Dear Mrs. Obama,
I hope you are settling into the White House smoothly. Good luck on that puppy business.
Obviously, things are a little crazy right now; nobody seriously wants to hear from the First Lady’s Office just yet, what with the DOW dropping further every time your husband speaks. Eventually, however, you’re going to have to pick one of those “first lady projects.” Laura Bush promoted breast cancer awareness, especially in the Middle East, where it was a taboo subject. She also promoted literacy and parents reading to their kids. Previous first ladies have promoted wildflowers, drug abuse prevention, and… um… ok, some of the causes were somewhat neglected or unsuccessful and quickly forgotten. Regardless, you’re expected to have one.
I have a suggestion: ethnic diversity and history. Not in the “must have three of these and one of those to make the office appropriately diverse” type of diversity. What I’m talking about is appreciating that we are all Americans, but have many different backgrounds and rich traditions. As Americans, we have an incredible background of groups pulling together as communities to get through rough times. Too often, we forget the struggles our parents and grandparents and their grandparents went through to build what we have today and to figure out where they fit in in this new country. And too often, we forget that we are all Americans, and everyone has something to contribute. As some have said, in our best moments, America is not so much of a melting pot as it is an incredible stew.
If you want to start local, there’s the Smithsonian’s museums for African-American history, Native American history, and Asian and African arts. I’m sure if you ask, they can find an appropriate exhibit opening for you to attend. Maybe something in the American History Museum about immigrants? Across town, the National Basilica (officially the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception; not the same as the National Cathedral) has a lovely variety of side chapels paid for and designed by various ethnic groups, showcasing each group’s history, artistic style (and sometimes even architecture), and faith. I hear the embassies sometimes hold traditional celebrations particular to their countries, too.
When you get a little more into the role, there are a ton of museums out there celebrating the pioneers and immigrants that built this country. You may want to start with Jamestown and Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, Plimoth Plantation in Massachusettes, and old St. Augustine in Florida, since these were the earliest European settlements in what would become America. There are museums celebrating pioneers from the Shenandoah Valley, through the Midwest, across the prairies, and all the way out to California. Every group that came here is proud not only of what they have accomplished in America, but of their traditions and history from before their arrival here. Their ingenuity and determination made us what we are.
Of course, these communities are not just historic, they are present and vibrant today. You’ve missed Chinese New Year this year, but there’s always next year; several large Chinese communities across the country would love to treat you to great food and incredible parades. There are dragon boat races around the country later in the year, too. In December, the Our Lady of Guadalupe celebrations are a big deal for Catholics of Hispanic background, and Mexicans in particular. I’m sure you could find a Jewish community that would welcome you for a Seder meal; the community at the Naval Academy invited everyone one year, and I found it a truly fascinating, prayerful experience. Other religious groups often have festivals particular to ethnic groups, as well; I’m sure your staff could find a dizzying variety to keep you busy. From having lived in the area, I can tell you that Milwaukee has a whole series of wonderful ethnic festivals throughout the summer: Polish, German, Hispanic, Irish, and other groups key to the growth of Milwaukee are represented in all their lively diversity. If you really want to travel, there’s the Polynesian Cultural Center in Hawai’i; it’s been a while since I was there, but I remember it as a fascinating and very accessable museum, with many interactive activities and walk-through villages to represent the different groups within Polynesia. Don’t forget New Orleans’ unique French and Cajun heritage (and don’t skip the beignets at the Cafe du Monde, either!). And, whatever you do, don’t forget to highlight some of the history and culture of those who have been here so long that they don’t quite fit into any of the other groups.
While you’re at it, there is a great deal of African-American history in this country that should be highlighted. Too often, people (including African-Americans) seem to think that “black style” means zebra print couches and fake leopard rugs. Instead, in this country, we have both an old community of the descendants of slaves, with their own history and traditions, and we have a growing community of recent immigrants who bring a rich tapestry of art and food directly from their homelands in Africa. Blacks’ contributions to America can be found in many museums and exhibits; Africa influenced our culture a great deal more than we recognize, and we should all appreciate that. As my History of the South prof liked to say, “Have you had traditional British cooking?! It’s pretty awful. Southern cooking is so good because of the contributions of the slaves.” Then, of course, there’s the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site; their determination and success were key to the beginning of the Civil Rights movement.
While we are discussing all this ethnic appreciation and beautiful diversity, I have to mention the hair. Yes, your hair looks great. Your daughters are adorable. Let’s be honest though; is it really a good idea to put that manychemicals into your hair? What are all those chemicals doing to your young daughters? Why do we allow chemically straightened and ironed flat hair to be the expected norm for black women’s hair?
Last year, a woman in my area was denied entrance to a nightclub on the excuse that she was wearing a “suspect hairstyle.” She had locs. Nice, even, well-groomed, very professional looking… but the nightclub had determined that that was a “hip hop” hairstyle and was trying to screen out people who, in the past, had caused them trouble. Her hair would not have been acceptable under Navy regulations, nor under some corporations’ regulations. Misinformed people wrote the paper and derided her “unnatural” hairstyle. No, what is unnatural is ironing and blasting hair with chemicals to make it into something it’s not and was never meant to be.
Mrs. Obama, you are in a unique position to declare, once and for all, that natural is great. Natural is professional. Braids and locs are not only for gangsta rappers, sports stars, and artists who don’t have to care what anyone thinks of them. The negative perceptions are changing, but you could do so much good to all of those young African-American girls out there worried about their hair and their looks, just to tell them that, no, their hair is not a mistake. For those girls, like my oldest daughter, who already wear their hair natural, it would be great to see someone with locs as a respected, serious woman.
I’m sure you have had many suggestions on this topic already. With the economy as it is, it might seem wiser to promote volunteerism or something. However, if we, as a nation, remembered our history better, remembered the sacrifices that were made to make this country what it is now, I think it would also remind us that we have always been a nation of strong, supportive communities. Charity is nice, but it is almost always driven by a feeling of community: religious, ethnic, regional, and national. In our fast-paced modern lives, we have forgotten some of that. Being reminded of our shared and intertwined histories might remind us of our ties and responsibilities to each other, too.
The Political Housewyf