Gina Ulysse on the exceptionalism of Michelle Obama

October 27, 2008
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In her most recent book, Downtown Ladies: Informal Commercial Importers, a Haitian Anthropologist and Self-Making in Jamaica, anthropologist Gina A. Ulysse explores how a group of entrepreneurial women in the Caribbean have managed to struggle against traditional class, color, and gender codes to carve out a niche for themselves as international traders, importing and exporting goods from the Jamaican port of Kingston. But in her recent article for the Hartford Courant, Ulysse demonstrates that one, of course, needn’t to look so far abroad to witness how black women in the modern world are negotiating their way beyond entrenched stereotypes and social expectations to rise to position and power. Ulysse writes:

Recently, interviewer Larry King tried his best to get a rise out of Michelle Obama. Her responses remained cool, collected and focused. She defied the angry black woman stereotype. She was forthright, intelligent, impeccably stylish and obviously happy. With these characteristics, Michelle creates discomfort in many because she raises fundamental questions about society’s fixation with categories and how we understand our place within the pecking order of things.…
A versatile black female navigating different social landscapes, Michelle keeps shattering the racial component in the glass ceiling. To get where she is today, she took giant class leaps and succeeded in institutions not made in her image. She also excelled in the corporate world. That took courage and savvy.…
Michelle is warm, funny, beautiful and wholesome. Rather than denying her past—often a prerequisite of socioeconomic mobility—she hails those who paved the way for her success. And like them doesn’t sweat the small stuff to keep her eyes on the prize. When she exceeds expectations, it is precisely because she is neither a caricature nor fractured. Indeed, she is something new in popular imagination—a black female as model of completeness. As she told King, another template.

Read the rest of Ulysse’s article on the Hartford Courant website.

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