Writer Jacqueline Holness dresses as her favorite First Lady, Michelle Obama.
With the upcoming New York primaries for the Democratic and Republican parties on Tuesday, the groundbreaking yet vitriolic presidential campaign continues to captivate the country. However, as the campaign showdown plays out, the presidential candidates’ spouses have become targets as well.
However, as the country is on the cusp of choosing its candidates at the party conventions, it is appropriate to take a closer look at the attributes and accomplishments of these candidates’ spouses compared to current and former presidential spouses. Although presidents are typically seen as the primary power brokers in their marital relationships, First Ladies throughout history have also contributed significantly in public service, government, and overall American life.
Hillary Clinton is the first former First Lady to campaign for president and to have held the Secretary of State office as well as a senatorial position. According to WhiteHouse.gov, Hillary Clinton was the “first woman elected statewide in New York” to the United States Senate.
In addition to the being the first Black First Lady, the academic accomplishments of Michelle Obama also set her apart as well. Michelle Obama, who was the 1981 salutatorian for Whitney Young High School in Chicago, graduated from Princeton University in 1985, the first First Lady to have earned an undergraduate college degree from an Ivy League institution.
She then secured a law degree from Harvard Law School in 1988, making her the second First Lady to have an advanced college degree, with Hillary Clinton being the first.
While Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama are arguably the most popular First Ladies right now, other First Ladies have also distinguished themselves for their contributions to American life. Former First Lady Nancy Reagan, who died on March 6, took on the cause of youth drug addiction when she created the “Just Say No” campaign in 1982 during her husband’s presidency.
According to WhiteHouse.gov, “in 1985 she held a conference at the White House for First Ladies of 17 countries to focus international attention on this problem.” According to the Reagan Foundation website, by 1988, “cocaine use by high-school seniors dropped by one-third, the lowest rate in a decade.”
Eleanor Roosevelt, who held the First Lady position the longest (as her husband and distant cousin Franklin D. Roosevelt served four terms as president), also championed political causes. She held press conferences, lectured, and had a column “My Day” in a daily syndicated newspaper, according to WhiteHouse.Gov.
She also championed civil rights for Black Americans, including publicly supporting the Tuskegee Airmen. Her friendship with Pauli Murray, a Black civil rights activist and attorney, was captured in The Firebrand and the First Lady: Portrait of a Friendship: Pauli Murray, Eleanor Roosevelt, and the Struggle for Social Justice, a book written by Patricia Bell-Scott and released in February.
Finally, following her husband’s death, Roosevelt became a United Nations spokeswoman.
Mamie Eisenhower, wife of Dwight Eisenhower, sought equality for Black people, though in less public ways. Eisenhower, an honorary member of the National Council of Negro Women, invited Black children to come to the annual Easter Egg Roll, and ensured that the 4-H Club Camp for Negro Boys and Girls was included in special tours of the White House, according to biography.com.
Here is some random trivia about other First Ladies: Should Melania Trump be next First Lady, she won’t be the First Lady to have been born in another country; Louisa Adams, wife of John Quincy Adams, was born in London, England. Similarly, Betty Ford, wife of Gerald Ford, worked as a fashion model, just like Melania Trump. Finally, technically not a First Lady, Harriet Lane served as a First Lady for her uncle James Buchanan, the only president who never married.
While it is impossible to predict who will be the next First Lady or even if there will be a First Gentleman this time next year, it is evident that the spouses of presidents have much to offer the country as well.
Cathay Williams, born in 1842, was the first known African American woman to enlist in the United States Army and the first and only female buffalo soldier.
Although some believe Williams, the daughter of a slave woman and a “free man of color,” enlisted in the army due to a need for income, no one knows for sure as to why she decided to portray herself as a male and enlist. While serving in the military, she was assigned to Company A of the 38th U.S. Infantry.
Williams was often hospitalized due to strain and smallpox, which is how medical personnel discovered that she was a woman. In 1868, Captain Charles Clarke honorably discharged Williams once he learned of her true identity.
Shortly after being discharged, she found several jobs that ranged from cooking to nursing across the state of Colorado. In 1891, she filed for a military “invalid pension,” due to her declining health stemming from her time in the military. Her petition was declined.
There is little information on Williams after 1892, but she is believed to have died sometime within the next several years.
Being healthy is pretty simple, but most people in the United States find it pretty hard. And for an African American, it’s over-the-top hard. Not only is the struggle of getting healthy and maintaining a healthy lifestyle embedded in the culture, but there are sometimes actual physical and financial obstacles to overall health.
There are many things in life that are simple and hard. Like staying committed to your spouse. It’s simple. Just stay faithful to one person for the rest of your life. It’s hard because there are all kinds of ups and downs you go through. Alongside various temptations, you will also lose that euphoric feeling you had when you first met. That’s what makes it hard for the long haul.
Following Jesus seems simple. Jesus is to be the Ruler and number one priority in your life. Sounds simple, right? It is but it’s also hard to do it. It means you have to deny yourself. Who wants to do that? It means that you have to trust someone you cannot see. That’s a pretty high expectation, and if you have ever tried it, it’s extremely difficult.
Application is Key
The simple part about being healthy is summed up in a maxim from Michael Pollan, the author of TheOmnivore’s Dilemma andFood Rules: “Eat [real] food, not too much, mostly plants.” It can also be summed up in the overall guideline of staying active. That seems simple enough but even in the overall culture, it is a tall order. Folks who try often get buried in a mountain of guilt over late-night binges and how that occasional donut in the morning becomes a habitual.
There seems to be no end to the
In his book the Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg says that habits can be broken down into three basic steps. First there is a cue or the trigger that tells our brains that we need to do something. The next step is the routine, which is the behavior that leads to the reward. The next step is the reward that reinforces the habit. This is something he has labeled the habit loop.
Breaking Old Habits
It seems simple to break a habit then. All we need to do is recognize our cues. Then we can choose alternate behaviors that lead to a different reward. The problem comes when your whole culture is made up of cues that go against the habit you are trying to break. That’s when the mountain of unhealthiness seems insurmountable.
At that point, you have to choose between your cultural identity and your personal well-being. What do I mean by that? It’s Sunday afternoon at Big Mama’s house and everyone is famished after spending hours at church. Big Mama’s table is full of all kinds of things that are detrimental to your health: creamy mac and cheese. Fried chicken. Chocolate cake. The only thing that’s decent is the collared greens and those have been overcooked with ham hocks. So the health factor is reduced. What do you do? Do you skip the meal? You’re hungry and after all, you don’t want to disappoint Big Mama. Plus your family has been eating this way for years.
Besides that not only has your family been eating this way but millions of African American families have been eating this way. It’s embedded in your culture. You begin to remember that time when your unusual cousin from California came and ate salad the whole week and everyone ridiculed her and said she had been hanging around white folks too much. You don’t want to be thought of as betraying your race. So you reach for the fried chicken. It’s only right.
Limited Time and Resources
How about the many African Americans who are single moms? You don’t have time to cook healthy meals for the kids. You are just trying to make it through the day and get some peace once they are finally put to bed. So what do you do? You give them the quickest and easiest thing.
Most of the time the quickest and easiest thing is also the unhealthiest. It is loaded with sodium and sugar. It is targeted to parents and children and has been tested and refined to produce a bliss point. The bliss point is the perfect combination of salt, sugar, and fat that will get people craving for more. You don’t want to hear this but you’ve been had. The food companies are deliberately making you unhealthy so they can make a profit from your lack of time to cook healthy meals for your family.
What if you did choose to live healthy in spite of the inconvenience of cultural identity and time? You still may face other challenges. Let’s say you decided to follow Michael Pollan’s food maxim of eating real food and mostly plants. The economics are against you. Real food just costs more. When you’re faced with feeding your family with the amount of money for food in your budget you have to make some choices. If it doesn’t add up you will buy the junk. And then you’re pulled back into the cycle.
There is also the existence of food deserts that totally trump eating healthy. A food desert is a swath of a usually urban community that does not have a grocery store. There is no access to healthy food and families resort to buying food from the corner store which is usually processed and packaged. No fresh fruits or vegetables in sight. If you are part of the 23.5 million people (mostly African American and Latino) in the United States who live in a food desert, this is a huge obstacle.
Let’s Talk Money
How about if you said that you wanted to stay active? You want to get a gym membership. That’s going to cost. You also have a family to take care of and a job to go to. You have to find time to squeeze it in. Not only that but when most of your friends are not active then you won’t be active. Jim Rohn, the popular self-help guru, is often quoted as saying “You are the average of the five people you most spend time with.” When it comes to being active, most black people don’t hang around other active black people. Watching sports on TV doesn’t count.
This is the essence of the struggle many black people face when it comes to health. On the surface, it seems like the struggle that anyone who wants to make a major change faces. In many ways it is. What makes it unique is the cultural factors surrounding health.
For most African Americans eating processed, cheap, nutrient-absent foods and sitting on the couch watching reality shows has become a way of life. Gathering around the table to consume salt, sugar, and fat in copious amounts has become the symbol of what it means to be family.
History of Soul Food
Don’t get me wrong. I love soul food. I think that the distinct flavor of the cuisine that we grew up with is worth having once in a while but I also believe that some of the ingredients have gone the way of just wowing the taste buds instead of delivering the sustenance we need.
Bryant Terry, author of Afro-Vegan, in his article “Reclaiming True Grits” points out that once upon a time African American food was nutrient dense and less processed. He recalls the meals that his Ma’ Dear made in Tennessee and how they were organic and contained ingredients from the garden. It is important to note that we didn’t always eat like this.
So what happened? Corporate America happened. Concern for profit became more important than concern for humans. In the 1960s, Soul Food became a hit and the recipes became more dangerous to our health. We have come to equate soul food with the fare showcased in the episode of the Boondocks about the “itis.” You know, that feeling you get after a big meal and you just want to fall over and go to sleep.
TV or play video games on the couch is not what we are designed to do.
It’s a way of life I’ve seen played out in too many homes. Personally, I’ve tried to break away from it. I do it in fits and starts. Some leafy greens here. Some HIIT workouts there. Then sooner or later the holidays come. That’s when the temptation levels are the highest. My mind has two thoughts battling each other. The first thought is to not give in and pursue my highest ideals. The second one is that I’m not only missing out on the stimulation of my taste buds but the community that I’m a part of.
Most African Americans are a part of the church. It would seem that this makes things even worse. When church people get together, they eat. And they don’t just eat but they eat good (or bad depending on your point of view). Treating our bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit seems to only apply to sex, smoking, and drinking in the church world. Packaged foods and large meals get a free pass.
I can remember when I was a strict vegan for six months in college. I was filled with energy and it was mostly from the food that I was eating and not eating. I felt like I was lighter than air. My mind was clear and I didn’t have any illnesses. Why did I stop? Family telling me I was eating rabbit food. To put it simply I had no community to support me. And when it comes to food and many other lifestyle choices, the community always wins. That’s why for most African Americans, eating healthy is simple and hard at the same time.
Honor her for all that her hands have done and let her work bring her praise at the city gate.
Women have been charged with the rigorous tasks of being the backbone of their homes and dare I say it, of nations. Throughout history their contributions were undermined in the church, their communities, or the corporate world due to the ego of the unevolved men who claim that women are just not good enough. It does not matter if the woman is a trifecta of power by giving life through her actions, creations, or children; there is still a glass ceiling that does not honor Proverbs 31. Women have paved their own roads toward success, which has earned them the titles such as billionaire, mogul, revolutionary and so forth to the astonishment of unevolved men. Consequently women of power give off the illusion that they are able to fulfill all gender roles and therefore the rib stands alone and not as an equal partner.
Who Run The World…Girls
Michelle Obama, Shonda Rhimes, Ursula Burns, Bishop Vashti Mckenzie, Dr. Joyce Banda, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Ertharin Cousin, Beyoncè Knowles-Carter– masters of their industries, leaders of countries, spiritual heads, and influencers that are touching lives around the world…all women! These women rose above rickety floors built by their respective governments and institutions then smashed through glass ceilings to achieve their greatness on behalf of all women everywhere. By their influence they contributed to the change of how the world views women. It is an uphill battle, however progress is being made through events like Chime for Change, organizations such as Young Women Leaders Network, efforts such as Let’s Move, and displaying how versatile a woman is in her power one stage at a time. Brute strength may not be a part of their genetic makeup, but their power lies within the gift of life through their efforts and it is to be honored.
Dr. Barbara Davis Founder of the Practical Living Institute and Project Destiny offered her thoughts on how women of color are affected in their hierarchal climb and womanhood balance.
“As an African American woman, I always believed that I received preferential treatment from senior management because of my sex and my race,” Davis explains. “I don’t think that I was perceived as a threat to the establishment as compared to my African-American male co-workers. However I experienced the most discrimination in the Christian community. There are roles I am not allowed to hold and have faced demeaning tones because I am a woman. Nevertheless, I keep pressing my way to fulfill the call that God has placed on my life.”
Dr. Barbara J. Davis
Dr. Barbara J. Davis has over 25 years’ experience in technology and has worked for IBM, Westinghouse, Booz Allen & Hamilton, and GTE to name a few. She also serves as head over the non-profit missionary organization Practical Living Institute which includes the Project Destiny Program. Project Destiny teaches Sudanese and Egyptian women how to own and operate their own businesses based upon Christian values. Additionally she holds a doctorate in Church Leadership and a Masters of Arts.
Throughout the history of the church, women have been known for taking on subservient roles; it was not until the last 30 or so years that the church has welcomed women in leadership roles in the church. Sometimes, however, these women must also fill the heavily-pressured role of being an acceptable wife, mother, and minister/pastor. Being a church leader has its own pressures, however Dr. Davis does not believe that being accomplished defines what womanhood is.
“I definitely do not feel that my accomplishments diminish my womanhood as reflected in scripture. [Referencing] Proverbs 31 as a cornerstone of a Christian woman’s womanhood, every woman would be a great manager, business person, care taker, and leader,” Dr. Davis stated.
With that said, women of power must learn how to be partners, although they can survive very well on their own.
Wearing and Sharing the Pants
I love her ‘cause she got her own.
These lyrics from R&B star Ne-Yo are an example of an evolved man who honors how a woman can take charge of her life without the consequence of losing her ‘womanhood’. When a woman takes on a leadership role she is symbolically ‘wearing the pants’ to ensure the realization of her goals. By doing so she takes a commanding position of power in whatever she’s doing, taking on what is historically viewed as more masculine traits. However, rather than these traits being masculine, they are universal examples of dominance and assertiveness that allow those who possess it to go farther and achieve more than they ever could with a different mindset. These are women considered to have Alpha qualities.
A woman who embodies the strength of an Alpha is more in control of her own fate and what choices are available to her. This in no way limits her to being the powerful, career-driven woman who never has time to make a family, or the family woman who never has time for her career. She is capable of juggling five different career-related activities while simultaneously satisfying the needs of her family, friends, and significant other–if there is one. Having that significant other adds an additional burden to the Alpha woman as she must cater to the needs of her man, especially when it comes to satisfying the male ego. Having a woman who can do for herself what a man typically does can be a challenge to some men who lack the fortitude to deal with an independent woman. Seeing her make as much (if not more) money than him, maintaining home, and looking good while doing it adds fuel to the feminist fire of ‘Who needs a man?’
For centuries women took the back seat to their husband’s/partner’s success while navigating their journey to the top and having dinner ready by 5. The truth is some men cannot fathom marrying Superwoman, they want Lois Lane; someone professional, accomplished, but more willing to be docile and submissive to his power. But does that make them worthless or powerless? No. The power lies within the support of their partner; being the mind, body, and spirit for the man they love when he is too weak. They too must be honored as their husband’s equal. It may not be ideal for the ever-evolving feminist, however it is still an acceptable role for the modern woman to allow the man to ‘wear the pants’ while she stitches them together.
As seen in the Concrete Cakes article, to ‘share the pants’ a man AND woman should be willing to embrace roles of support as a gladiator and a goddess. In these roles they will interchange actions that will nurture their respective endeavors as they grow as individuals. By doing so the woman does not lose her identity and becomes equal with her ‘Adam’.
A note to Women of Power
As a woman of power, understand that your gifts are God-given to conquer an unforgiving world; whether alone or coupled. In biblical text, God formed Eve from the rib of Adam. However it is the woman who continues to give life through mind, body, and soul. Recognize and honor your power, you are equal.
By now most are familiar with Janette…IKZ (pronounced “Genetics”). She is the poet behind the spoken word piece “I Will Wait” and last summer she launched a web series entitled “The Wait Is Over” to document her journey to the altar with her now husband Matthew Watson. Then “I Will Wait,” which has been viewed over 2 million times on YouTube, touched people because of Janette…IKZ’s transparency about her struggles with singleness and now, the “I Waited For You…” wedding vow is taking many by storm because of the same transparency. Not one to mince words or paint unrealistic pictures, Janette…IKZ loads her vows with brutal honesty about who she was when she first met Matthew, who she is becoming in Christ, and even how she might fail given human nature. But, most of all, what Janette…IKZ communicates for the many who’ve watched the video thus far is an honest love for her husband rooted in her love of Christ.
There’s not much more to say about it besides that, so check it out for yourself and let us know what you think.
Identity is a tricky pursuit. For black women in America, the pursuit is complicated by the stereotypes and image distortions put upon them by dominant culture—both male and white—and the ones into which they are socialized by their mothers, aunts, pastors, husbands, and friends. Every woman wants to be her own person; she wants to know and understand who she is for herself. But black women are shaped, pressed, and squeezed into a universal, truncated identity of superhuman “strength” that superimposes predetermined responses, beliefs, and roles onto an already complex existence. It used to be a source of pride and distinction to be called a ‘strong black woman’ but now women are awakening to the dangers of that double-edged sword. An identity that was thought to be protective and life-giving because it prevented hurt, pain, and damage is now being unmasked as a disguised death because it has brought illness, loneliness, and dysfunction. Dr. Chanequa Walker-Barnes confronts head-on the ubiquitous identity of the Strong Black Woman (SBW) in her new book, Too Heavy A Yoke: Black Women and the Burden of Strength.
The book’s readability is also helped along by a logical structure and flow that makes it easy to follow the author’s discourse and to connect the dots from one thesis to the next. Her topical subjects go from a detailed and illuminating profile of the Strong Black Woman (Chapter 1), to naming and critiquing the historical and contemporary cultural forces that shaped and necessitated the identity (Chapter 3), to honing in on the unique role the black church has played in reinforcing the Strong Black Woman identity (Chapter 5), and finally to laying out her model of healing and recovery. Also, the “Purpose and Organization of this Book” section in the Introduction is particularly helpful because she gives insight into why she chose womanist ideology as her framework. Explaining her approach is smart because many black readers in her intended audience, particularly black pastors, are not necessarily well-versed in womanism, and if they are familiar with it, are likely to disagree with its tenets and philosophical slant, particularly those not of the Millennial age group. Case in point: her quotation of Alice Walker’s definition of a womanist: “A woman who loves other women, sexually and/or nonsexually. Appreciates and prefers women’s culture, women’s emotional flexibility…and women’s strength…”[ii]
The author’s profile of the Strong Black Woman is clear and compelling. She draws upon the already-established Jezebel and Mammy stereotypes parsed by Melissa Harris-Perry in Sister Citizen, and the Sisterella personality crafted by Jones and Shorter-Gooden in Shifting, as well as other scholars’ descriptors, for her three-part characterization of the Strong Black Woman identity: 1) excessive caregiving; 2)independence; and 3) emotional strength/regulation.[iii] Using examples of women she’s worked with in her professional practice, she highlights the common behaviors and attitudes that accompany each aspect of the SBW identity. In caregiving roles, these Strong Black Woman:
…took care of ailing family members and…generally were the first called whenever someone had a problem. At work and at church, they could be counted upon to take up the slack when someone else failed to live up to their responsibilities. Often, in fact, they foresaw the probability that the other person would fall short and they stepped up to the plate long before they were asked. …They rarely said no to anyone. …Whenever they felt the weight of responsibility bearing upon them, they ignored it, believing sincerely that God would continue to empower them to serve.[iv]
Walker-Barnes uses analysis of three hip-hop and R&B songs as the backdrop for her discussion of independence, which, she asserts, is basically about self-reliance. Looking to herself for financial provision, the SBW doesn’t need—in fact often eschews—the help of anyone, particularly men. Her comportment labels her as someone with an “internal sense of power and authority.” with a ‘boss’ mindset and who apparently carries this off with mystique-like ease.[v] The author perhaps sees the emotional strength aspect of the identity most destructive. Strong Black Women reflexively repress emotions, sometimes even the ‘positive’ ones. Fear of affirming others’ perceptions of angry black women, she strives for emotional equilibrium, or more precisely, the appearance of it. The author convincingly demonstrates the links of this false emotional strength to ongoing declines in the physical and mental health of today’s black women, urging attention from both the social science and ecclesiastical community and black women themselves.
A hallmark of the true value of “Too Heavy a Yoke” is the final chapter in which the author lays out her model of recovery and healing for the Strong Black Woman. She utilizes a twelve-step framework similar to addiction recovery programs, which makes sense given that she views adherence to the SBW personality as an addiction, a “force of habit ingrained in many African-American women from childhood.”[vi] Any woman who reads this book and can see herself in the attributes of the Strong Black Woman will not be untouched by reading the twelve steps for recovery. A woman who sees herself in the pages of this book will be forced to confront her profound need for Jesus’ intervention in her life, and her utter dependence on that intervention to abandon the strictures of this artificial identity. We all need to lay this burden down, and “Too Heavy a Yoke” can be a powerful catalyst to move us in that direction.
Writer’s note: The themes and ideas put forth in this book will be explored in more detail in subsequent articles in this series
[i] Chanequa Walker-Barnes, Too Heavy a Yoke: Black Women and the Burden of Strength, (Oregon: Cascade Books, 2014), 8
[ii] Walker-Barnes, Too Heavy a Yoke, p. 9 (quoting Alice Walker, In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens)