Seriously, Let Michelle Obama (and black women in general) live

From the AP

From the AP

President Obama was caught smiling at the memorial service for Nelson Mandela. Apparently, this is cause for outrage. Impeach him! But wait, there’s more. First Lady Michelle Obama was *so* mad at him for… smiling. I think. I’m not entirely sure what the fuss is about. I guess people really don’t like the idea of taking selfies at a funeral, and projected their dismay onto the face of the First Lady. Otherwise, there really wasn’t much to see here.

The always brilliant Roxane Gay had a few things to say about the selfie seen ’round the world and people’s reaction, particular to that of Michelle Obama:

More than anything, the response to these latest images of Michelle Obama speaks volumes about the expectations placed on black women in the public eye and how a black women’s default emotional state is perceived as angry. The black woman is ever at the ready to aggressively defend her territory. She is making her disapproval known. She never gets to simply be.

Maybe the first lady is irritated with her husband or someone else, maybe she’s indifferent, maybe she’s thinking about the long plane ride home, maybe, just maybe, she’s recalling Nelson Mandela’s life and legacy. We will never know.

Meanwhile, the Internet is speculating about Michelle Obama’s mind-set, her motivations and the state of her marriage because if a married black man, always on the prowl even if he is the commander in chief, is seen smiling next to an attractive white woman, well, that’s curtains for the marriage. The white she-devil strikes again! The first lady can’t win. Last month, Michelle Obama was a “feminist nightmare.” Today she is angry and on the verge of losing her marriage. We can only imagine what tomorrow will bring.

And of course, there is another image that simply isn’t being shared with the same frequency or enthusiasm—one of Michelle Obama sitting with her husband and the Danish prime minister laughing and smiling openly. We are selective in what we choose to see. This image is being ignored because it doesn’t fit the narrative we want. There is also animage, shared by Goldie Taylor, of Laura Bush looking unamused while her husband speaks to a beautiful woman in the row behind them. Is she disapproving? Is she worried about her marriage? Is she “having none of it”? Or is she just sitting?

The policing of black women’s bodies and emotions is nothing new, but it’s placed in stark reality when the most visible black woman in the world is subject to this kind of scrutiny. We want to believe that black women are naturally angry, controlling, cold-hearted, agents of emasculation. When we deny them the right to be human, it makes it that much easier to deny them any rights at all. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a thousand words isn’t enough to capture any one person or moment’s entire story.

Anyway, the photographer who snapped the photo says people are making a big deal out of absolutely nothing. The First Lady smiled at the funeral, too. Black women do that sometimes.

MychalMychal Denzel Smith is a Knobler Fellow at The Nation Institute. If the opportunity ever comes up, he will take a selfie with Michelle Obama, but probably not Barack. 

Mychal Denzel Smith is a Knobler Fellow at The Nation Institute and contributing writer for The Nation Magazine, as well as columnist for and Salon. As a freelance writer, social commentator, and mental health advocate his work has been seen online in outlets such as The New York Times, The Atlantic, Salon, Al Jazeera English, Gawker, The Guardian,, Huffington Post, The Root, and The Grio.

Mychal Denzel Smith is a Knobler Fellow at The Nation Institute and contributing writer for The Nation Magazine, as well as columnist for and Salon.

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  • Julia

    Honestly, as a white girl, I didn’t see this as “angry black woman” or something like that… I just thought it was funny that she looked so exasperated with her husband, like “god dammit we’re at a funeral would you quit dicking around you’re the President of the free world for chrissakes.”

    Which is probably how I would have felt at the memorial service for Nelson Mandela if my husband was taking group selfies.

  • Jacky

    Good points. I saw these images on Facebook before the one in the post:

    The comment on those images weren’t about policing black women’s expressions… But they were still pretty racist. Mostly along the lines of, “Ha ha, a black woman is jealous that her husband is talking to an attractive white lady.” SERIOUSLY? Given that the images are taken from far away and presented without context, comments that she’s clearly “jealous” say more about the commenters than they do about Michelle. Who knows, maybe she was just tired. Or hungry. Or any number of things. Who expects people to be smiling AT ALL TIMES when they’re out in public? I don’t know any normal person who literally walks around with a smile on their face.

  • Sarah

    I’m so disappointed in people who don’t have the imagination to look past their stereotyped thinking. It’s hard to see people attacking Ms. Obama at any time, but to read a nonexistent narrative into her expression at Nelson Mandela’s funeral? It’s hard to tell where the ideological hatred stops and the racism begins, not that they are really need to be separated.

    BTW, Media Matters for America published both the above photo and the smiling one (mentioned in the quote) on their tumblr. The photos are striking next to each other. It’s almost like one photo doesn’t tell you everything you need to know about a complex human being…