Sunday, March 22, 2009

Michelle Obama -- Black Woman digs White House garden

Eddie Gehman Kohan at Obama Foodorama has an intriguing post titled: "The White House Kitchen Garden At The Intersection Of Race, Politics, Food, And History". I encourage you to click over there and read the whole article, I haven't seen another one to touch this theme. She points out that "virtually no one pointed out both how historic and how potentially politically charged it was to have the very first black First Lady, who is descended from slaves, pick up a shovel and dig into the White House dirt." She reminds us that the White House was built by slaves, and that the class of slaves that worked in the fields was even beneath the class that worked in the house. And here is First Lady Obama, the first African American in her position, a descendant of slaves, not assigning the garden work to her staff but picking up a shovel and a rake in her own hands, even getting down in the dirt with her bare hands at one point, promising to keep at it and to get her family to dig in the dirt along with her. And the blogosphere (including Regina Terrae) never even noticed how symbolic that is. The other point Eddie brings up is how relatively quiet the black press & blogs have been about Mrs. O's garden. Both Eddie and I are white women. I have no theories about why black bloggers haven't picked up on a story that's creating some excitement in white or theoretically race-neutral media, other than that, perhaps, the "eat local, eat organic, grow your own" trend, The Omnivore's Dilemma, and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, et al, isn't as hot in black culture as it is in white culture?

Eddie wonders whether our collective silence on the symbolic punch of our first black First Lady, descended from slaves, herself out there digging in the White House garden is a sign that we're so post-racial that it doesn't matter? or is it too significant to mention, to hot to handle? Or is she really the only one to pick up on it? I have to admit that I, who consider myself more interracially sensitive than average, did not pick up on it -- but now that she mentions it, yeah ... wow.

You know what maybe it means, that is totally in character for Mrs. Obama? Many white Americans get very impatient and frustrated with many black Americans' tendency to assume racist intent in even very ambiguous cases.... there's a sense of having to walk on eggshells, that every turn of phrase, every image, every joke, no matter how innocent, is liable to be interpreted as a racial slur. The Obamas don't do that -- the Obamas know all about racism, of course, but they don't magnify it. Their tendency is to assume good intent, or neutral intent. Mrs. O talked the other day to the high school kids she visited, about her own schoolmates saying she "talked like a white girl", and she said "I'm like -- I don't even know what that means! But I'm still going to get my A!" She has risen above racist pigeonholes, just like she rises above Fox and Rush Limbaugh. She is who she is, she's not going to deprive herself of the pleasure of digging in the dirt (for the first time? she's such a city girl, has she ever had a garden? and now she's got something like 18 acres, and this garden is one whole acre) in order to assert some puffed up image of First Lady dignity. She knows how fabulous she is, she does not have to exaggerate or pose for anyone. She's not post-racial, she understands what it means that she's black -- but she's redefining blackness. Just as "talking white" is nonsense, just as the "weaker feminine sex" is nonsense, it's also nonsense that working in her own vegetable garden is beneath the station of First Lady -- that it's Field N* work. No, it's First Lady work (or First Lady play!), and it's work for all Americans to aspire to, because Michelle Obama is redefining First Lady, and she's becoming the American role model par excellence for the 21st century. (I love that lady)

Wendell Berry, one of my most admired humans and a very great advocate of "growing one's own", wrote The Hidden Wound in 1989 (see the Amazon widget over on your right!), about the intersection between racism and our modern unwillingness to involve ourselves directly in the work of our own subsistence. I've given my copy away, so I won't be able to quote directly from it, but I think it is a tremendously important book. He talks about how our modern culture disdains "getting our hands dirty", touching the earth, to grow our own food. We shift that "dirty work" off to whomever we can stick with it. He calls it -- pardon me, but the ugliness of the term is deliberate -- the "niggerization" of farm work. When he was a boy, the n* class were black Americans; now they are more likely to be Mexicans, but it's the same phenomenon: we place ourselves above the work of feeding ourselves, but since we have to eat, we have to demean another class of people who do that work for us, we pay them next to nothing (if we don't "own" them, any more), we treat them like dogs, and in the same process we disrespect the earth just as much. The n*, the manual laborers, have a visible wound; yet the clean-handed "comfortable" class have a hidden wound. Racism is a hidden wound for the racists, and it all has to do with cutting ourselves off from our own sustenance, from the natural world, and from our human brothers and sisters. Of course Mr. Berry's book is much, much better and richer than this little inadequate synopsis of it.

Michelle Obama HAS transcended race, where her garden is concerned, just as she transcended "talking white" where her education was concerned. She has so transcended race that she is inspiring thousands of Americans -- white Americans -- to imitate her in growing their own kitchen gardens as well. We want to be like Michelle! Maybe Eddie's implication is right, that black Americans are less fired up about this particular role-modelling of Mrs. O's, maybe precisely because it subtly redefines the old "Field Negro", for the 21st century, as the happy (race-neutral) mom feeding her family healthy veggies while teaching her kids about nutrition, botany, etc.

I love Michelle Obama. She is just too fabulous for words.

And now it is 1 a.m., 4 hours past my bedtime, and I am going to post this without re-reading and re-editing it 5 times. I hope it's coherent......

I would really love some feedback on this one! Obama Foodorama doesn't take comments, so I haven't been able to see any reaction but my own. As far as I know, I have 2 (count 'em, 2) followers, a black man and a white woman. What do y'all think about Eddie's post, and about mine? About the symbolic significance of black, slave-descendant First Lady Michelle Obama getting her own hands dirty in the White House garden? Had this angle occurred to you before?

Blessings to you
Regina Terrae


  1. Hi Regina,

    You post raised an interesting point. I think Michelle Obama is awesome. I think people will be critical no matter what she does. The fact that she was digging up soil conveys to me that she believes in the cause and was getting involved personally.

    I think if she just stood by while someone else dug up the dirt, she would open herself up to criticism. I think she is a strong, beautiful and intelligent woman. I think she is a great role model. She seems at peace with herself and I think all women can learn from her.

    As an ethnic woman myself, I know that no matter what I do, someone will criticize me. If I act too ethnic, I am criticized for being ethnic. If I act white, then I am accused of not accepting my ethnic background.

    You cannot please all of the people all of the time.

  2. Yes! I guess my point is that Michelle Obama, even since she was a schoolgirl, has been able to brush off those expectations. I mean, I think I'm pretty good at brushing off other people's expectations, but I'm 41 -- how many teenage girls do you know who don't care what their peers think and say about them? But by brushing off expectations, and becoming super-successful, she nullifies the old false expectations -- so completely that nobody, except for one foodie blogger, even remembers what the old stereotype was! Even she seems oblivious to this particular image (black woman digs White House garden) -- but maybe Eddie of ObFo is just off-base, and has planted a sterile seed in my mind? so to speak :)

    Did you see the videotape? She looks like she's having a ball. Actually, she has looked like she's having a ball since the Inauguration. She's loving her job. She is getting to do whatever she thinks is most important, and whatever she thinks she is best able to contribute. She gets to garden, play with kids, make a difference in people's lives, play dress-up and be treated like a Princess, all that and still be home when her daughters get off school. And her husband's home for dinner every night

  3. Hi Regina,

    I meant to write back yesterday but I got delayed with something else!

    Yes, you are right. Michelle looks like she has been having a ball ever since the Inauguration. I read somewhere that she was so concerned that something would happen to Barack if he ran for President. I don't blame her because there are so many sick people in the world. So I am sure that his winning, was a huge joy and relief. It was for me too. Every time I see President Obama, I just want to cry tears of joy. He is the real deal and so is she. I am happy for them!

  4. Hi Regina--
    It's Eddie from Obama Foodorama.

    Really terrific post, would love to chat with you some more about it. Have gotten a lot of reactions, and some are upcoming on the blog, would like to include you, too.

    Can't find your e mail on your site, but here's mine if you don't mind dropping me a line:

    All best,


  5. Hi, Eddie, welcome to my blog! I will e-mail you.