Video: "South Side Story"
Ta-Nehisi Coates discusses Michelle Obama with an outspoken publisher and former Black Panther—his father.
The first time I saw Michelle Obama in the flesh, I almost took her for white. It was late July. Pundits were taking whispered bets on the fate of Hillary Clinton’s female supporters. In part to heal the intraparty rift, and in part to raise some cash, Obama was presiding over a Chicago luncheon for Democratic women. They were an opulent, multiracial, mostly middle-aged bunch, in pantsuits and conservative dresses. Clinton-turned-Obama staffer Patti Solis Doyle waved from the floor when she was introduced. One of Clinton’s longtime backers appealed for unity. Only a few weeks earlier, Obama had appeared on The View in a striking black-and-white floral dress. Now, throughout the room, some of the women were decked out in their best version of that number. Obama flashed her trademark sense of humor, her long arms cutting the air, as she made her points.
I’d flown into Midway that morning and driven down Lake Shore Drive, with William DeVaughn crooning “Be Thankful for What You Got” in the background. But even as I took in the stately beauty of Michigan Avenue, notions of Michelle Obama were spinning around in my head. I thought of an ecstatic phone call from my sister Kelley: “You have to ask her how she holds it down!” I thought of my Atlanta aunts, partisans of the Alpha Kappa Alpha pink and green, crowing over Obama’s acceptance of an honorary membership that same month: “Tell her she made the right choice.” I thought of a Chicago homeboy who’d summed her up for me: “Michelle is a six-foot black woman who says what she means.”
And then I thought of an image from last February, when Michelle Obama, in a gray sweater and a non-smile, slipped into a box marked Angry Black Woman. “For the first time in my adult life,” she had told a Milwaukee rally, “I am proud of my country, because it feels like hope is finally making a comeback.” When I first saw that clip, I could almost hear the trapdoor opening. In that instant, Michelle Obama became a symbol of her husband’s otherness. And for much of the rest of the campaign season, the opinion media obsessed over her love—or lack of love—of country.
Now, waiting in that cavernous downtown Hilton ballroom, I did not think I’d find Ida Wells or Stokely Carmichael. I did not expect to see Michelle Obama with her fist in the air, slinging bean pies, or hawking The Final Call. But still, I was unprepared for what I did encounter: Michelle Obama recounting her life as if she were an old stevedore hungering for the long-lost neighborhood of yore.
“I am always amazed at how different things are now for working women and families than when I was growing up,” Obama told the crowd. “Things have changed just in that short period of time. See, when I was growing up, my father—as you know, a blue-collar worker—was able to go to work and earn enough money to support a family of four, while my mom stayed home with me and my brother. But today, living with one income, like we did, just doesn’t cut it. People can’t do it—particularly if it’s a shift worker’s salary like my father’s.”
In all my years of watching black public figures, I’d never heard one recall such an idyllic youth. Bill Cosby once said, “African Americans are the only people who do not have any good ol’ days,” and for years the rule was that all our bios must play on a dream deferred, must offer a nod to dilapidated public housing and mothers scrubbing white women’s floors. But Obama waved off Richard Wright. Instead, the blues she sang was the ballad for the modern woman.
“I’m a working woman. I’m a daughter. I’m a sister. I’m a best friend. But the one role that I cherish the most that you’ve come to know is that role of mom,” she told the audience. “On the campaign trail, in a fund-raiser, sitting in the back of a van somewhere, I am worried about how my girls are doing, about their well-being, about their stability.”
Here was a black woman who minored in African American studies, whose home turf had been marked by the Blackstone Rangers and Gangster Disciples, casting her story not as an essay on the illusory nature of the American dream but as a rumination about our collective fall from motherhood, Chevrolet, and a chicken in every pot. I was waiting on slave narratives and oppression. I was looking for justice and the plight of the poor. Instead, I got homilies on the sainted place of women in American society. I got Michelle saluting and then ribbing her mother, who was seated in the audience. I left that ballroom thinking—as always—of the DuBoisian veil, the dark filter through which African Americans view their countrymen, and mulling the split perceptions of Michelle Obama. For all her spinning-out of a quintessential Horatio Alger tale, remixing black America into another ethnic group on the come-up, many Americans saw her largely through the prism of her belated, and wanting, expression of American pride.
There has been much chatter about Barack Obama as the answer to America’s racial gap, as a biracial black man whose roots stretch from Hawaii to Kenya, with an Ivy League pedigree and the seal of the South Side. But he is not the only one entering the White House who has seen both sides, who intuitively grasps the heroic American narrative of work ethic and family, and how that narrative historically failed black people. He is not the only one who walks in both worlds. Indeed, if you’re looking for a bridge, if you’re looking for someone to connect the heart of black America with the heart of all of America, to allow us all to look at the American dream in the same way, if you’re looking for common ground, then it’s true, we should be talking about Obama. But we should make sure we’re talking about the right one.