State of the Union January/February 2009

American Girl

When Michelle Obama told a Milwaukee campaign rally last February, "For the first time in my adult life, I am proud of my country," critics derided her as another Angry Black Woman. But the only truly radical proposition put forth by Obama, born and raised in Chicago's storied South Side, is the idea of a black community fully vested in the country at large, and proud of the American dream.

In 1948, Chicago’s method of segregating housing—restrictive covenants—was struck down in court, triggering white flight. The South Side suffered, but unlike in other neighborhoods in other cities, the black middle class in Chicago did not follow whites to the suburbs. The result is that while the South Side bears a disproportionate share of the city’s poverty, it also has several steady working- to middle-class neighborhoods.

Michelle Obama’s South Shore, for example, held on to its basic economic makeup. “When we moved over, [the neighborhood] was changing,” Robinson said. “There were good schools, that’s why people moved, and it was the reason we moved. I enjoyed living there. It was fine with me that it was changing. Some people felt the schools were too geared to whites. People were very conscious and wanted black artists in the schools. My point was just to go to school and learn what you have to learn.”

Robinson and her husband also had the advantage of a few overlooked attributes of Chicago. The South Side was almost a black world unto itself, replete with the economic and cultural complexity of the greater city. There were debutantes and cotillions as well as gangs and drug addicts. Mostly, there were men like Fraser Robinson, black people working a job, trying to get by. The diversity and the demographics allowed the Robinsons to protect their kids from the street life, and also from direct, personal racism. And then there was family life. The Robinsons played board games on the weekends. Michelle loved The Brady Bunch.

“We had a very fortunate upbringing,” says Obama’s brother, Craig Robinson. “It was filled with good times. We were like every other family. We had love and discipline. We had caring parents … It wasn’t unusual at all. It wasn’t that everyone had both parents in the house, but it certainly wasn’t like it is now, where you find single-parent families everywhere. Folks went to work, people were excited to get good grades … People would laugh about folks finding out you were getting in trouble. People had mothers at home. So if someone broke a window, you always found out about it. You had a secondary line of defense.”

This cocoon that surrounded Michelle Obama in her formative years helps explain some of the statements and actions that fanned controversy during the campaign. Obama’s Princeton thesis on “Princeton-Educated Blacks and the Black Community,” for example, has been interpreted as a budding Garveyite’s call to arms. Exhibit A seems to be her banal citation of Stokely Carmichael to explain black separatism, and her observation that Princeton made her “more aware of [her] ‘Blackness’ than ever before.”

A hostile reading of those words hinges on a misunderstanding of the complexities of segregation. In fact, for the legions of black people who grew up like Michelle Obama—in a functioning, self-contained African American world—racial identity recedes in the consciousness. You know you’re black, but in much the same way that white people know they are white. Since everyone else around you looks like you, you just take it as the norm, the standard, the unremarkable. Objectively, you know you’re in the minority, but that status hits home only when you walk out into the wider world and realize that, out there, you really are different.

I came up in segregated West Baltimore. I understood black as a culture—as Etta James, jumping the broom, the Electric Slide. I understood the history and the politics, the debilitating effects of racism. But I did not understand blackness as a minority until I was an “only,” until I was a young man walking into rooms filled with people who did not look like me. In many ways, segregation protected me—to this day, I’ve never been called a nigger by a white person, and although I know that racism is part of why I define myself as black, I don’t feel that way, any more than I feel that the two oceans define me as American. But in other ways, segregation left me unprepared for the discovery that my world was not the world. In her book Michelle: A Biography, Liza Mundy quotes another South Sider explaining the predicament:

“When you grow up in a black community with a warm black family, you are aware of the fact that you are black, but you don’t feel it … After a certain point you do just kind of think you’re in your own world, and you become very comfortable in that world, and to this day there are African Americans who feel very uncomfortable when they step out of it … This is a society that never lets you forget that you are black.”

In her thesis, Michelle Obama grapples with her dawning sense of race as a divider, and with the idea that the world she knew as a child was very different from the one she was entering as a college student. In that light, her words in Wisconsin deserve another look. It’s easy to be proud of America as a young black kid with a mother and a father, a solid community, and no direct exposure to racism. But Obama’s statement was about her adult life. Post-1960s segregation shielded many of us from feeling different, but it could not save us from the weirdness of having white people touching our hair, from the awkwardness of not knowing whether Led Zeppelin was a man or a group, or, more viscerally, from the pain of witnessing the episodes involving Willie Horton, Sister Souljah, and Rodney King.

Standing behind that podium in Milwaukee, Obama was waxing nostalgic. That doesn’t mean she was wrong. She was merely expressing the hope that the world could be as it was in South Shore, filled with people who get up, raise kids, and go to work, and never have to think about being “the other.”

In most black people, there is a South Side, a sense of home, that never leaves, and yet to compete in the world, we have to go forth. So we learn to code-switch and become bilingual. We save our Timberlands for the weekend, and our jokes for the cats in the mail room. Some of us give ourselves up completely and become the mask, while others overcompensate and turn every dustup into the Montgomery bus boycott.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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