Holding Up a Mirror: Reflections of Invisible Americans in Obama's White House

9 years ago

We Are One: The Obama Inaugural Celebration At The Lincoln Memorial

One of the many exciting aspects of electing the first black president is that some segments of American life will be more visible to all of the country and world in a way they seldom have in media and popular culture.

There is much attention being paid to the fact that the Obamas are a black, upper middle class, traditional nuclear family. As several observers have noted (however clumsily) the first, last and only time previously that reality has occupied (especially white) America's collective mindspace was in the heyday of the Huxtables.

No, the Huxtables were not real. Yes, real Huxtables exist - they are not mythical creatures.

(photo credit: JibJab via flickr stream of mind on fire)

Although caution should be taken not to idealize the Obama family and marginalize other (black) family structures, there is a certain gratification in seeing the rest of America learn what black folks have known all along, i.e., there are black families headed by two, married parents, not just single mothers and absent fathers as seems to be all too common in the media and popular culture's image of how we live.

Though the new first family may seem like a novelty to some, for others they are familiar.

Barbara McKinzie, international president of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, says she grew up in a small town in Oklahoma surrounded by black couples and an extended family of teachers and neighbors, who were knit together like the new first family.

She didn't need to look at the Inauguration Day festivities to see a vibrant black family.

"It's not new, but it appears new," she says. "The president and his wife and children are not a novelty in the African-American community.

"It's the only family I've known in my life." Black first family 'changes everything' John Blake, CNN.com

And though it wasn't the experience of Michelle and Barack specifically, I guarantee that they are representing for those of us bougie black folks who grew up in the world of Jack and Jill, The Links cotillions, AKA's (of which Michelle has been made an honorary member) and Deltas, Alphas and Kappas and the rest of the "Divine Nine" black Greek service organizations.

(Oakland Links Cotillion 2005 photo from The Globe Newspapers)

Even within the black community there is rejoicing at the stereotypes Barack and Michelle are smashing because Michelle is not fair and is darker-skinned than her husband. The reality that "black is beautiful" is being writ large via our first lady, no paper bag tests need apply.

Beyond changing up the image of the black family for many Americans, the extended Obama family represent the reality of much of America.  We are a nation of immigrants and indigenous people, slaves and masters all intermingled.  My own family is a brilliant rainbow example of this America.  On my mother's side we are descended from black African slaves and white slave owners.  My father is an immigrant from St. Vincent in the West Indies and his multi-hued ancestors hailed from Africa, Portugal, Venezuela, Scotland and Ireland.  My extended family encompasses Native Americans, Canadians, Arubans, Dutch and Swiss. We are Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Religious Scientists, Catholic, Jewish, Buddhist and non-believers.  And with the Obamas in the White House, we've come a long way from the days of George H.W. Bush describing his Mexican-American grandchildren as "the little brown ones."

For well over two centuries, the United States has been vastly more diverse than its ruling families. Now the Obama family has flipped that around, with a Technicolor cast that looks almost nothing like their overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly Protestant predecessors in the role. The family that produced Barack and Michelle Obama is black and white and Asian, Christian, Muslim and Jewish. They speak English; Indonesian; French; Cantonese; German; Hebrew; African languages including Swahili, Luo and Igbo; and even a few phrases of Gullah, the Creole dialect of the South Carolina Lowcountry. Very few are wealthy, and some — like Sarah Obama, the stepgrandmother who only recently got electricity and running water in her metal-roofed shack — are quite poor.

“Our family is new in terms of the White House, but I don’t think it’s new in terms of the country,” Maya Soetoro-Ng, the president’s younger half-sister, said last week. “I don’t think the White House has always reflected the textures and flavors of this country.” Nation's Many Faces in Extended First Family by Jodi Kantor, The New York Times

On President Obama's first day in office it was evident that our new first family were welcoming a new face of America to the White House.

At Jack & Jill Politics, rikyrah shares some thoughts on an image of a young man with braided hair meeting the president and first lady at the post-inaugural open house:

Look at that picture. How many of us have passed this young man on the street and had all these ideas about him? Was one of those ideas - ‘ this young man wants to meet The President of the United States’. No, I believe it wouldn’t have made the list.

This was a goosebumps moment that I didn’t even realize I wanted to see. "The People's House"

I for one cannot wait to see all the ways in which President Obama shines a bright light on all sorts of invisible Americas.

How do you see yourself or your family in the new first family? What have you seen or are you learning about American families that you might not have known? What aspects of American life are you hoping will be better understood by the diversity the Obamas have brought to our national consciousness?

Related reading:

rikyrah at Jack & Jill Politics on Black First Family 'changes everything'

My position was that, of course, Black love exists. It’s always existed. It’s how we have sustained ourselves throughout the centuries. But, remember, I was thankful for Michelle Obama because she was representative of the INVISIBLE part of America that has never been shown - until now. So, even if you saw it in your own life, you can count the number of times you’ve seen it respresented with consistency in the Media.

Laura at Pursuing Holiness Hope Day 2

Having a “Black first family ‘changes everything.’” Not since Cosby has been on television has there been a black family that could serve as a role model for kids today. Well, maybe not. When you get waaay down to the end of the article, you find the simple truth: “‘It’s not new, but it appears new,” she says. “The president and his wife and children are not a novelty in the African-American community.’” Wait - you mean there’s been a black middle class and professional class all along? The deuce you say! I wonder why the media and Hollywood don’t ever show it.

Jennifer at Mixed Race America The First Family, a Mixed Family, an American Family

It's really exciting to imagine who is going to be coming into the White House--whether as guests or as political figures or as friends and family of the First Family. I suppose one can even say that the choices Michelle Obama made in terms of the two designers of her day and evening wear signal a nod to the racial diversity of the nation, since Isabel Toledo (designed the lemon-grass coat and dress she wore during the day) and Jason Wu (designed the ivory ballgown) are both immigrants and people of color.

At any rate, it's the dawning of a new day in the face of American politics. And what a happy day it is for those of us who truly believe and desire a mixed-race America.

Ellen Kennedy Michel at The Poetics Of Daily Life Mixed Race Family of Humans

In my extended family, then, there are those who speak "place tok" from Papua New Guinea, as well as English, German, French, Spanish, and Persian. We represent cultures from North America, Europe, the Persian Gulf, Africa, Australia, and Melanesia. I can appreciate the beauty of Obama's family, the richness of the differences they represent.

And it's not that long ago that my mother's mother, who was a Scotch-Irish American, made the big cross-cultural step of marrying the son of Norwegian immigrants.

Gunfighter: A Modern Warrior's Life Barack Obama & The End of "Acting White"

We aren't "acting white", we are acting like Americans who have as much a stake in this country as anyone else does. We are acting like Americans who have an inherent right to the blessings that accrue from our citizenship. We are acting like this is our country... because it is.

This is OUR time.

BlogHer CE Maria Niles is a real life bougie black person who can also be found blogging at PopConsumer.

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