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.

But increasingly, as we move into the mainstream, black folks are taking a third road—being ourselves. Implicit in the notion of code-switching is a belief in the illegitimacy of blacks as Americans, as well as a disbelief in the ability of our white peers to understand us. But if you see black identity as you see southern identity, or Irish identity, or Italian identity—not as a separate trunk, but as a branch of the American tree, with roots in the broader experience—then you understand that the particulars of black culture are inseparable from the particulars of the country.

Pop culture has laid the groundwork for that recognition. Barack Obama’s coalition—the young, the black, the urban, the hip—was originally assembled by hip-hop. Jay-Z and Nas may be problematic ambassadors, but their ilk are why those who thought Barack and Michelle were giving each other a “terrorist fist jab” were laughed off the stage. We are as physically segregated as ever, yet the changes in media have drawn black idiom into the broader American narrative.

In 2002, the rapper Ice Cube produced and starred in Barbershop. The movie was a surprise hit, spawning a sequel, a spin-off, and a short-lived TV series. Its success shocked industry-watchers, because it took place exclusively in a black community and seemingly focused on “black issues.” But you could find the same characters in any other ethnic community. Think of Michelle Obama’s sharp sense of humor and her insistence on viewing her husband as mortal, and how both traits were derided during the campaign as un-first-ladylike and fed the caricature of her as an Angry Black Woman. In reality, her summation of her husband as “a gifted man, but in the end … just a man” could have come out of the mouth of any sitcom wife on TV.

When I saw Obama in Chicago and took her for white, it was not because of her cadences, mannerisms, or dress, but because of the radical proposition she put forth—a black community fully vested, no DuBoisian veil, in the country at large. A buddy of mine once remarked that Michelle “makes Barack black.” But that understates things. She doesn’t simply make Barack black—she makes him American.

“I keep saying this: Michelle, Barack, and my son are not abnormal,” Marian Robinson said. “All my relatives, all my friends, all their friends, all their parents, almost all of them have the same story. It’s just that their families aren’t running for president. It bothers me that people see [Michelle and Barack] as so phenomenal, because there’s so much of that in the black neighborhood. They went to the same schools we all did. They went through the same struggles.”

The last time I saw Michelle Obama in person, in a small room at the Westin Tabor Center hotel in Denver, I was convinced that she could be taken for nothing but black. I had spent the past few weeks following her from set piece to set piece—Obama talks to military spouses in Virginia, Obama and her family make care packages for soldiers, Obama addresses the Hispanic caucus at the Democratic National Convention. But nothing I’d seen at those events outweighed the impressions of her character that I was forming from my encounters with the wide streets of the South Side, one of the few places in the country where African Americans could utter the mantra “Black and proud” without a hint of irony.

Her day was almost finished, and she was tired. I was the last in a battery of interviews. Still, she smiled, shook my hand, and said, reaching for a vase of plastic flowers, “We got these for you. What, you don’t believe we bought these for you?” I laughed, sat down, and asked her about her childhood.

“My mom and maybe a couple others were some of the few who were able to stay at home,” she explained. “A lot of my friends, they weren’t called latchkey kids, they were just kids whose parents worked … We went to the public school right around the corner and we had lunch, and you could go home for lunch, and we had recess and there weren’t closed campuses then … They’d bring their bag lunch, they’d sit on the kitchen floor and talk to my mom. There was one other mother who we’d do that with.”

There it was, that old neighborhood nostalgia and pride, woven into the larger American quilt. Obama’s recollections offer no nods to the disproportionate poverty that has always haunted black Chicago. But that was not her world, and it isn’t her story. Since the days of Frederick Douglass—another biracial black man—black leaders have styled themselves as the social conscience of the country. As laudable—if at times opportunistic—as that approach may be, it has also marginalized the very people they were trying to help. The typical black political narrative of using one’s humble beginnings to make the country true to itself flies against the dominant image of America as the “good guy.” It’s also a narrative that holds more truth for the activist, the professional scold, than for the rank and file. If Barack and Michelle Obama are to truly transcend the racial divide, it won’t be through the narrative of justice, but through the mythology of the Great—and common—Cause.

On the night of his victory, Barack Obama talked about Ann Nixon Cooper, a black woman who, at the age of 106, had voted for him. But when Obama told her story, he presented her not just as someone who’d been born a generation after slavery and had seen segregation, but as a woman who’d seen the women’s-suffrage movement, the dawn of aviation and the automobile, the Depression and the Dust Bowl, and Pearl Harbor. He presented Nixon Cooper as an African American who was not doubly conscious, just conscious. That is the third road that black America is walking. It’s not coincidental that two black people from the South Side are leading us on that road. If you’re looking for the heralds of a “post-racial” America, if that adjective is ever to be more than a stupid, unlettered flourish, then look to those, like Michelle Obama, with a sense of security in who they are—those, black or white, who hold blackness as more than the losing end of racism.

These heralds offer a deeper understanding of African American life, a greater appreciation of the bourgeois ordinariness of our experience. “People have never met a Michelle Obama,” the soon-to-be first lady said toward the end of our interview. “But what they’ll come to learn is that there are thousands and thousands of Michelle and Barack Obamas across America. You just don’t live next door to them, or there isn’t a TV show about them.”

There is now.

Ta-Nehisi Coates is an Atlantic contributing editor. He blogs at ta-nehisicoates.theatlantic.com.
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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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