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.