The Significance of
Relationship with Barack
“There is scarcely anything more difficult than
to love one another … it is work, day labor, day
labor, God knows there is no other word for it.”
Rainer Maria Rilke, poet
"When a woman is talking to you, listen to what she says with her eyes."
"I don't want anybody to think that it's easy...
We have a strong marriage, but it's not perfect."
Dr. Rhonda Sherrod
Brilliant educator Anna Julia Cooper famously wrote in her 1892 book A Voice from the South, “only the BLACK WOMAN can say when and where I enter, in the quiet, undisputed dignity of my womanhood, without violence and without suing or special patronage, then and there the whole Negro race enters with me.”
For a long time now, effectively, women have been told they have to minimize themselves to get a husband. Isn’t it time to concede that the model of the incredible shrinking woman does not work when two mentally strong, intelligent, accomplished and fully human beings join together in love and marriage? Isn’t it time to admit that the old model does not work best for the male or female in the union, and that it, in effect, undermines the humanity of both spouses? One seeks to dominate and control, and the other chafes and grows resentful under the pressure to be uni-dimensional — seen and not heard. Perhaps that is the true meaning of Michelle Obama.
Watching Michelle’s star performance at the Democratic National Convention when her husband ran for re-election to the presidency prompted many to say that Michelle was coming into her own. It is probably more accurate to say that Michelle was finally being allowed to display some of who she really is -- a warm, passionate, kind-hearted, loving, and beautiful woman who, yes, happens to be super smart in a society that has a difficult time accommodating smart, strong, ambitious, and powerful women, especially when they happen to be Black.
But the beauty of this relationship is that Barack Obama is comfortable with Michelle’s strength, brilliance, and many talents. In fact, he seems to relish in and thrive on her strength, smarts, humor, quick wit, and her, undeniable, charm. Barack and Michelle’s marriage seems to challenge so much about the old models of marriage that have been in vogue since forever in this country. Seeing this couple on the world stage four years after their historic victory underscored how much of a partnership effort Barack’s ascension to the presidency really was. It also underscored how important their relationship is to our then president’s peace of mind, and, therefore, to his capacity to lead and govern.
When Michelle rather effortlessly captivated her audience that beautiful warm summer night, I was hoping it was a transformative moment--a moment that would encourage us to look at our mode of thinking about marriage and about reaching our highest heights as human beings in loving partnerships.
What the Obamas have appears to be authentic; it seems rooted in what is genuine and necessary for sustainment, rather than that which is ephemeral. It is a relationship that allows both of them to have, what the late, celebrated theologian, Paul Tillich, called, "the courage to be," in his book of the same name. What each confers on the other is something that is sacred and hard to find: The right, the courage, and the support needed to revel inside themselves--excavating for their greatness--without feeling self-conscious.
Barack Obama married Michelle Robinson, a hard-working, highly disciplined woman with very traditional values. She wanted a “good,” responsible husband and a few awesome children to go along with her law degree and professionalism. Despite the fact that she prepared herself to be a vital component in a strong marriage with a cerebral man, the truth is that her desire for a career and a voice in her marriage represents something that many women have found themselves having to suppress in order to be with, or "get” a man. Many women, and I certainly have known several, have tried to downplay their gifts, especially with respect to their intellect, in order to be in communion with a man. Many of those same women are divorced, and the rest are miserable in marriages that constrain them even as they are determined to remain in the “married” column on the social register.
Some time ago I was on a sports website and, among the many unenlightened comments featured there, one in particular stood out for its stark brutality. The commentator, while chastising Black women, pithily noted that “men don’t want a strong woman,” and that is why, he opined, so many Black women are mateless. Indeed, historically, all too often Black women have been slammed for being strong, usually by the very people who benefit from their strength. Truly, that man's comments, and so many remarks of that sort, simply lack historical context, as well as cogent analysis.
Since the colonial days -- even before this country was formed -- the strength of Black women has been pivotal to our struggle for freedom, justice, and equality. It has been critical to the advancement of our people. From the Black enslaved women who labored in the “big house” with access to information that they bravely and surreptitiously communicated to other enslaved people preparing to runaway, to the latter day bravery of Ida B. Wells who devoted her life to preventing insensate, lawless lynchings of Black men, to Angela Davis who today commits her time to disentangling Black men and women from the pernicious dragnet of the prison industrial complex, Black women have been fearless in their defense of Black people’s right to a life free of violence, indignity, and social, political and economic disenfranchisement.
Unfortunately, the thinking that so many in our community have imbibed and co-opted from western culture is that a woman can’t be feminine and strong. Of course, the whole concept of femininity (and Black femininity in particular, both of which are social constructions) deserves an essay or book unto itself. For purposes of this essay, however, it should be clear by now that strength and femininity can co-exist in the same woman. Hopefully, Michelle conveys that to those who are paying attention. The truth is that people can be different things at different times, which is perfect because it allows a man and a woman to complement each other. So, in times when Barack is weak, as we all are at times, it is a good thing that Michelle is strong and vice versa.
That segues well into another point. This notion that a “strong” Black woman is never laid low is fallacious. We live in a society that likes to dwell in binary opposition. Dichotomous thinking leads us to believe that one is this or that, when, indeed, people display different moods, emotions, and other human behaviors at different times and in different situations. To deny that cuts off dimensions of our humanity. Life is such that, as the song says, there will come a time when everybody has to cry. We will all have moments of doubt, anguish, pain, fear, sadness, depression, sorrow, and, if one dares to be great, perhaps, crushing defeat. Strong Black women cry...frequently. But, sadly, all too often no one has compassion for these strong Black women, because the dichotomous thinking incorrectly suggests that strong women are impervious to pain.
One would think, given the vicissitudes of life, that it would be every Black man’s hope that his daughters grow up to be strong, confident, and capable women. President Obama has said, “I want Malia and Sasha to feel confident about expressing their opinions. And if they’re good at something, I want them to have the confidence to step up and shine. I don’t want them to lose their empathy and stop thinking about other people, because that’s an important part of leadership, too. But I don’t want them to be wallflowers.”
I recall a conversation I had with my own father as a very young woman. He told me that it is “okay” to let your husband “lead” if he is capable of leading and if that makes “sense;” otherwise, he "would be very disappointed to know that a woman of [my] intellect and capability would allow an idiot to tell [me] what to do.” That made sense to me. My dad’s words were careful and deliberate: If it makes “sense” to follow some one else’s lead, it is okay. My father was clear in conveying that there is nothing anywhere that says I have to follow anyone. He was careful to convey that the better model is to be a fully functioning, equal partner in a relationship where decisions are made jointly based on what is in the best interest of both parties and the family.
Obviously, sometimes that is easier said than done, and there will be times when both parties to a union will have to make sacrifices and compromises, but as long as the overall vision is pleasing to both parties, both should be reasonably satisfied and content.
The lesson of Barack and Michelle is to be true to yourself, and in order to do that, as the ancient African axiom states, one must, “know thyself”-- what you like, what you want, and what you need. And those decisions are yours to make, regardless of society’s mores. If you can access your truth, and be guided by it in the face of criticisms from people who want to impose their hopes, wishes, and dreams on you, you are likely to be happier. You have to “do you.” If you can find someone who understands that and allows you to be you in the context of a relationship, that would be better than gold; indeed, it would be priceless.
I think what Barack has found in Michelle, in a sense, is himself--a place where there is no need for posturing or feigning. Considering how vulnerable and needy love makes one feel anyway, to be able to trust someone with the essence of who one is may sound elementary, but is, in fact, so profound. How wonderful it is to be able to be who you are, and to be accepted as such, while at the same time being held to a standard that your mate fully understands you are capable of reaching. That is the mate who will help you reach your highest potential.
From all accounts, Michelle has always felt Barack is special, that he had the ability to do great things, and that he was going somewhere. One of the Obamas' biographers, Christopher Andersen, quotes one of Michelle's colleagues as saying that, when Barack and Michelle were dating, Michelle “was talking about him constantly. A lot of people brag about their husbands or boyfriends, but this was different. Her tone was almost worshipful. He was going to do great things, she kept saying.”
And as for Michelle, the late former judge, Abner Mitka, a friend and supporter of the Obamas, said it was clear that Michelle “was not going to be content baking cookies.” In the book, Barack and Michelle, Anderson, states that a guest at their wedding noted that people witnessing the nuptials clearly comprehended that they were observing a coming together of two people who would create a synergy and do something truly great.**
But to achieve the Obamas' level of success, both in the relationship and outside of it, one needs to have the ability to bare oneself—to get naked psychologically and emotionally. To be able to trust that your mate will not use your vulnerabilities against you is liberating. It allows you to conquer or manage fears and demons that may bedevil you, and it bestows upon you the joy that comes with freedom and loving support. What if a man could tell his wife not only his hopes, passions, and dreams (and not get ridiculed), but also his fears, personal baggage, and human frailties? Wouldn’t that be revolutionary? And in today’s world of cellphone recorders and cameras, privacy is not a given in general, so to have sanctuary and safe haven in another human being would be oh so powerful.
Psychological scholarship on men and masculinity over the last several decades has strongly suggested that many men are tired of carrying the burden of having to be super strong and hyper-masculine. In other words, machismo is slowly dying among the more enlightened. I recall a psychotherapy client who had spent his life chasing women -- not because he really wanted to, but because he was socialized to believe he was supposed to want to -- and in the process he had fathered many children by many different women. He walked a trail of fractured relationships with his children and their mothers, and he had never fulfilled his own great artistic promise. With great trepidation he entered therapy, but that reluctance was completely dissolved when I opened the first therapeutic session by asking, “Being a macho man isn’t all its cracked up to be, is it?”
He exhaled. Loudly. For the first time, he felt he could talk and be heard, without cultural judgement and without forced bravado. Our sessions were powerful and intense as he cried about the pain he had caused his previously fatherless children, and anguished over his sloppy tentative steps at reconnecting with them. He was able to see that constantly attempting to be what others prescribe erodes and destroys. Moreover, as I often told clients, when you capitulate to what others want you to be, often what replaces the authentic self can be highly destructive.
Now that the Obamas have served their two terms, can’t you just imagine them at home in D.C or Chicago, on a relaxing but cold wintry morning, sharing sections of the Sunday paper with each other, laughing, talking, and debating issues without the constant, insecure need to engage in one-upmanship—without having to tear each other to shreds to prove who is the smartest or the most informed? Doesn’t it appear that they can discuss issues without every innocent comment becoming a challenge, every declaration a taunting critique, every statement interpreted as a missile that demands return fire?
One of the people Anderson quotes in his book said, “Michelle -- the boss -- has said that there’s a rule in their marriage: She gets to tease, and Barack does not.” That may sound less than egalitarian until one considers that he is a vaulted public servant, looked upon almost with reverence, and probably needs someone around him to “keep it real” and to keep him grounded. On the other hand, she is the woman in his life in a world where women are constantly encouraged to disparage themselves, to feel that no matter how smart, pretty, accomplished, or generous of spirit they are, it is not enough. The ideal is always something else. Barack, for his part, has noted again and again how much Michelle teases him, and he seems to appreciate it. In an interview while Barack was president, he said what he loves most about Michelle is that she knows "what is important," as in she helps him to remember what is sustaining and empowering for him and their girls at all times, no matter the current world or domestic crisis.
Barack has said, "If I’m a ten, Michelle’s an eleven." How delightful that he is so secure in his manhood. By not trying to suppress Michelle's whole self, Barack gets to be his best self. The truth is, the Obamas unapologetically represent a model that is not entirely new in the Black community. The most financially successful couples I know are powered by strong, smart women who believe in and push their husbands, but none of them have had the level of comfort with that framework that the Obamas seem to have. So, although the couples I know love each other and have endured, there has been great friction in their marriages. The fact that the Obamas are so comfortable with each other's strengths is what is rare... and refreshing and needs to be replicated.
Remember, what Anna Julia Cooper said, sisters. "When and where I enter...then and there the whole Negro race enters with me."
"I don't want anybody to think that it's easy..." Quote is from Barack and Michelle: Portrait of An American Marriage by Christopher Andersen , page 184
"was talking about him constantly..." pg.146-47
*Kelly Jo MacArthur, who is described in the bool as "Michelle's friend and law school colleage," said "...because people understood that putting the two of them together was like putting hydrogen and oxygen together to create this unbelievable life force. Everybody knew it. We understood that together they were going to be so much more than they would have been individually." pg. 158
"Michelle--the boss..." pg. 121
The BOOK by
Dr. Rhonda Sherrod:
Surviving, Healing, and Evolving
will arrive in April!!
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Brilliant multiple prize-winning author
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Dr. Rhonda Sherrod
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My Lord, She's a Black Woman."
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