woman unless you realize she has never, herself, been a stay-at-home mom. At The Root, Dayo Olopade wonders whether Michelle is a "secret working girl." The truth is, there is no secret at all. Michelle has always worked. And she still is working, every single day.
cross-posted at TAPPED