|First Lady Michelle Obama lifting some intense weight|
I first read this poem a few weeks ago when it appeared on the Academy of American Poets website and I've been thinking about it ever since. In this short piece, the speaker is clearly seen as "other," albeit Michelle Obama other. How can one not be charmed to be compared to the most outstanding First Lady of our lifetime?
Although it is unstated, we can assume that the compliment comes from a white man who is perhaps "interested" in the speaker ("all night he catches sight of me") and that the speaker is a black woman.
Just past the center of the poem comes the line, that for me, the entire piece pivots on: You’re working your muscles to the point of failure. The muscles of the speaker's forced smile meet the physical muscle work of the First Lady's weight training. In both cases, the work of the day is to make body and mind unassailable - to become stronger by hovering in the place of hurt and pain.
Many years ago when I first moved to the Eugene, Oregon, from Boston, Massachusetts, I met several people who wanted to tell me about the wonderful Passover Seders they once attended. I remember being genuinely confused as to why everyone wanted to discuss Passover in September? It took me a long while before I realized that this was how these well meaning Oregonians were trying to tell me they were okay with my Jewishness. That they, too, had eaten matzo.
So what is the correct response? To feel relieved that one is not with an anti-Semite (hey, it's okay that I'm not Christian -- great) or to acknowledge that for many of us, talking about cultural difference is a clumsy business. Or to immediately feel like an outcast, an other, a person whose personhood is in question.
It's a complicated and as O'Neil states, an awkward business to respond to such a "compliment". The speaker doesn't mean to insult --- quite the opposite --- and yet the sting of not being seen for who one actually is remains in high relief.
"On Being Told I Look Like FLOTUS, New Year’s Eve Party 2014," allows for that negative capability to thrive in a way that I have not ever seen so deftly handled before. And in today's political climate, I can only hope that many English classes will feature this poem as we head back to school.
On Being Told I Look Like FLOTUS, New Year’s Eve Party 2014
Deep in my biceps I know it’s a complement, just as
I know this is an all-black-people-look-alike moment.
So I use the minimal amount of muscles to crack a smile.
All night he catches sight of me, or someone like me, standing
next to deconstructed cannoli and empty bottles of Prosecco.
And in that moment, I understand how little right any of us have
to be whoever we are—the constant tension
of making our way in this world on hope and change.
You’re working your muscles to the point of failure,
Michelle Obama once said about her workout regimen,
but she knows we wear our history in our darkness, in our patience.
A compliment is a complement—this I know, just as the clock
will always strike midnight and history repeats. This is how
I can wake up the next morning and love the world again.
January Gill O'Neil on the poem:
“It is a flattering comparison, but I'm keenly aware that I live in a part of the country that’s less diverse. So when people say I look like Michelle Obama, I know they are trying to make a connection with me. This poem is a recognition of the awkwardness, the effort, and the patience it takes to let the moment unfold.”
—January Gill O’Neil
So if you're still reading, here's the prompt: think of a time when you've been "otherized" in some way. Perhaps it was due to your religion, race, class background or simply because of the fact that you didn't know how to swim. Begin with the incident itself and try to enter it without any sense of judgement --- be more compassionate in the poem than you might have felt in real life. Feel free to invent what you don't remember. What large idea can you end with as O'Neil does with the hard won last line of her poem.