Chip Somodevilla / Getty

Sometimes I Wish the Obamas Wouldn’t ‘Go High’

Updated at 12:30 a.m. ET on December 22, 2018.

After the Obamas shook hands with the Trumps at George H. W. Bush’s funeral earlier this month, Jemele Hill analyzed the implications of the phrase Michelle Obama coined in 2016: When they go low, we go high. “I sometimes wonder,” Hill wrote, “if the people who often cite that quote have a full understanding of the emotional toll it takes on people of color to have to constantly absolve the racism directed at them.”


Jemele Hill’s column on the Obama family’s class in dealing with Donald Trump at former President George H. W. Bush’s funeral is, and will remain, a classic. Citing the recent history of young Jeremiah Harvey, she beautifully described what most every African American I know experiences, in some form, on a daily basis.

For some of us, the experience she described has reached it limits. However, we, like President Barack Obama and the first lady Michelle Obama, must remain dignified and respectful in our responses. I’d like to share the advice of three icons: the late Dr. Arthur L. Johnson, one of my mentors; the late Zora Neale Hurston, a prominent African American author and anthropologist; and Bernard Lafayette, one of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s protégés.

When I was took a position in Connecticut in 1990, Johnson, knowing how whites have a difficult time accepting a person of color in charge, told me: “Dwight, you’re gonna have to eat some crow some time, and even take some stuff, but you don’t have to take it lying down.”

Hurston offers similar advice: “If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.”

Lafayette specifically counsels victims to know the law. When he spoke at Eastern Connecticut State University in 2013, he said: “If you don’t use your God-given rights, you will lose them.”

All three were and are right. Have a bone in your back. Be honest and firm, and if necessary, take people to court who commit their vicious and insidious acts and who behave disrespectfully toward you and expect you to “get over it.” Your beautiful prose shows that African Americans will always show class in facing and dealing with small-minded people.

Dwight Bachman
Willimantic, Conn.


I wonder if Ms. Hill considered the agency that both former President Obama and the first lady Michelle Obama exhibited rather than assuming that grace is weak. Of course grace, which means acting in love even when others don’t deserve the act, is formidable among the great exhibitors of social change. We wouldn’t expect less of these two. It is the strongest response and most revealing when standing next to those who have, in fact, been ungracious.

Rev. Jan Todd
Mulvane, Kan.


Thank you for your candid thoughts. I can identify with the article. As a father of a mid-20s, half-black man, no matter how hard I tried to raise him right and make sure he understood that heroes come in all colors and sizes by educating him through books and conversations, still at times I was frustrated that the reality of our society systematically enforces otherwise.

Combiz Khatiblou
Santa Clara, Calif.


As a woman of color, I am inclined to disagree that there was a problem with the Obamas’ “going high.” My perception of the Obamas is they are “high,” simply that. My take: The Obamas are not in the game. It is just not their style. And what do they have to prove by being obnoxious or belligerent?

Dr. Francine Adams
Lake Worth, Fla.


I disagree entirely with this. I’m partly African American myself, and I teach African American history. The behavior of the Obamas at the funeral was both appropriate and exemplary, in my view. As always, they conducted themselves with dignity and poise, despite Trump’s boorish conduct, and thereby illustrated precisely the sort of graceful bearing for which the late President Bush has been so highly praised.

Brian Alnutt, Ph.D.
New Tripoli, Pa.


I totally disagree with the author. The Obamas’ “going high” is for me one of the few things that can ameliorate the pain of watching the current president and his gang. Because “going high” is more than a chosen behavior; it’s an expression of character that elevates them, and by contrast, reveals the difference between them and the current president. I can’t imagine a worse response than to imitate the president in his emotionally stunted words or behavior. Their “going high” makes me proud and humbled at the same time—proud for their example and humbled at my own failures under less provocation.

R. B. Goetsch
Pioneer, Calif.


The essay by Ms. Hill encapsulated precisely what I was thinking, but could not articulate. I have felt conflicted by the Obamas for many years. To my mind, if a person looks out the window and says it’s raining and another says it’s sunny, it is the job of a leader to look at the evidence (in this case, look out the window) and speak the truth, not cite them both. Yet most blacks understand that, in a country where the lion’s share of resources is controlled by Caucasians, the inherent nature of white supremacy demands we be exemplary. The Obamas understood that racism is as American as apple pie. So much so, the most minor attack on it risked many Caucasians thinking it was an attack on America. This was a risk they were not prepared to take.

However, there is a significant degree of cognitive dissonance involved in taking the high road. Marginalized groups are told to be patient, polite, and civil in the face of the most grievous assaults and, when they hazard to make even the most minor of pleading, are invariably ignored. For marginalized people, the irony is not lost that they are told to do things the “proper way,” knowing America was founded on, oftentimes, very violent protest and conflict. Moreover, when affluent Caucasians are riled up over some perceived slight, they seem to have no problem doing whatever is necessary to preserve and sustain their position in society.

I’ve stopped thinking that if I am palatable enough, European Americans will open their arms to me, and that I will have fair access to opportunities if my personage is more pleasing to white sensibilities. It has not worked, and this is emotional labor I no longer have the strength, nor the inclination, to expend. It is not my responsibility to make European Americans feel more comfortable with me. For me, the old tenet of power conceding nothing without a demand is truth.

Connor Smithersmapp
Halifax, Nova Scotia

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.