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The Boston Globe


Will the real Michelle Obama stand up?

August 31, 2008

By John H. McWhorter

IT'S NO surprise that Barack Obama's convention speech was the highlight of the Democratic Convention. However, another speech that made a strong impression on me was Michelle Obama's.

Frankly, I hated it. At about the halfway point I was digging my nails into the sofa cushion waiting for it to be over.

The speech was great in itself, but it was also a forced diminishment of an accomplished person.

I shudder at the thought of my wife making a speech informing the country that she values hard work - as if she deserved a cookie for that - and singing of the joys of motherhood and how cute it was when we met. My wife is an educated person with a career. What's interesting about her is that she is, well, interesting - not just like everyone else.

I understand why Michelle Obama had to pretend otherwise. Ever since her comment about being proud of America for the first time only when her husband won the Iowa primary, there has been the worry that she is an "angry" black radical.

Or, that she is just not cuddly enough. Being young, gifted, and black is no longer the burden it used to be. But it still isn't always the easiest thing for a black woman to also be tall, dark, and confident.

So she did need to seem like everyone else. To ensure her husband's election, she must summon her inner Claire Huxtable and tamp down her inner Maxine Waters.

And yes, there is one, I suspect. We're supposed to think otherwise. That's what the speech was for, as well as her recent "makeover" and guest-host stint on "The View."

But I have never been convinced. I think she meant what she said about pride in her country - and have not found it off-putting in the least.

For one, patriotism has been layered and muted in most college-educated people for decades: for Obama to come out of Ivy schools with the jingoism of Teddy Roosevelt would be peculiar.

Then, it is hardly surprising for black people to feel that America has not lived up to its promise for their race. Also, as a black person about the same age as Obama, I can state that in daily life in the '70s and '80s, the color line was thicker than it is now in subtle but real ways.

Thus it hardly makes Michelle Obama notably "angry" to have some sense of herself as "other" or to be dismayed by inequality. What is notable about her is not her politics but her accomplishments as an administrator and community leader.

My fantasy Michelle Obama speech would have been in which she drew on that experience to give us thoughts about where America has been going wrong and how we might find our way to something better. Maybe even with some remarks about race. That is, something complementing what we expected from her husband, who was not required to gush about how much fun it is being a Dad.

To wit, there is a part of me that wishes that she, as black and a woman, could have been able to be her proud, complicated self Monday night.

But the country needed Michelle to seem "normal." Hillary Clinton strayed from normal when she dissed baking in 1992. Teresa Heinz Kerry made the same mistake with her multilingual salute in her 2004 convention speech. In 2008, most white people no longer consider it normal to be reminded - especially at a party - that black people have it harder than they do.

Getting past race will mean not only heartening things like the Obama phenomenon, but ever more most white people being ever less interested in addressing race at all.

Black America will move on regardless. However, it does mean that at least for now, to ward off being labeled a militant, a hyper-credentialed individual like Michelle Obama has to present herself as - Mom of the Year.

Original Source:



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