Michelle Obama: “The first thing we have to do”

One might think Michelle Obama has led a charmed life. She grew up with two parents who loved and supported her. Her academic achievements took her to Princeton University and Harvard Law School. Her education paved the road for a successful career back home. Her marriage has made her First Lady of the United States, an office that has provided her with almost unbelievable perquisites and privileges.

Yet Mrs. Obama has a chip on her shoulder. At Princeton, her thesis spoke of the ordeal of being a black student at the university. (“I sometimes feel like a visitor on campus, as if I really don’t belong” and so forth.)

Supporting her husband’s campaign in 2007 and 2008, Mrs. Obama revealed a grudging attitude to the United States itself. It was Princeton writ large. Nobody knew the troubles she’d seen. Her husband’s campaign famously gave her cause to take pride in her country for the first time in her adult life. Nobody knows the trouble she’s seen.

As First Lady, Mrs. Obama continues to nourish obscure personal slights, or apparent slights that turn out on closer examination to be something else. She reviewed a few of them for the class of 2015 at Tuskegee University in the course of her commencement address this past Saturday (video below):

I understand that kind of pressure. (Applause.) I’ve experienced a little bit of it myself. You see, graduates, I didn’t start out as the fully-formed First Lady who stands before you today. No, no, I had my share of bumps along the way.

Back when my husband first started campaigning for President, folks had all sorts of questions of me: What kind of First Lady would I be? What kinds of issues would I take on? Would I be more like Laura Bush, or Hillary Clinton, or Nancy Reagan? And the truth is, those same questions would have been posed to any candidate’s spouse. That’s just the way the process works. But, as potentially the first African American First Lady, I was also the focus of another set of questions and speculations; conversations sometimes rooted in the fears and misperceptions of others. Was I too loud, or too angry, or too emasculating? (Applause.) Or was I too soft, too much of a mom, not enough of a career woman?

Then there was the first time I was on a magazine cover — it was a cartoon drawing of me with a huge afro and machine gun. Now, yeah, it was satire, but if I’m really being honest, it knocked me back a bit. It made me wonder, just how are people seeing me.

Or you might remember the on-stage celebratory fist bump between me and my husband after a primary win that was referred to as a “terrorist fist jab.” And over the years, folks have used plenty of interesting words to describe me. One said I exhibited “a little bit of uppity-ism.“ Another noted that I was one of my husband’s “cronies of color.” Cable news once charmingly referred to me as “Obama’s Baby Mama.”

And of course, Barack has endured his fair share of insults and slights. Even today, there are still folks questioning his citizenship.

And all of this used to really get to me. Back in those days, I had a lot of sleepless nights, worrying about what people thought of me, wondering if I might be hurting my husband’s chances of winning his election, fearing how my girls would feel if they found out what some people were saying about their mom.

But eventually, I realized that if I wanted to keep my sanity and not let others define me, there was only one thing I could do, and that was to have faith in God’s plan for me. (Applause.) I had to ignore all of the noise and be true to myself — and the rest would work itself out. (Applause.)

Imagine that! A president has “endured his fair share of insults and slights.”

Not to worry. She has overcome. Looking back on her road, she urges the graduates before her to persevere:

Because here’s the thing — the road ahead is not going to be easy. It never is, especially for folks like you and me. Because while we’ve come so far, the truth is that those age-old problems are stubborn and they haven’t fully gone away. So there will be times, just like for those Airmen, when you feel like folks look right past you, or they see just a fraction of who you really are.

The world won’t always see you in those caps and gowns. They won’t know how hard you worked and how much you sacrificed to make it to this day — the countless hours you spent studying to get this diploma, the multiple jobs you worked to pay for school, the times you had to drive home and take care of your grandma, the evenings you gave up to volunteer at a food bank or organize a campus fundraiser. They don’t know that part of you.

Instead they will make assumptions about who they think you are based on their limited notion of the world. And my husband and I know how frustrating that experience can be. We’ve both felt the sting of those daily slights throughout our entire lives — the folks who crossed the street in fear of their safety; the clerks who kept a close eye on us in all those department stores; the people at formal events who assumed we were the “help” — and those who have questioned our intelligence, our honesty, even our love of this country.

And I know that these little indignities are obviously nothing compared to what folks across the country are dealing with every single day — those nagging worries that you’re going to get stopped or pulled over for absolutely no reason; the fear that your job application will be overlooked because of the way your name sounds; the agony of sending your kids to schools that may no longer be separate, but are far from equal; the realization that no matter how far you rise in life, how hard you work to be a good person, a good parent, a good citizen — for some folks, it will never be enough. (Applause.)

And all of that is going to be a heavy burden to carry. It can feel isolating. It can make you feel like your life somehow doesn’t matter — that you’re like the invisible man that Tuskegee grad Ralph Ellison wrote about all those years ago. And as we’ve seen over the past few years, those feelings are real. They’re rooted in decades of structural challenges that have made too many folks feel frustrated and invisible. And those feelings are playing out in communities like Baltimore and Ferguson and so many others across this country. (Applause.)

(Ellison incidentally, was a Tuskegee graduate. His portrait of the Tuskegee-like school in Invisible Man is not flattering.)

One might think that the road is open for the Tuskegee graduates to follow their dreams. Mrs. Obama eschews the traditional encouragement in formulating her first piece of advice:

And the first thing we have to do is vote. (Applause.) Hey, no, not just once in a while. Not just when my husband or somebody you like is on the ballot. But in every election at every level, all of the time. (Applause.) Because here is the truth — if you want to have a say in your community, if you truly want the power to control your own destiny, then you’ve got to be involved. You got to be at the table. You’ve got to vote, vote, vote, vote. That’s it; that’s the way we move forward. That’s how we make progress for ourselves and for our country.

That’s a rather unusual and dispiriting commencement message. The way forward, ladies and gentlemen of the class of 2015, lies in politics.

Mrs. Obama omits any discussion of the “structural challenges” to which she refers. Context suggests she isn’t talking about the single-parent families that have become the norm in the black community. It is the norm that we see “playing out in communities like Baltimore and Ferguson and so many others across this country.” Indeed, it is this norm that accounts in great part for the “structural challenges” to which she was referring.

Tuskegee is of course the institution founded by Booker T. Washington. Washington had overcome slavery and a lack of formal education to become the most celebrated black man of his time.

In October 1905 President Roosevelt called on Washington at Tuskegee to show his support. “Threats against the life of Washington had been pouring into Tuskegee for weeks,” writes Robert Norrell in his excellent biography of Washington. “A white man living not far from the town had vowed to turn his shotgun on the famous black man, in relaxed confidence that any jury in Alabama would rule the murder a justifiable homicide.”

Washington’s message was of course one of self-help and education. It is a message that has largely been vindicated.

We’ve come a long way. For this we can be grateful. The absence of gratitude seems to me a stark feature of Mrs. Obama’s commencement address. I would say the absence of gratitude — the absence of a feeling that “life has treated [us] much better than we deserve” — is a great weakness, yet we have Mrs. Obama’s counterexample to argue against me. It is at least a severe failing.

The future of the young men and women moving on from Tuskegee lies in their own hands. With a black president and a black first lady, we have the ocular proof, this strand of Mrs. Obama’s oratory to the contrary notwithstanding.