Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Portrait of a Lady

The much-anticipated speech by Michelle Obama on the first night of the 2008 Democratic National Convention was preceded by a folksy speech by her brother and a biographical film produced by Ken Burns and narrated by her mother. It all left me feeling good, but very subdued. She looked lovely in a light green dress against the stage’s blue background (enough color differential to stand out but not look too bold...) with a broad expanse of décolletage (not revealing, just enough to subliminally say I’m Open...).

She spoke beautifully and her accomplishments, detailed in the film, were undeniably impressive. So I found it discomfitting that she had to do what she was there to do: make herself and her husband seem less scary to White America. The reason she had to do this was, of course, never acknowledged, let alone addressed: the fact that there are millions of Americans who have had no first-hand experience of middle-class blacks – and that’s really what they’re revealing when they say they don’t yet know who Obama is.

White society has been programmed by pop culture and the news media to think that the black underclass and its hip-hop/pimps & hos ethos are what define African-American perspective and experience. They don’t understand that Michelle Obama’s deliberately Mom-and-apple-pie performance was born not of political artifice, but of the genuine and demanding values of the black middle-class, which is historically rooted in church, family, community, education, and a stringent work ethic. As a group, they are very private, proper, focused, and firmly cognizant of the fact that to be black and successful in America still requires that one be ten times better (more disciplined, more proficient, more accomplished) than the white competition. And it’s always competitive, always, and exhausting, because you can never let your guard down.

Understanding this demographic profile helps explain why the Obamas can seem aloof and elite, a little stiff, a little humorless, somehow insincere. A few years ago, I worked closely with a middle-aged black woman who was the president of a long-established non-profit organization. She confided to me that, as was once expressed by writer Toni Morrison, she does not entirely trust white people. She has many valued white colleagues and good white friends, but there is a part of her that is always waiting for the other shoe to drop. If Mrs. Obama privately feels much the same, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised, nor could I fault her.

The best part of Michelle Obama’s appearance was the very fact of it. You could see the pride in the expressions on black faces throughout the hall, young and old alike. Here was this poised, pretty, black woman, a successful lawyer, a loving wife, a devoted mother, a loyal daughter, standing before them preparing to be First Lady. First Lady! It was a triumph a long time comin’. But this is politically correct 2008 and we’re not allowed to use the “R” word, so nobody could give voice to the miracle.

Who would have thought that when we finally had a black presidential candidate we’d have to pretend not to notice? Race, its mysteries and its miseries in our divided America, will continue to rear its pointed little head as the campaign continues. I wish this convention could crack it open, like a piñata filled with spiders and stars.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Spiders and stars. what a great image, very Gabriel Garcia Marques.
The schmaltz convention. I guess it had to be. The whole damn process is so insulting.