Michelle Obama and the Black Madonna
By Dr. Willie James Jennings
Associate Professor of Theology and
Black Church Studies
Duke Divinity School
The Obama family makes history every day in this country. The most recent historical event that caught my attention was the annual public presentation of the White House at Christmas. Usually Barbara Walters or some such news celebrity visits the American royal castle with camera team in tow in order to give us a guided tour. Greeting us at the door and walking us through that starry space is normally the job of the first lady. But this year it was a different first lady and a different television celebrity. This year, Oprah Winfrey and Michelle Obama guided us through the White House at Christmas.
As I watched and listened to them I had such dissonance with the entire event. Here were two black women engaged in one of the most profound acts of representation, vicarious representation for the American public – presenting the White House, the house of America’s people in one of its most celebrated and intimate seasons. When Oprah and the first lady stood in front of that magnificent North Carolina Christmas tree with Michelle Obama pointing out the ornaments that came from all fifty states, I realized that Mrs. Obama was performing something breathtakingly new but also strangely familiar. She was giving witness (testimony really) to the collective reality of the America people. With every object, ornament, flower or picture she drew attention to and explained, she spoke for the many. Such speaking had always been done from that space by a white woman, but here she and Oprah Winfrey carried on a conversation with us and for us.
It is clear to me as it is with many people that as important as Barack Obama’s presidency is, Michelle Obama’s powerful presence is equally important. It is an importance beyond the operations of statecraft or that of celebrity influence, even beyond that of being the Most Fascinating Person of 2009. She now lives in a space that she is making a new kind of space, a space many different people can now imagine themselves inhabiting, imagining themselves a part of, imagining themselves considered from inside it, never forgotten. But what is strangely familiar about Michelle in the White House, her house, on Christmas is that it gestures so much like Mary the Mother of Jesus. I want to be clear here: Christmas is really about Mary and Jesus. Once you realize this, then the analogies with the scenes I am describing become overwhelming.
Mary was the unlikely one to gave witness to God in flesh. This poor young woman was the embodiment of dissonance. She carried a truth that no one would have believed in any normal circumstance. Yet here she was the bearer of God. Mary, the one most people (then and now) would believe that God was most unlike, was in fact, the very one the Son of God choose to be like. Jesus would be like his mother, obedient, willing, and loving. This is one of the reasons why so many people, especially those who are poor, get Mary. Whether Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, high church, low church, no church, they understand someone who creates a space that is safe, secure, warm, and inviting, a space that differs from a vision of a God strange, remote, perfect, demanding. I am not commending the contrast. I am only registering its on going effect.
More importantly, the images of Mary in their variety carry almost as much significance as the images of Jesus. My favorite is the one that adorns our blog. This portrait of the Black Madonna rendered by the brilliant artist Margaret Parker says so much. Not only is it beautiful but it brings so much to us.
She looks out at us with such determination, her head partly covered but exposing the beauty of her hair. Her arm and hands are clearly quite strong and her hip is positioned out just enough to support holding baby Jesus. And Jesus is at that age where he is old enough to walk and able to get into trouble or danger. So she grips him with the care and commitment of a mother protecting her child. What is also brilliant about this portrait is the space of darkness, of blackness, of the unknown. Beside Mary and Jesus is an emptiness that opens to an uncertain future. We know that future, but they do not. Yet Mary will be Jesus’ mother. She will work for him, live for him, be present for him.
This is the stage on which God will be known. God will come from a poor woman who knows what dangers and troubles may await her child and who will position her own body between that future and her baby’s life. Before Jesus will do the same positioning of his own body next to the world’s troubles, he will have the memories of his mother’s gestures on which to build. We must never forget that God choose Mary to stand in this space for the sake of God’s Son and for our sake. It is precisely this truth that presses into my mind when I listened and watched Michelle Obama gesturing in the White House at Christmas time.
So many people are facing uncertain futures right now. The mental health of many hangs in the balance, suspended between job losses, unmanageable mortgage payments, and shredding health care benefits. Mrs. Obama seems to realize that the weight of representation increases as people with dimming hopes look for beacons of light. And a large beautifully lit Christmas tree burning brightly in a familiar place is an obvious candidate for a first glance. So if you happen to see the White House Christmas tree and the first lady pointing toward it, then I invite you to look beyond that tree to another wonderful woman who faced an uncertain future and with faith in God offered to us of her own flesh, the Son of God.