Fuera de Serie, a Spanish magazine, has created an international uproar with its latest cover, in which it photoshops First Lady Michelle Obama into a French painting, and ends up portraying her as a slave woman, with her right breast exposed. If the cover had been published in America, it’s easy to imagine the quarters from which it might have come, and what the image would have been intended to convey. But the full context is much more complicated—and much more revealing—than that.
I don’t think the intention of the cover is to be racist, or to denigrate Mrs. Obama in any way. In the editor’s note introducing the issue in which the story appears, Fuera de Serie explains, roughly translated, that the author, “in order to understand the manner in which Michelle has seduced the American people, the journalist Pablo Scarpellini details the secrets of the woman who has not only conquered the heart of Barack Obama.” The title is “Michelle: Granddaughter of a Slave, Lady of America,” which suggests her as a powerful symbol of the American experience, though it’s off by a couple of generations. The article itself may turn out to be less positive, but that kind of language doesn’t indicate a desire to sell a vision of Michelle Obama as a slave. Marie-Guillemine Benoist, who painted the work Obama is photoshopped into as a commemoration of the French abolition of slavery, was explicitly a feminist, and her work, when it was first exhibited, was interpreted as humanist.
But while the generations between her enslaved ancestors and Michelle Obama may seem distant to the editors of Fuera de Serie, but I’d venture to guess that it is a nearer shadow to Michelle Obama herself, and to many, many Americans. The state of African-Americans is such that the prospect of being harassed or killed by representatives of the state, of facing major challenges to economic self-determination, is not something that seems so broadly outlandish that it can be invoked without conjuring up the specter of real and ongoing harm. This image of Michelle Obama could only be liberating in a world where there aren’t a lot of people who are vocal about their desire to put the first black First Lady back into what they believe to be her place. History’s ghosts are powerful. Those who dare summon them should be clear about what they want, and be prepared for the consequences.