What our fixation on Michelle Obama’s hair says about the space we give Black women to breathe
I can probably count on my two hands how many times I’ve seen my mother’s hair outside of its headwrap. For modesty’s sake, she has religiously worn the garment almost every day for as long as I have been alive. To my mother, hair is an intimate experience, to be let down only in intimately personal moments–and she has always had far, far too few of those in a world that demands she give all her energy simply to survive.
Last week, Black Twitter went wild when a photo surfaced of Michelle Obama sporting her natural hair while vacationing. For eight years straight, the only images of the First Lady we were graced with were of her with seemingly permanently straightened locs, always meticulously styled to perfection in the face of an ever-critical audience.
The picture signified a unique type of relaxation; a return to an unqualified embrace of her Black female body, outside of the white gaze inherent to her former office and the expectations accompanying it. It seemed to immediately resonate with so many Black women similarly forced to navigate this misogynoiristic world under the same brand of violence–becoming a paragon of a Black woman’s exhale.
Guiness says Stig Severinsen boasts the world record for holding his breath, but they’ve never met my mother. This Black woman has discovered a new way to live that doesn’t require breathing for years on end, though she never should have had to journey to the places she ventured into to make this discovery.
The ten children she birthed and homeschooled and protected from everything and loved so much left her with little time for air, mere minutes she spent instead weaving shields out of her own mother’s love in order to face the unrelenting anti-Black world. But when she does exhale, my mother’s breath is a hurricane–a disorienting perfect storm of both violent imperfections and the meriting of far more imperfect moments than she was allowed.
I sometimes wish the world would break apart so that my mother wouldn’t have to keep carrying it on her shoulders. But when a piece of the world’s violence does crumble off, I can’t ignore the times my mother has held onto it rather than let it fall into the dirt. The woman who gave me my life and then also saved it for me when I so clumsily almost lost it to bronchitis, who rushed me to the doctor and wired me to a machine to help fill my lungs, still holding her own breath the whole time, is the same woman who remains convinced that my queerness is sinful. The same woman whose support I could never repay would not support my ungodly self while I was just a teenager on my own in New York.
I have noticed that I am sometimes quicker to dismiss Black men and masculine folks when they enact certain types of violence, but apt to engage Black women and femme folks when they do the same.
Occasionally, this is interpreted as me having a particular problem with Black women, and that I am unfairly holding them to a higher standard. I am sure there is some small truth to that, as I am not a woman, and I have been socialized in a sexist world like everyone else.
But another truth is that Black women are already too dismissed by folks like me. Another truth is even engagement that feels uncomfortable can be an act of love. And yet another is that I know my mother should have the space to breathe more often and I will do whatever I can to make that a reality. But I cannot afford to keep being swept away in these hurricanes.
A few days after Michelle Obama’s photo made waves, I spoke to my mother for the first time in a few weeks. We don’t talk as much as we should. I am trying to fix this.
She sounded tired. Unguarded. I imagine her hair was unwrapped on the other end of the phone.
She told me about an issue that was weighing on her heart. Even though I know it’s not really magic, I’m still amazed by how that scale keeps pumping with all the things it weighs daily. I told her I would pray for her. She told me, “‘Prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.’ It’s from the Bible.” I wondered what it meant for her to say this knowing that she’s not Christian, and I am not religious.
She told me, “You aren’t always righteous, but you can be sometimes.” She was talking about my queerness again. She doesn’t talk about it much. We don’t talk much. I didn’t say anything, just listened to her breathing. Breathing. Breathing. And I wanted to cry when I heard what I imagine the First Lady’s vacation sounded like, but I could not decide if these were tears of joy, or just tears of loving through pain.
It is no secret that I do not want Michelle Obama to be president, or to hold any other public office. She, more so than her husband, would be the too perfect next step in the neoliberal project of painting white violence in Black face and calling it progress, and has shown herself to be a willing supporter of the same imperialism already.
I do not excuse her from the blood of innocents that is on the hands of the Democratic Party she belongs to and champions, but I also know that so much of her own blood has been shed without consequences to any of her harm-doers. And in this photo, finally, following her exodus from those bloodstained White House halls, she seems to have found a stitch.