Web Only / Features » January 26, 2014
What To Expect From New York’s Black Feminist First Lady
Can we embrace Chirlane McCray without smothering her?
Chirlane McCray is acknowledged to be her husband's chief advisor and is commonly credited with shaping the platform that got him elected.
Soon after Bill de Blasio won the New York City mayoral race, my friend Johnathan Fields, a recent transplant to New York, exclaimed on his Facebook page: “My First Ladies are Black!”
In case you’ve missed the news clips or the magazine covers, the new mayor of the famous five boroughs is married to Chirlane McCray, a Black woman with a history of progressive politics. (And Fields and the rest of the United States are under the First Ladyship of Michelle Obama, of course.)
While both Fields and myself may be exulting in McCray’s new title, not everyone has been thrilled with the Black First Lady we’ve had for the last six years. While Black women practically celebrated in the streets when Michelle Obama stepped into the role in 2008, some white feminists met the nation’s first Black First Lady with confounding silence. As I wrote in a 2008 article for the blog Michelle Obama Watch:
Michelle Obama is getting short shrift … from the mainstream white feminists who were screaming and screaming about Hillary Clinton. …There's still a sense of silence. … People are shuffling their feet.
Then, when the FLOTUS claimed the mantle of “Mom-in-Chief,” the silence became a chorus of indignation—an especially perplexing response in light of the fragile denouement of the years-long, media-fueled “Mommy Wars,” which ended with most feminists agreeing not to judge each other’s marital, parental and career choices. As blogger Trudy wrote at Gradient Lair about the “Mom-in-Chief” controversy:
If [White women ] cannot understand the history, let alone the emotion, involved in Black women being able to be MOTHERS to THEIR OWN CHILDREN with the care and love that for CENTURIES was often only allotted to WHITE CHILDREN (though this myth of the loving mammy has backfired at times on White women whose racially and emotionally immature views of parenthood meant that their children ended up hurt or dead because they couldn’t even conceive of anyone not worshipping their White children [as they is not kind, smart or important] so they ignored clear as day signs from the today nanny or yesterday mammy that she herself was hurting or not well and a risk to those kids) then they don’t see us. If they cannot understand the POWER in Obama’s unapologetic love for his Black wife and Black daughters, commenting on their intelligence, character and yes, beauty, in a world where for centuries up until this very moment and future moments, Black women aren’t allowed to be anything but mammies, Sapphires and Jezebels and if we’re lucky “strong” at best, they don’t see us.
If it wasn’t so sad it would be funny watching White feminists, many of whom are class privileged and don’t even truly raise their own children, bash Michelle for her pride in motherhood (as if somehow this erases her résumé—which seems to be their focus, as if she can’t have a plethora of roles) yet have no problem with their Black and Latina nannies.
Then Michelle Cottle, a white woman writing at Politico, added fuel to the fire by calling FLOTUS Obama a “feminist nightmare” because Obama uses her Mom-in-Chief pulpit to urge healthy eating and to encourage young people of color to go to college. Cottle charged that the FLOTUS should have been “more aggressive” by taking on “edgier” issues such as “the myriad problems eating away at minority communities”—as though diet-related illnesses and lack of collegiate training in a knowledge-based economy aren't problems for poor communities of coor. It was mostly Black feminists, like Dr. Brittney Cooper, who had to tell these feminist fearmongers to “lean back” from such assertions. Professor and MSNBC host Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry explained to Cottle that for quite a few Black women, Michelle Obama is a feminist dream:
You misunderstand the place that Michelle Obama occupies as the first African American First Lady. You seem to think she’s trying to steer clear of the Angry Black Woman stereotype. But when she calls herself “Mom-In-Chief,” she’s rejecting another stereotype: the role of Mammy. She’s saying that her daughters—her vulnerable, brilliant, beautiful Black daughters—are the most important things to her. The First Lady is saying, “You, Miss Ann, are going to have to clean your own house, because I will be caring for my own.” And instead of agreeing that the public sphere is necessarily more important than Sasha and Malia, she has buried Mammy and embraced being a mom on her own terms. So you can call that your “feminist nightmare,” but for many of us, it’s our Black motherhood dream.
And, furthermore, Harris-Perry suggested Cottle read up on some Black feminist literature to grasp the concept.
It’s true that Michelle Obama never self-identified as a feminist, leaving her defenders to make generous interpretations of her activism and by extension, her politics. As some of her supporters may say, she’s doing the work, even if she doesn’t say as such.
So should First Lady Chirlane McCray expect the same dubious reception from white feminists? Probably not at first. One key difference between the two First Ladies is that New Yorkers have elected a mayor whose wife has actually called herself a feminist. McCray has the bona fides of being a part of the legendary Combahee River Collective (CRC) of 1974 to 1980, whose foundational statement has shaped Black feminism to this day—including almost every idea in those books Dr. Harris-Perry suggested to Obama-critic Cottle.
And in many ways, First Lady McCray is a living example of the maturation of the CRC’s ideas. Several commentators note that McCray’s experience as a lesbian who went on to marry a man of another race reflects the realities of sexual fluidity and family composition in contemporary U.S. society. (Writer Liz Dwyer went so far as to thank New Yorkers for sending a family that looks like hers to the mayoral mansion.) As much as some of us on the Left love feet-in-the-streets action and calling out the political status quo, it’s also a thrill to have a Combahee River Collective member—someone from “our” team—make it to the highest floors of local power, even if she got there because she’s married to the man elected mayor.
Nor was McCray incidental to de Blasio’s victory. She’s acknowledged to be his chief advisor and is commonly credited with shaping the platform that got him elected: opposition to the last 20 years of administrations that were overly friendly to business and vicious toward working-class and poor people. It’s clear McCray is one-half of a political team (which I’ll affectionately call “Billane”).
Lefties are hopeful McCray and her husband will inscribe “our” message of desperately needed racial, gender and economic equity into city policy. As the Combahee River Collective statement famously noted, these issues not only intersect, they’re interlocked:
We … often find it difficult to separate race from class from sex oppression because in our lives they are most often experienced simultaneously. … We realize that the liberation of all oppressed peoples necessitates the destruction of the political-economic systems of capitalism and imperialism as well as patriarchy.
And indeed, many of de Blasio’s campaign promises—such as ameliorating “stop-and-frisk” policing, guaranteeing a living wage and quelling the affordable housing crisis—would combat all three forms of oppression. Black people and Latinos are disproportionately affected by stop-and-frisk, disproportionately represented in the low-wage workforce—which has swelled during the economic meltdown—and disproportionately forced out of New York City because they can’t afford to stay here. And gender factors into these problems as well, both in overt ways—women make up 60 percent of low-wage workers—and more subtle ones: When Black women are part of the stop-and-frisk dragnet, they report experiencing sexual harassment from police who sometimes misgender them under the guise of looking for a black male rapist.
So as the new administration seeks to make good on its promises, it’s more than likely that we will witness how a progressive person—and a progressive Black woman, no less—can take the Combahee statement and apply it in real time and in living color to the notoriously complex establishment that is New York City Hall.
Yet even this will not necessarily shield McCray from detractors. She will still have to deal with the unspoken-yet-socially-enforced duty of the First Lady to be a paragon of femininity—risking mainstream criticism if she performs the role inadequately and feminist criticism if she performs it too well. Like Michelle Obama, she will have the difficult task of modeling a loving motherhood that’s still denied to Black women, no thanks to stereotypes like Daniel Moynihan’s “Black Matriarch” and Reagan’s “Welfare Queen,” which cast Black women as inherently incapable of rearing their own children. Like Michelle Obama, she risks being castigated by some white feminists for doing so.
It’s not easy to have one’s private life subject to public scrutiny, but it’s even harder when that private life is under strain. Both Michelle Obama and McCray navigate marriages made more difficult by the vicissitudes of public service and politics. A little-acknowledged reality of Michelle Obama’s Mom-In-Chief mantle is that it’s a break for a woman who for years earned more than her husband, maintained a home and reared two daughters, all while her husband pursued a political career. As Barack Obama confesses in his memoir, Dreams of My Father, he was confronted with the reality of how his long absences affected his marriage and family when Michelle told him that she refused to be, as a friend calls it, “a single parent with a ring on her finger.” For their part, “Billane” got a taste of how politics can compromise family life when they faced the choice of whether to interrupt their son’s education in order to move to the mayoral mansion. (In the end, they decided to). Both the McCray-de Blasios and the Obamas have made a set of agreements that help their bonds survive as they strap their marriages into the wild rollercoaster of politics. And the rest of us need to take a lesson from both truths, namely that both are perfectly fine marital, parenting and political arrangements.
But even as we embrace First Lady McCray‘s nontraditional marriage, including her partnership in her husband’s career, I hope we feminists and other progressives—the Collective’s philosophical beneficiaries—don’t buckle her to our romantic ideas of “shoulds and woulds.” In this, we can take an example from McCray herself, who has refrained from using her feminist credentials to cast aspersions on or cudgel Michelle Obama for her expressions of her Black womanhood as First Lady. In our efforts to hold Mayor de Blasio accountable to his campaign-trail promises, we should not subject McCray to our own self-constructed “purity tests” of what it means to be a “good feminist.”
I hope, really, that we let First Lady McCray live, both personally and politically. Posing for a gorgeous magazine photo, for example, doesn’t nullify her feminist background and political smarts. More importantly, we may need to let her disappoint us with some decisions made by her husband—and by her, if what is said about her being a part of his hiring decisions is true. Already, there's been progressive backlash over the new administration's decision to place the responsibility of turning around the city’s housing crisis and creating living-wage jobs in the hands of Alicia Glen, a former Goldman Sachs executive who served as liaison with the Bloomberg administration, and its decision to swear in stop-and-frisk’s architect, Bill Bratton, as the new NYPD Commissioner. But instead of trashing McCray’s feminist cred, we need to challenge the hirings themselves. These sore-thumb appointments to de Blasio’s staff force the Left to look at the contradictions that arise when applying one’s progressive politics in real life.
As the CRC’s statement says, “To be recognized as human, levelly human, is enough.” We can extend that courtesy to both of our Black First Ladies.
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Named one of Ebony.com’s “8 Dynamic Black Women Editors in New Media,” Andrea Plaid serves as a contributing editor at The Feminist Wire and a critic for Kirkus Review. She was the associate producer of renowned web series Black Folk Don't. Her commentary has appeared on MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry, Huffington Post Live, the Chicago Tribune, and the Washington Post. Plaid served as an associate editor of the award-winning race-and-pop-culture blog Racialicious, and her work on race, gender, sex, and sexuality has appeared, among other places, at On The Issues, Bitch.com, and RH Reality Check.