by Nora Connor
I’m still thinking about Michelle Obama’s speech from Tuesday night. While watching, I got involved in a long Facebook conversation about it with five or six other people, many of whom expressed understanding, but disappointment at how the “Mom-in-Chief” message somehow seemed to also demand that Michelle’s professional and intellectual accomplishments be totally sidelined. Others are handling the debate about this aspect of her (/the campaign’s) presentation and I’ll leave it to them, for the most part. The lingering thought that I had was that Michelle Obama is still living in the shadow of “too-ambitious First Lady” Hillary Clinton, who spent 8 straight years as a walking target for the political right. Worse, Michelle had been branded as unpatriotic during the last campaign. How much more dangerous must it be to open your mouth and say anything at all when you’re the First Black First Lady?
I had also just read David Samuels’ Harpers story on President Obama, “The Changeling.” I found it fascinating and moving, though I suppose much of what Samuels says about Obama has been said before, in other ways. Still, his reflections on the importance of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man to Obama’s intellectual and political life were news to me. Samuels’ point there (excuse my oversimplification) is that President Obama is well aware that his blackness makes him into a mirror into which all Americans will look, driven by a wide range of emotional and political needs, and a mirror in which they’ll only, or mostly, be seeing themselves. There’s something else to Samuels’ analysis, though—a recognition of Obama’s skill and brazenness:
The narrative he constructed for his life, which was founded in part on the thesis that race was a defining part of his identity, in his own mind and in the minds of others, required extraordinary sensitivity, imagination, and daring.
I’m no historian, nor expert in race or colonial/post-colonial theory (and I hope some of you who are will chime in), but it reminded me of literature and theory on how oppressed people develop ways of thinking, tactics and practices for interacting with the powers that dominate them—double consciousness, dissembling, and self-caricature. Humor is a part of this, it would seem (humor is intimate with danger), but the powerful interlocutors do not always know when humor is being employed, nor are they necessarily sure they understand it, even when they sense it.
I woke up still thinking about it and watched Michelle Obama’s speech again with a colleague at work. I think it might be the most interesting political speech I’ve personally witnessed (comments section open!). What’s the best word to describe it? I was going to go with “canny,” but I think it might be “deft.” Skilled. Crafty. And I can’t be sure how much of this is my reading of it and how much was intentional, but part of me thinks it might actually be the angriest political speech I’ve ever seen. Because watching it, I had the distinct impression that Michelle Obama was sending a calm, tactical GO FUCK YOURSELVES to the Romneys and Ryans of our political universe, and kinda also to the campaign and media mechanisms that demand a Mommy-In-Chief. Listening to her, I heard the sound of right-wing internal organs (and maybe an external organ or two) hitting the floor in bloody lumps one after the other, as if she were Uma Thurman taking on Lucy Liu’s goon squad in Kill Bill. But was she? And if so, does the other side know just how placidly and surgically she was mocking them? I’m not sure, because I still think they can’t quite see her. The mirror’s in the way.
In the spirit of humor, I offer you my editorial translation of Michelle Obama’s speech (a little abridged, my interpretation in BOLD). And no, I’m not claiming to be able to speak jive. I’m not a liberal, and this is not an endorsement of either Barack or Michelle Obama, nor am I certain that all of her assertions about the Obama presidency are fair or true. All I can do is tell you what I thought I was hearing, and what I hoped I was hearing. Welcome to my mirror.
Over the past few years as First Lady, I have had the extraordinary privilege of traveling all across this country.
And everywhere I’ve gone, in the people I’ve met, and the stories I’ve heard, I have seen the very best of the American spirit.…
I’ve seen it in teachers in a near-bankrupt school district who vowed to keep teaching without pay [IT WOULD BE NICE IF YOU REPUBLICANS STOPPED SHITTING ON TEACHERS LEFT AND RIGHT WHILE CLAIMING TO CARE ABOUT EDUCATION].
I’ve seen it in people who become heroes at a moment’s notice, diving into harm’s way to save others…flying across the country to put out a fire…driving for hours to bail out a flooded town.
And I’ve seen it in our men and women in uniform and our proud military families…in wounded warriors who tell me they’re not just going to walk again, they’re going to run, and they’re going to run marathons [AMIRITE, PAUL RYAN? MARATHONS! PROBABLY THOSE VETS WHO ARE MISSING A LIMB OR TWO WON’T FEEL THE NEED TO BULLSHIT ABOUT THEIR MARATHON TIME. THEY’RE PRETY SHARP SO AFTER THEY RUN 26.2 MILES THEY’LL DAMN WELL REMEMBER HOW LONG IT TOOK THEM TO DO IT. NO IT’S COOL THOUGH, I’M SURE ME AND YOU FEEL THE SAME WAY ABOUT THE TROOPS—BUT ACTUALLY I CAN’T REMEMBER EITHER OF YOU TWO BIG SHOTS SAYING ALL THAT MUCH ABOUT THEM AT YOUR CONVENTION. ARE THE IRAQ AND AFGHANISTAN WARS AND THEIR COSTS MAYBE A LITTLE AWKWARD ISSUES FOR YOU?]
Serving as your First Lady is an honor and a privilege…but back when we first came together four years ago, I still had some concerns about this journey we’d begun.
While I believed deeply in my husband’s vision for this country…and I was certain he would make an extraordinary President…like any mother, I was worried about what it would mean for our girls if he got that chance. [YOU WANT SOME MOMMY SHIT? I GOT THAT. NEWS FLASH: I WAS THINKING ABOUT MY KIDS. THE ONES I GAVE BIRTH TO AND HAVE BEEN RAISING FOR OVER A DECADE. YES, ME, AN AMBITIOUS SUCCESSFUL BLACK WOMAN. STAY TUNED, THERE’S MORE COMING.]
How would we keep them grounded under the glare of the national spotlight?
How would they feel being uprooted from their school, their friends, and the only home they’d ever known?
I loved Barack just the way he was.
…to me, he was still the guy who’d picked me up for our dates in a car that was so rusted out, I could actually see the pavement going by through a hole in the passenger side door…he was the guy whose proudest possession was a coffee table he’d found in a dumpster, and whose only pair of decent shoes was half a size too small. [HEY ANN ROMNEY, SUCH A BUMMER YOU AND MITT HAD TO LIVE OFF HIS STOCK OPTIONS IN YOUR SALAD DAYS. MUST HAVE BEEN AWKWARD “ENTERTAINING” BACK THEN. I GIGGLE AT YOUR PERSONAL NARRATIVES OF “STRUGGLE.”]
But when Barack started telling me about his family – that’s when I knew I had found a kindred spirit, someone whose values and upbringing were so much like mine.
You see, Barack and I were both raised by families who didn’t have much in the way of money or material possessions but who had given us something far more valuable – their unconditional love, their unflinching sacrifice, and the chance to go places they had never imagined for themselves.
My father was a pump operator at the city water plant [YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? ANYTHING WRONG WITH A LIFELONG PUMP OPERATOR? NO? GOOD.], and he was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis when my brother and I were young.
And even as a kid, I knew there were plenty of days when he was in pain…
And when he returned home after a long day’s work, my brother and I would stand at the top of the stairs to our little apartment, patiently waiting to greet him…watching as he reached down to lift one leg, and then the other, to slowly climb his way into our arms.
But despite these challenges, my dad hardly ever missed a day of work [HE DIDN’T WHINE, GET IT? HE GOT UP AND WORKED HIS DAMN ASS OFF FOR US EVERY DAY. OH, AND HE WAS ALSO BLACK AND NOT LOOKING FOR “HANDOUTS.”]…he and my mom were determined to give me and my brother the kind of education they could only dream of.
And when my brother and I finally made it to college, nearly all of our tuition came from student loans and grants. [WE DIDN’T HAVE TRUST FUNDS. REALLY, WE DIDN’T.]
But my dad still had to pay a tiny portion of that tuition himself. [AND LET’S BE HONEST, THAT SHIT COST A LOT LESS BACK THEN, IN REAL MONEY TERMS. BUT THAT WAS STILL A BIG DAMN DEAL FOR MY FAMILY TO COME UP WITH THE EXTRA CASH.]
And every semester, he was determined to pay that bill right on time, even taking out loans when he fell short.
He was so proud to be sending his kids to college…and he made sure we never missed a registration deadline because his check was late.
You see, for my dad, that’s what it meant to be a man. [MY DAD WAS A MAN, OKAY? EVEN THOUGH I DIDN’T HAVE THE OPTION TO BORROW MONEY FROM HIM WHEN I GOT OLDER, BECAUSE HE DIDN’T ACTUALLY HAVE ANY. DOESN’T MEAN HE LIVED AND DIED MISERABLE.]
Like so many of us, that was the measure of his success in life – being able to earn a decent living that allowed him to support his family. [I’M NOT SURE WHY WE’RE ALL SUPPOSED TO WANT TO BE LEVERAGED BUYOUT YACHT GUY, OR EVEN SMALL PROPRIETER SMALL-BUSINESS GUY. SOMEBODY’S GOTTA OPERATE THE PUMPS, AMIRITE? CAN’T THEY WANT TO HAVE A LITTLE FUN AND A DECENT LIFE TOO?]
And as I got to know Barack, I realized that even though he’d grown up all the way across the country, he’d been brought up just like me.
Barack was raised by a single mom who struggled to pay the bills, and by grandparents who stepped in when she needed help.
Barack’s grandmother started out as a secretary at a community bank…and she moved quickly up the ranks…but like so many women, she hit a glass ceiling. [OH SORRY, IS THAT TERM, ‘GLASS CEILING,’ OUT OF STYLE THESE DAYS?]
And for years, men no more qualified than she was – men she had actually trained – were promoted up the ladder ahead of her, earning more and more money while Barack’s family continued to scrape by. [THERE, I SAID IT. IT KINDA SUCKS TO BE FEMALE IN THE LABOR MARKET, PEOPLE. AND WE’RE LONG PAST THE DAY WHEN YOUR AVERAGE ONE-PERSON SALARY WILL SUPPORT A FAMILY. SO UH, THIS IS ACTUALLY STILL A REAL PROBLEM FOR ALL OF US. HATE TO BE THE TURD IN THE PUNCHBOWL.]
And she [his grandmother] would often tell Barack, “So long as you kids do well, Bar, that’s all that really matters.” [ARE WE A NATION OF STRIVERS, OR WHAT?]
Like so many American families, our families weren’t asking for much.
They didn’t begrudge anyone else’s success or care that others had much more than they did…in fact, they admired it. [ARE YOU ONE-PERCENTERS, LIKE, AFRAID OF US OR SOMETHING? WE’RE COOL WITH YOUR HOUSE IN THE HAMPTONS. WE DON’T REALLY LIKE THE HAMPTONS, SO WE’RE NOT GOING TO INVADE THEM OR ANYTHING, BUT WE MIGHT WANT TO NOT HAVE CRUSHING AMOUNTS OF DEBT AND TO BE ABLE TO TAKE A NICE VACATION ONCE IN A WHILE.]
They simply believed in that fundamental American promise that, even if you don’t start out with much, if you work hard and do what you’re supposed to do, then you should be able to build a decent life for yourself and an even better life for your kids and grandkids.
That’s how they raised us…that’s what we learned from their example.
We learned about dignity and decency – that how hard you work matters more than how much you make…that helping others means more than just getting ahead yourself. [HEYO, THE STUFF I DO AFFECTS THE STUFF YOU DO AND ARE ABLE TO DO…IT’S ALMOST LIKE…THE ACTIONS OF PEOPLE AND COLLECTIONS OF PEOPLE AFFECT THE ACTIONS AND OPPORTUNITIES AND CIRCUMSTANCES OF OTHER PEOPLE…FREAKIN’ CRAZY, I KNOW, BUT I’M NOT A HIPPIE, I SWEAR. I NEVER READ AYN RAND SO MAYBE I’M MISSING SOMETHING.]
We learned about gratitude and humility – that so many people had a hand in our success, from the teachers who inspired us to the janitors who kept our school clean…and we were taught to value everyone’s contribution and treat everyone with respect. [IT’S ALL GOOD HOW SOME OF US MINORITIES ARE HOLDING A MICROPHONE INSTEAD OF A BROOM RIGHT NOW, BUT WHAT THE HAY IS WRONG WITH BEING A JANITOR IF THAT’S WHAT YOU’VE GOT GOING AND YOU’RE TAKING CARE OF YOUR FAMILY WHILE DOING IT? I’VE GOT AN IDEA: LET’S MAKE IT NOT SO FINANCIALLY BAD TO BE A JANITOR. SOMEBODY’S GOTTA CLEAN THE DAMN SCHOOL, RIGHT? AND ALSO, I WAS RAISED TO RESPECT MY ELDERS, EVEN IF THEY’RE PROFESSIONAL JANITORS. HOW ABOUT WE TEACH OUR KIDS TO RESPECT PEOPLE?]
Those are the values Barack and I – and so many of you – are trying to pass on to our own children…That’s who we are. [IS THAT NOT BASICALLY IN LINE WITH ALL THE BLATHER THAT GETS SPEWED AROUND ABOUT AMERICAN VALUES ALL THE TIME?]
So when it comes to rebuilding our economy, Barack is thinking about folks like my dad and like his grandmother. He’s thinking about the pride that comes from a hard day’s work.
That’s why he signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act to help women get equal pay for equal work. [OK, JEEZ, YES, APPARENTLY I STILL HAVE TO SAY THIS IN THE 21ST CENTURY. PLEASE WATCH LILLY’S SPEECH AND TAKE NOTES.]
He didn’t care whether it was the easy thing to do politically – that’s not how he was raised – he cared that it was the right thing to do. [LOOK PEOPLE, THIS DUDE HAS DEGREES FROM COLUMBIA AND HARVARD LAW. HE’LL BE FINE, SRSLY, WHATEVER HAPPENS. AND BEING PREZ IS HORRIBLY STRESSFUL, SO I CAN PRETTY MUCH TELL YOU HE’S NOT IN IT FOR THE RESUME LINE. IT WAS HARD MOVING OUT OF OUR CHICAGO COCCOON. I WASN’T SURE IT WAS WORTH IT. WE HAVE THE PEDIGREE. WE COULD HAVE 8 BENTLEYS AND BE SPENDING THE WINTERS IN ST. BART’S RIGHT NOW, EVEN THOUGH WE GREW UP POOR.]
He did it because he believes that here in America…no one in this country should ever go broke because of an accident or illness. [AMIRITE? AM I? DO WE ALL AGREE ON THAT? I’M JUST GOING TO PRETEND LIKE WE DO FOR A MINUTE…I MEAN, IF I’M WRONG, PLEASE CORRECT ME AND EXPLAIN THE ERRORS IN MY PERCEPTION AND THOUGHT PROCESS.]
And he believes that women are more than capable of making our own choices about our bodies and our health care…that’s what my husband stands for. [HANG ON, I’VE JUST GOTTA SHARPEN MY HATTORI HANZO SWORD REAL QUICK.]
…Barack knows that like me and like so many of you, he never could’ve attended college without financial aid. [DOES THAT COUNT AS A HANDOUT? I MEAN, I THINK THE SOCIAL INVESTMENT IN HIM WORKED OUT PRETTY GOOD.]
And believe it or not, when we were first married, our combined monthly student loan bills were actually higher than our mortgage. [THAT’S SOMETHING THAT HASN’T ACTUALLY CHANGED ALL THAT MUCH. I KNOW THAT BECAUSE I CAN READ, AND I READ THE PAPERS AND STUFF.]
We were so young, so in love, and so in debt. [WE KINDA SAID F**K IT, THINGS AIN’T PERFECT BUT WE’LL FIGURE IT OUT. I GUESS I COULD HAVE DUMPED HIM FOR AN I-BANKER, BUT YOU KNOW, HIS BASKETBALL SKILLZ WERE JUST SO HOT TO ME, BLACK WOMAN THAT I AM.]
That’s why Barack has fought so hard to increase student aid and keep interest rates down, because he wants every young person to fulfill their promise and be able to attend college without a mountain of debt. [UNLESS A COLLEGE AND/OR ADVANCED DEGREE IN THIS COUNTRY IS JUST ANOTHER COLLATERALIZED DEBT MARKET. IS IT? DO WE CARE IF OUR YOUNG PEOPLE CAN THINK AND THAT A COLLEGE DEGREE IS STILL IMPORTANT IN TERMS OF LIFELONG EARNING POTENTIAL? THOSE WERE RHETORICAL QUESTIONS.]
So in the end, for Barack, these issues aren’t political – they’re personal. [SEE WHAT I DID THERE WITH THAT FEMINIST SLOGAN? NO, YOU PROBABLY DON’T SEE IT.]
Barack knows the American Dream because he’s lived it…and he wants everyone in this country to have that same opportunity, no matter who we are, or where we’re from, or what we look like, or who we love. [STOP WASTING EVERYBODY’S TIME COMPLAINING ABOUT WHO CONSENTING ADULTS SLEEP WITH AND BUTT OUT OF THEIR PERSONAL BUSINESS. WE HAVE BIGGER THINGS TO WORRY ABOUT, LIKE THE FACT THAT NOBODY HAS A JOB AND NOBODY CAN AFFORD HEALTHCARE.]
And he believes that when you’ve worked hard, and done well, and walked through that doorway of opportunity…you do not slam it shut behind you…you reach back, and you give other folks the same chances that helped you succeed. [AH SHIT, THERE I GO AGAIN WITH SUGGESTING THAT WE DO NOT ALL LIVE ON OUR OWN ISOLATED INDIVIDUAL PLANETS. LIKE I SAID, I COULND’T JOIN THE AYN RAND CLUB IN HIGH SCHOOL ‘CAUSE I HAD AN AFTERSCHOOL JOB TO GO TO.]
So when people ask me whether being in the White House has changed my husband, I can honestly say that when it comes to his character, and his convictions, and his heart, Barack Obama is still the same man I fell in love with all those years ago.
He’s the same man who started his career by turning down high paying jobs and instead working in struggling neighborhoods where a steel plant had shut down, fighting to rebuild those communities and get folks back to work…because for Barack, success isn’t about how much money you make, it’s about the difference you make in people’s lives. [REF. MY PREVIOUS COMMENT ABOUT BENTLEYS AND ST. BART’S.]
That’s the man who sits down with me and our girls for dinner nearly every night, patiently answering their questions about issues in the news, and strategizing about middle school friendships. [HE TELLS THE GIRLS NOT TO TAKE ANY CRAP. IT’S PRETTY COOL TO HAVE A HUSBAND/DAD AROUND TO HELP ME GET THAT POINT ACROSS TO THEM. AND WE MANAGE TO HAVE SOME LAUGHS ABOUT IT ALL, TOO.]
I see how those stories – our collection of struggles and hopes and dreams – I see how that’s what drives Barack Obama every single day. And I didn’t think it was possible, but today, I love my husband even more than I did four years ago…even more than I did 23 years ago, when we first met. I love that he’s never forgotten how he started. [I’M ADMITTING THAT AS A POLITICAL FAMILY WE MUST NARRATE OUR LIVES FOR YOU AND I MUST NOW, IN THIS WEIRD MOMENT, PROVE TO YOU THAT I LOVE MY DAMN HUSBAND. HOW’S IT TAKING? AM I DOING A BETTER SELL THAN ANN ROMNEY? I THINK I AM, THANKS. AND I MEAN IT. SO LISTEN OR DON’T LISTEN, AS YOU WILL, AND DON’T EXPECT ME TO DO THIS AGAIN.]
I love that for Barack, there is no such thing as “us” and “them” – he doesn’t care whether you’re a Democrat, a Republican, or none of the above…he knows that we all love our country…and he’s always ready to listen to good ideas…he’s always looking for the very best in everyone he meets. [LET’S SEE WHAT YA GOT.]
And he reminds me that we are playing a long game here…and that change is hard, and change is slow, and it never happens all at once. [SO, WHAT IS IT WE ALL REALLY WANT HERE? CAN WE ACTUALLY HAVE THAT CONVERSATION? IS THERE A MORAL ARC TO THE UNIVERSE AND DO WE WANT TO BEND IT TOWARDS JUSTICE?]
But eventually we get there, we always do.
And if our parents and grandparents could toil and struggle for us…if they could raise beams of steel to the sky, send a man to the moon, and connect the world with the touch of a button…then surely we can keep on sacrificing and building for our own kids and grandkids. [SO, WHO’S READY TO MAKE SOME SACRIFICES? ANYBODY? ANYBODY WHO’S NOT ALREADY FREAKIN’ RUNNING THEMSELVES INTO THE GROUND JUST TRYING TO COVER THE BASICS? ANYBODY UP FOR HAVING 6 BENTLEYS INSTEAD OF 8? WANNA JOIN THE TEAM? IN EXCHANGE, WE TOTALLY PROMISE TO BUILD OUR NOUVEAU RICHE VACAY HOUSES SOMEWHERE SEPARATE FROM YOURS, ONCE WE ALL CLIMB UP TO THE TOP OF THE CAPITALIST LADDER.]
If farmers and blacksmiths could win independence from an empire…if immigrants could leave behind everything they knew for a better life on our shores…if women could be dragged to jail for seeking the vote [AHEM, THAT HAPPENED]…if a generation could defeat a depression, and define greatness for all time…if a young preacher could lift us to the mountaintop with his righteous dream [HE WAS ASSASSINATED WHEN HE WAS TALKING ABOUT LABOR RIGHTS AND POVERTY] …and if proud Americans can be who they are and boldly stand at the altar with who they love [SHUT UP ABOUT THE GAYS ALREADY…NOBODY CARES ANYMORE…IF ANYTHING THEY’RE KEEPING THE WEDDING INDUSTRY ALIVE–HOMEGROWN JOBS! SMALL BUSINESSES!]…then surely, surely we can give everyone in this country a fair chance at that great American Dream. [RIGHT? THAT’S WHAT WE’RE ALL SAYING WE WANT TO DO, RIGHT?]
Because in the end, more than anything else, that is the story of this country – the story of unwavering hope grounded in unyielding struggle. [AND UH, NO OFFENSE, BUT I HAPPEN TO KNOW A LITTLE MORE ABOUT STRUGGLING THAN MY CURRENT REPUBLICAN COUNTERPARTS.]
…[BUNCH OF MOM STUFF…AS I’VE EXPLAINED, I GOT THAT. I GOT IT EIGHT WAYS FROM SUNDAY. FREAKIN’ WATCH ME GET THAT SHIT. ARE YOU HAPPY NOW?]
…Because today, I know from experience that if I truly want to leave a better world for my daughters, and all our sons and daughters…if we want to give all our children a foundation for their dreams and opportunities worthy of their promise…if we want to give them that sense of limitless possibility – that belief that here in America, there is always something better out there if you’re willing to work for it…then we must work like never before [SO LET’S SEE WHO KNOWS HOW TO WORK HARD. AND BY WORK HARD I DON’T MEAN ‘ANSWERING YOUR BLACKBERRYAT ALL HOURS BECAUSE SOONER OR LATER YOU’LL GET A GOLD STAR AND A SECOND OR THIRD HOME IF YOU CONTINUE TO PLAY ALONG.’ LOTS OF PEOPLE LIKE TO TALK ABOUT WORKING, AND WORKING HARD. HEY TRUST FUND BOY, DID YOU EVER WORK AS HARD AS MY DAD AND MY MOM?]…and we must once again come together and stand together for the man we can trust to keep moving this great country forward…my husband, our President, President Barack Obama.
Thank you, God bless you, and God bless America. [IT’S SUPER NICE THAT ALL THE RIGHT WINGERS ARE COOL WITH THE MORMON THING NOW, BUT ME AND MY HUBS KINDA GOT BURNED FOR THE BLACK CHURCH THING, GUESS BLACK CHRISTIANS ARE STILL SCARY TO PEOPLE UNLESS THEY’RE PROPER GAY-HATING MEGACAPITALIST CHRISTIANS. IS IT OK IF I SAY ‘GOD BLESS’? CAUSE I GREW UP GOING TO CHURCH AND I STILL DO SO I MEAN IT BUT Y’KNOW, WOULDN’T WANT TO MAKE YOU ALL UNCOMFORTABLE.]
Am I dreaming?