Michelle’s Shorts: How History Made the Black Woman a Jezebel
My new BFF ObamaNerd at PubliCola smartly called the carpet the issue of the media’s reaction to Michelle Obama’s wardrobe selection while on vacation- she wore- wait for it- shorts. No, not hug-your-ass-accentuate-the-camel-toe-booty-booty-booty-booty-rockin’-everywhere-shorts. No, these were yo mama’s comfy gardening shorts. She looked like any other woman you see- Black or White- on vacation, or in line and Home Depot, or working in her yard on a Saturday afternoon.
Why the big deal? Why the question of “appropriateness” of the shorts? And why didn’t anyone bother to go back through photo archives and pull up images of our former, Whiter, First Ladies in shorts? There’s that pesky double standard again. Sort of like no one bothering to look at prior sleeveless First Ladies. Sigh…
ObamaNerd on the other hand has zeroed in on a better and more pointed question: is American afraid of Black female sexuality?
It’s a complex question which deserves a complex answer. The attractiveness of Black women is threatening to many, and has been for as long as Black women have been on this continent- before, in fact.
The belief that Blacks are sexually lewd predates the institution of slavery in America. European travelers to Africa found scantily clad natives. This semi nudity was misinterpreted as lewdness. White Europeans, locked into the racial ethnocentrism of the 17th century, saw African polygamy and tribal dances as proof of the African’s uncontrolled sexual lust. Europeans were fascinated by African sexuality.
Because of that, Black women are strapped with the Jezebel stereotype. From the Ferris State University Jim Crow Project:
The portrayal of Black women as lascivious by nature is an enduring stereotype. The descriptive words associated with this stereotype are singular in their focus: seductive, alluring, worldly, beguiling, tempting, and lewd. Historically, White women, as a category, were portrayed as models of self-respect, self-control, and modesty – even sexual purity, but Black women were often portrayed as innately promiscuous, even predatory. This depiction of Black women is signified by the name Jezebel.
Black women could dress in paper bags from head to toe and they would still be objectified as overly sexual beings that tempt good god fearin’ men away from their wonderful, moral wives.
Never in the history of First Ladies has it been so often asked “is she showing too much skin”, “is her outfit accentuating her curves too much”, and so on. Yes, as ObamaNerd points out, even “reputable” outlets like Salon would rather point out that Michelle’s got back, rather than Michelle’s got more intelligence in her pinky toe than the entire Salon staff combined.
America is used to a limited and ignorant view of Black women. Either Black women are Oprah, or Black women are showing off their photo-shopped asses on the cover of magazines. Michelle doesn’t fall into either category, because Michelle is her own woman. She knows that wearing a pair of shorts is not disrespectful to her, her children, her position in this country, to the American people or to the office her husband holds. She does not allow herself to be defined by what society thinks or believes she should be doing, saying or wearing.
Her mere image invokes emotional reactions- she challenges stereotypes and preconceived notions, and many do not know what to do with that- it makes them uncomfortable and people are often scared by what makes them uncomfortable.
One could argue the fact that this conversation is even being had is sexist and racist. They would be right. The media should be ashamed for being so damn ingorant- and encouraging the American people to be stupid too.