You guys know I love to blog, and I really love conversating (It's a word, dammit!) with the crowd. But very few things (your mind is now free to wonder) exceed the thrill of publishing a piece in the Atlantic. This one is about Michelle Obama. I've been working on it for six months. But frankly, to paraphrase Phil, I've been thinking about this moment all my life. Here's an excerpt.
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.
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."
Please check it out. Also here's a video of my Dad--who I reference often--interviewing me about the piece. I hope you guys enjoy.
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