“It’s been quite a struggle to live the life that I’ve lived,” Chirlane McCray, 58, said during a recent interview with HuffPost Live. “I think it does give me a certain sensitivity to many people, and I should use that in a positive way.”
As the incoming first lady of New York City, many are excited for what she may accomplish and how her experiences as a black woman will inform her decisions.
“I think having Chirlane McCray as the new first lady of New York City is tremendous,” Kara Stevens, founder of the personal finance and lifestyle blog Fabulous N’ Frugal, told theGrio. “She has access to the ear of one of the most politically powerful people in New York City — her husband [Mayor-elect] Bill de Blasio — and with such access, can play a significant role in affecting change in a real way for black folk, the economically marginalized, and the LGBT communities in the city.”
Stevens, a first-generation native New Yorker of Caribbean and African ancestry, is also pleased for personal reasons.
Like many other black women, she hopes McCray will help defy negative stereotypes of African-American women in a manner similar to first lady Michelle Obama.
For black women, a new hero
Indeed, Essence magazine has just released the findings of its Images of Black Women in Media study, which established that damaging stereotypes of black women prevail, something most African-American women instinctually know.
McCray is becoming an icon black female New Yorkers are embracing in their hunger to balance such extremes.
“Unfortunately, there are a lot of negative images of black women around and it’s nice to have another example — just like Mrs. Obama — to combat the negativity,” Mina Ennin Black, a registered investment adviser and founder of WealthEssentials Money Management, told theGrio.
Stevens agrees that McCray’s position will mean far more than just serving as Gracie Mansion’s hostess-in-chief.
“The presence of such a powerful, elegant, and educated black first lady in Gracie Mansion also symbolically challenges the prevalent negative stereotypes that people have about black people in general, and black women, in particular,” Stevens, currently a Queens resident, added. “She shows, by her mere existence, that all black women are not lazy, stupid, criminal, or poverty stricken.”
Chirlane McCray’s unusual path
When McCray and Bill de Blasio fell in love, he was an aide to then-Mayor David Dinkins, the only African-American mayor in New York City history. She was working at the New York Commission on Human Rights, a city agency. As de Blasio continued his rise, McCray focused on communications, including working in media relations in the private sector.
Through it all, she has been an activist, poet, and even penned a now-famous essay for Essence magazine about her experiences as a lesbian. Published more than a decade before meeting the man she describes as “the love of my life,” her piece I am a lesbian was intended to shatter stereotypes surrounding gay African-American women.
Upon meeting de Blasio, her past became a talking point, but never an issue.
“Other people told him in the beginning,” McCray said in a recent interview. “Then at some point I gave him the article and said, ‘Look, this is who I am and you should read this.’ It shook him up. But he didn’t show it. He was cool about it.”
Difficulties breed compassion
It’s just this type of honesty that makes McCray appealing, especially to black women who so often see themselves narrowly portrayed.
“As a New Yorker, it’s refreshing to see Chirlane McCray as the first lady,” Black told theGrio. “McCray comes across as very down-to-earth and approachable. She and the rest of her family are a good representation of America in that they appear to truly care for each other and are willing to support each other.”
Yet, McCray certainly goes “off-script” as a political wife. Perhaps that is because, unlike the more conventional Michelle Obama, McCray has had an unusual life path.
When McCray’s working class parents moved their family to Massachusetts in her youth, she “was the first black student in every class” she entered, and thus lived as “an outsider,” she told The Huffington Post. The tensions caused by racial marginalization spurred her to develop her writing skills as an expressive means of coping.
These abilities have taken her from writing for Essence to crafting speeches for politicians, including her husband. Now that she will assume the helm as only the second black first lady of New York City — and the first of an interracial family — McCray is both a positive symbol of black womanhood and our nation’s increasingly multicultural populace.
Speaking for multiple demographics
Emily Hawkins, a publicist who has lived in New York City for 11 years, believes having the de Blasio clan in Gracie Mansion is a harbinger of diversity being embraced as the norm.
“I love that the diversity of this amazing city is being reflected in our political leadership – especially in the new first family of New York City,” the African-American media specialist told theGrio. “It’s always wonderful seeing someone who looks like you in positions of prominence and power. I look forward to this being a trend moreso than a rare occurrence.”
Commentaries about McCray’s ability to outreach to several New York City communities — the working class, the gay and lesbian, the African-American — due to her background have been numerous. She has accepted these allegiances without decrying them as labels, simultaneously resisting labels as personally defining limits.
McCray stated about her previous lesbian identity to Essence, “I’m married, I’m monogamous, but I’m not dead and Bill isn’t either,” suggesting a fluidity about her sexuality she feels comfortable discussing. This itself is a radical departure from the style of many political wives, which has endeared her to all New Yorkers.
McCray’s meaning for black women
Yet, for black women, they cannot help but embrace her a touch more closely.
Now swathed in a regal glamour, McCray follows in the footsteps of both first lady Michelle Obama and Joyce Dinkins, wife of former-Mayor David Dinkins.
But, it is easy to see why McCray is being placed on a pedestal by the African-American women she inspires by example.
In a sea of media images that tend to depict black women as uneducated and uncouth, McCray’s life as a successful writer, wife and mother presents a vitalizing alternative.
“[Ms. McCray] follows in Michelle Obama’s footsteps as a woman of color who will trailblaze and undoubtedly change the way the world views African-American women,” Hawkins affirmed.
Follow Alexis Garrett Stodghill on Twitter @lexisb