A'n't I a Lady?: Race Women, Michelle Obama, and the Ever-Expanding Democratic Imagination

Article excerpt

"Look at my arm! I have ploughed, and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And a'n't I a woman?"

--Sojourner Truth, 1851 (36)

"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.'"

--Anna Julia Cooper, 1892 (31)

"One ever feels his two-ness--an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder."

--W. E. B. Du Bois, 1903 (5)

In 1858, Sojourner Truth chose to bare her breasts to a group of white male detractors who tried to humiliate and discredit her as a black woman abolitionist and activist by calling her gender into question. According to Truth's biographer, Nell Irvin Painter, rather than accede to their attempts at humiliation, Truth "turned the challenge upside down," recounting for these men the numerous white male children whom she had suckled. She then boldly invited her critics to suck and in doing so "infantilized them [and] unmanned them." Painter refers to this moment as "a triumph of embodied rhetoric" (140). In her "A'n't I a Woman?" speech, Truth also used embodied rhetoric, baring her muscular arm to disrupt the racially exclusive definitions of womanhood propagated by white women. Nineteenth-century African American intellectuals understood that the struggle for black freedom and humanity would never be a disembodied process as long as black women had to bare their breasts to prove they were women and as long as black men could be accused and lynched with impunity for crimes they did not commit.

As the central battleground in the national tug-of-war between race and rights, the black body's insistent self-assertion is most evident in the frequently quoted statements used here as epigraphs from Truth, Anna Julia Cooper, and W. E. B. Du Bois. Representative of black political thinking about race and gender in the pre-Civil War, post-Reconstruction, and turn-of-the-century moments, each epigraph also provides rich historical contextualization for the recent election of Barack H. Obama to the presidency and the ascent of his wife, Michelle, to the status of First Lady of the United States. Sojourner Truth's courageous speech acts forced white audiences to ask a most basic question: could black women actually be viewed as women after having been forced during their enslavement to do the kinds of labor that were deemed suitable only for males.'? Cooper knew that the ascension of race men to powerful roles was literally only half the story; full racial access could be guaranteed only when both black women and men were able to access the public sphere without special programs, violent reprisals, or copious litigation. Notwithstanding the clear invocation of the black body by each of these figures, many contemporary academics still manage to speak of two-ness or double-consciousness, for instance, as though it really were a disembodied, psychological battle over identity. Du Bois argued quite convincingly, however, that the demands of racial identity and national identity literally had the power to rip the black body apart, and very often did.

As the consummate text that interrogates the relationship between race, gender, and nationality in the nineteenth century, Cooper's 1892 A Voice from the South privileges the corporeal in its attempt to understand questions of black and female identity at the turn of the century. Though many scholars have examined this text as an early black feminist treatise, few have considered Cooper's persistent use of corporeal imagery to press her claims. This essay first draws attention to the manner in which the black female body emerges in Cooper's political thought. Her notion of the corporeal is central to understanding the way African American women have navigated the public sphere, and it will provide an appropriate historical and theoretical apparatus for considering Michelle Obama's particularly sophisticated negotiation of the minefield of race, gender, and nationalism in the twenty-first century. …