The Obama campaign marked the 20th anniversary of the marriage of Michelle and Barack Obama by releasing a commemorative video. (Note: The Popular Romance Project does not endorse either presidential candidate.) Two and half minutes into the video, over images of the Obamas dancing, sharing a kiss at a basketball game, laughing over dinner, and looking, generally, crazy in love, Michelle tells an audience why she fell in love with Barack. “Listen up fellas,” she teases, before telling them she fell for Barack’s character, decency, honesty, compassion, and conviction. Barack ends the segment by telling the viewer it’s “friendship we established early on in our marriage that carries [us] through the tough times.” For the three and half minutes of this video, the Obamas aren’t the President and First Lady of the United States. Instead, they are Michelle and Barack, two crazy kids in love, sharing their happily ever after with the rest of us.
The images in the video—pictures from the early days of their courtship, candid shots from backstage at political events, moments of the couple with their daughters—are the stuff of good romance. Add in the fact that he is leader of the free world and she is one of the most adored women on the planet, and you have a very public marriage that should be endlessly fascinating to anyone who loves popular romance.
As romance scholars, however, we should also note that that couple in question is African American and that race places a constant, though largely invisible role in the American understanding of romance. We rarely see, in mainstream popular culture, a black love story. We have plenty of stories about the unmarriageability/unlikeability/undesirability of black women (countless reality TV shows attest to this), about the unsuitability of black men (black men are all in jail, on the down low, underemployed, etc.), and about the inability of black men and women to ever make a relationship work. We’ve grown used so used to these stories, in fact, that popular romance is almost always the stuff of white people. If it is a “truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a great fortune must be in want of a wife,” then, as critic Ann duCille counters, we must also acknowledge that the man in question is presumed to be “not only wealthy but white.”
At the heart of every good romance story is vulnerability—the vulnerability that happens as a result of true intimacy, as result of two people baring their souls to and for each other. It’s a story that we find endlessly fascinating. Otherwise unremarkable books like Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey can compel us precisely because, even if they get BDSM wrong and tell goofy vampire stories, they absolutely nail the exquisite torture of being completely undone by being so close to another person. This isn’t a story, however, that we often tell about black people. Historically, for blacks, vulnerability isn’t a frightening prospect that ultimately ends in marriage, dear reader. Instead, as critic Candace M. Jenkins writes, “the vulnerability that African Americans have been subject to at the hands of white racism often is the vulnerability of intimacy.” In other words, the kind of sexual attraction, filial affection, human tenderness, need, and desire we see in full display whenever we see the Obamas in public is exactly the kind of vulnerability used to control, oppress, terrorize, and marginalize black people.
The assumption of black bodies as always already desirous has historically labeled black men as rapists and black women as whores. No wonder, then, that blacks have often adopted a “culture of dissemblance,” a public performance that guards against vulnerability and gives nothing away. So when we see the Obamas unguarded—holding hands as they walk the White House lawn, Michelle wearing Barack’s tuxedo jacket over her ball gown on inauguration night, sharing a bowl of ice cream on a date, Michelle laughing at a seemingly scandalous remark whispered in her ear by her husband—we see what we in American culture see altogether too rarely. The Obamas are, without apology or explanation, attractive and attracted to each other, affectionate and flirtatious in the public eye, and comfortable with human tenderness. And they are also, without apology or explanation, black.
Representations of the Obamas’ marriage, as well as black popular romance, are rich with radical possibility. When we tell and consume stories of black romance and vulnerability, stories like those in Beverly Jenkins’ historicals or Gwyneth Bolton’s Hightower series, we challenge mainstream narratives about black people that tell us they are aberrant, peculiar, and deviant. When we imagine, and help others to imagine, black love, we tell the full story of black humanity.
Conseula Francis is an associate professor of English and the director of African American studies at the College of Charleston. Find out more about Conseula Francis.