Beautiful Black: Michelle Obama's influence
CHICAGO -- Negative stereotypes in the media about African-American women stem back as far as the image of "mammy" in old movies and still sting today when female college athletes are described with hurtful names. Now, many believe the presence of Michelle Obama in the international spotlight may help show the world the "beauty of black."
She's making history and changing attitudes, and it started before the world knew Michelle Obama would be the nation's next first lady. Now, the Princeton and Harvard-trained attorney believes even her own little girls will impact the next generation.
"What a gift to grow up in the White House to see world leaders, to understand how the country is shaped. What a symbol that it will show to so many young boys and girls out there -- particularly kids of color," said Michelle Obama, wife of President-elect Barack Obama.
Much of the nation's ugly past has contributed to a historically low self-image among African-American children -- especially girls.
Nineteen-year-old Kiri Davis recently recreated a 1947 experiment to explore the issue. Despite perceived progress, her results about 60 years later showed no change.
"He gave black children a black doll and a white doll and asked them which one they wanted to play with and which doll they thought was the good doll and the bad doll. And the majority of the children preferred the white doll. Unfortunately, the results [of the recent test] were very similar," Davis explained.
Political scientist Valerie Johnson of DePaul University says finding enduring low self-esteem, particularly in African-American women and girls, is not a surprise.
"We always see through the eyes of other people," Johnson explained. "When you look at the image of African-American women, it is contestable. I think everywhere you look when the discussion turns to life in African-American communities, it always turns on a discussion of single mothers and they're sort of downtrodden. It's a sort of powerless position."
And America's picture of what is deemed beautiful rarely includes black women, especially those with darker skin. But some say new ground is being broken.
Over the summer, the Italian Vogue devoted an entire issue to African-American models to highlight the lack of diversity in the fashion industry. It went into reprint after selling out in less than 72 hours. One retailer's web site crashed after Michelle Obama appeared wearing one of its ensembles on a late night talk show.
"She is now under the fashion microscope as they say," added Linda Johnson Rice, CEO of Johnson Publishing Company. "And that can be a little stressful. But if anybody can handle it, it's her."
Johnson Rice has featured Michelle Obama on the covers of both Ebony and Jet magazines. She says she can tell by reader response that Mrs. Obama has struck a chord.
"Yes, it's a long over-used term," explained Johnson Rice. "But role model is what she is and that's what you want in your first lady and now you have one that is African-American."
Sandra Finley, president of the League of Black Women, said she believes Mrs. Obama's influence will reach much further than fashion trends, possibly repositioning black women in the view of the world.
"When you have women who are poised like Michelle Obama for that kind of level of influence, like a Condoleezza Rice," said Finley. "You're going to be looking at how black women handle power, how they influence it and how they leverage it to benefit populations within and beyond. So that's going to be a brand new view for what you think of when you think of black women."
Several of the women ABC7 spoke with for this story also stressed that knocking down stereotypes about African-American women will ultimately have a positive impact on all women.
Watch the complete film: "A Girl Like Me."
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