Sunday, August 8, 2010

On Michelle Obama's Portrayal as a "Marie Antoinette" and the Vacation to Spain

I saw the financial breakdown on the NBC Nightly News last night and can't believe the high level of scrutiny that Michelle Obama is getting about her trip to Spain. There have been allusions to French history in some of these reports, which mention the lavish spending of leaders like Barack and Michelle Obama who are portrayed as being indifferent to the lingering impact of the budget crisis; comparisons have even been made between the First Lady and the Queen of France in the late 18th century, Marie Antoinette, who was frequently misunderstood and misrepresented. The infamous phrase associated with her that Marie Antoinette is reported to have never made, "let them eat cake," has been linked to the First Lady. I understand people's very real and legitimate concerns about limiting financial spending during these difficult times. But a balanced perspective on this matter is so important. I think that it is unfair, for instance, to expect the First Lady to use her official trips abroad as opportunities for vacations in the way that some of her critics have suggested.

Speaking of France, I served as a "Cultural Envoy" to the U.S. Embassy in France last year as an artist and as part of the opening in Paris of a national touring quilt exhibition called "Un Patchwork de Cultures," which was designed to celebrate the shared histories of the U.S. and France, and to reflect on Louisiana and the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina; the highlight of this visit was being honored with a talk, film screening, exhibition and reception at the U.S. Ambassador's Residence, a gala event, which is documented elsewhere in photographs on this art blog. I was brought to the city under a grant from the U.S. Department of State and within the Embassy's "Speaker Series." On this week-long trip packed with activities, I got a little taste of the busy kind of schedule under which diplomats typically work. Every day had three or four activities to which I had to be transported in Paris and around the suburbs by an Embassy car. The scheduling and activities for such major trips can be extensive and exhausting, take a lot of people to put together, and often leave no room for down time or touring. And after one day is over, one is up half the night editing multiple lectures and speeches and gearing up for the next day of events.

My main mission that week was to do educational outreach to youth. And in my lecture at the Ambassador's, I underscored how much it helps and advances democracy when youth who have been excluded, such as black youth in the Jim Crow South were in the past, are let into the system and given jobs and other opportunities. I drew on civil rights history in Montgomery, AL, and my own family backgroud there, and mentioned the opportunities opened up to my grandmother when she got training and jobs working on the NYA. They helped to open doors in the Jim Crow South that had been previously closed and were also the foundation for her to later go work at the Navy Yard in Pensacola, Florida during World War II doing things like filling in ledgers and passing out uniforms to the soldiers (as my grandfather and other contractors in construction helped to build barracks). I mentioned this example to underscore the difference for democracy that it makes when minority youth are let into the system to speak to the needs and concerns of the youth in the banlieues who continue to feel excluded, youth whose protests garnered global attention in the fall of 2005. By mentioning the examples on which I drew, I framed the issues globally in relation to the history and experiences of black Southerners, and also drew on the Civil Rights Movement. I did outreach through art and spoke to multiple groups, including three groups of high school students and three groups of college students. Furthermore, I was interviewed by the editors and nineteen youth at the Bondy Blog, the first news outlet to report the unrest in the suburbs in 2005 (they mainly asked me questions about the Obamas since I was there the week before the historic inauguration), gave the address at the Ambassador's Residence, did multiple gallery talks at Mairie du 5e where the "Un Patchwork de Cultures" exhibition was held, and was also the featured speaker at a lunch workshop in the dining room at the U.S. Embassy put together by their new diversity group, which is designed to think about ideas for dealing with diversity and 1000 Embassy employees.

My goal was to do work all that week and to, in whatever ways I could, help make a difference. That's what my mind was on, not vacationing. I'd had time to do that some in Paris in 2007, when I was in the city for a little over two weeks. Even then, I had "official" things to do like taking a language course and being interviewed for a film about my art quilts. My one wish that week when I was in the city in 2009 was to see the Christmas lights and huge tree still up at the Galleries Lafayette. I never did; there wasn't time. Maybe I'll catch them when I am in Paris again later this fall.

To hear her critics suggest that Michelle Obama should have used an official visit abroad for vacation purposes is so unfair and short-sighted. I can imagine the fun that a little girl like Sasha might have on such a busy trip. The First Lady knew what she was doing when she scheduled her vacation the way she did. People with true alpha personalities and work habits, including alpha females, tend to work hard and to play hard and be quite adventuresome, but keep work and play in very separate compartments because focus on their goals and missions is always so important.

Also, some of her critics are forgetting that there are real reasons, like repeated threats, that the Obamas need such tight and extensive security. I would compare living under the tight security and "bubble" of the White House for four years in some ways to living in the famous Biosphere project for two years, where people stayed in that greenhouse-like structure and grew all their own food and had no outside contact, which didn't go too well. The Obamas and all who agree to life in the White House make an extreme sacrifice that most people can't begin to understand. The jealousy over her travels is unsettling. Last year critics were griping about the shorts she wore to the Grand Canyon! Now this!

I was actually very impressed by the independence that she showed in being away from the country during her husband's birthday celebration last week, and letting him share the celebration with friends in Chicago like Oprah Winfrey, Gayle King, and Valerie Jarrett; she is cool and confident and not too clingy as a wife and as a woman, and is a true femme fatale, and that says a lot. That's the shared quality with many French women on which it might be better to focus, and that her superficial comparison with the nation's former queen based on a false sound bite can easily obscure. Drawing on the words of Edith Wharton's classic book "French Ways and their Meaning," Michelle Obama is truly "grown up." In general, it's important to focus on the shared histories that can help us to make a difference.

The two Tweets I made on the controversy are below:

Twindynasty The intense security isolates one in a "bubble" not entirely unlike the famous 2-yr Biosphere project. Enough lip on the Spain trip!

Twindynasty Michelle Obama is not the new Marie Antoinette. The criticism about her summer vacation to Spain is very unfair.

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