On Michelle Obama and Why the Devaluation of Black Women is American as Apple Pie

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by Jallicia Jolly

On January 20, we witnessed yet another apocalyptic moment in world history: the inauguration of President Donald Trump. Many of us watched with intense uncertainty and sheer saltiness as President 45 accepted the keys to the Oval Office and the nuclear codes, following one of the most fear-based elections in the United States's history. I watched the tragedy with deep awe and sadness as former President Barack Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama greeted the new First Family.

While it’s customary for the new FLOTUS to bring a gift for the outgoing FLOTUS, this particular exchange is abhorrent when situated within broader histories of white supremacy and anti-black(woman)ness. I cringed at the sight of Melania’s blue Tiffany’s box. Melania’s gift-giving reminds me of the next-door neighbor who really wants to greet you with contempt, yet insists on making you apple pie as a wanna-be polite gesture. The pie, an American symbol of comfort and familiarity, is burnt to the core and its less-than-stellar crust is hardly edible, yet your acceptance seals the stamp of benevolence and belonging on the part of the giver.

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This form of gift-giving falls in line with an American tradition—a tradition that includes the simultaneous hypervisibility and invisibility of Black women as they are subjected to processes of devaluation.

Considering President Donald Trump’s platform of misogyny, racism, and xenophobia, this performance of intimacy is visceral. When coupled with Melania’s plagiarism at the Republican National Convention and ongoing cooptation of black people’s narratives, this poor performance of graceful parting is laced with the anti-black(woman)ness that subjects Black women’s labor and experiences to erasure as it places middle- and upper-class white men, women, and children within the apex of privilege and people of color in its lethal periphery.

Michelle’s inauguration face registered the moral meaning of public contempt. It renders visible the compromised space Black woman navigate as they are forced to adhere to the logics of U.S. patriotism and its blatant disregard and subjugation of people of color generally, and Black people in particular. We saw this in the use of black female grief and trauma as a political strategy at the Democratic National Convention to solidify Hillary Clinton’s connection to Black communities. We see this in historically racist and sexist economic practices that cement our financial insecurity. We also see this in the functioning of the child welfare and criminal justice systems that work to deny Black women the right to parent as they blame us for the destruction of Black communities.

It was in Michelle’s sullen face and watery eyes that I, yet again, felt the weight of what it means to live while Black and women in this country. We are low priority on the national agenda. We are hyper visibile in a toxic moral landscape historically invested in our violent denigration. We are in a state of being perpetually disposable as we are told that we should be defenseless, unpitiable, and, thus, undeserving. We juggle national and communal expectations as we manage the imposition of values, beliefs, and behaviors that are against our very existence. It requires a process that almost never encourages us to just be, forbidding us to invest in any form of full selfhood unless it services the interests and needs of anything and anyone but us—white men, white women, and Black men.

As I watched the torch passing of this new age of American empire, I thought about the ongoing exchanges and sacrifices Black women are often forced to participate in—resistance for “patriotism” and racial solidarity for gender equality, to name a couple. I imagined the stress of our dehumanization displayed by our devaluation in public policy, media, institutions and even our own communities. I pondered the psychic toll that arises from the quotidian terrors we face while trying to do our own things on our own terms in spaces that tell us we are not deserving of life, honor, and pleasure.

The ongoing juxtaposition of a “classy” Melania and a “primitive” Michelle highlights a reality: even if Black women display the most committed forms of patriotism, we are still expected to accept the justification of our violation even as we become the symbol for the Pandora's Box of American trauma.

And amidst it all, I remember the words, “when they go low, we go high.” I remember the political possibilities beyond the base dehumanization. I imagine the spaces of resistance and restoration that can allow us to dismantle systems of violence as they encourage us to transform our homeplaces and communities. I recollect the relationships that inform our strategic visions as they cultivate our minds, hearts, and souls. I think about the people that help create a present worth living and a future worth dreaming.

Needless to say, I am here for Michelle’s side eyes.

Jallicia Jolly is a writer, poet, and PhD student studying HIV/AIDS and reproductive justice in the U.S. and Caribbean. Jolly co-leads Resist.Restore. - a global-health-art organization that uses performance art, research, and community engagement to address health disparities in African diasporic communities in Brooklyn, Haiti, and Jamaica. Follow her on twitter: @jallicia

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