Last night, Michelle Obama took the stage at the Democratic National Convention. She was the keynote speaker of the night, charged with personalizing Barack Obama and, more implicitly, with showing a different side of herself. Michelle Obama has been very negatively reviewed by the press and by Republicans, often described as unpatriotic for her statements about her perceived lack of pride in her country (photo by Jackson Solway, from the DNC via Flickr). Hence, at the convention, her speech had two goals: to make Barack Obama relatable and to define his history as a typical American story, and to “soften” her image and to showcase herself as someone who most Americans could envision as First Lady.
Michelle’s speech touched on all the requisite themes. She explained why she loves America, discussed Barack Obama’s commitment to everyday Americans, his middle-American roots and upbringing, and love for his family. For me, however, what she said in her speech was much less important than having the opportunity to watch her say it.
For many African Americans, there has been a long sense of being shut out from most levels of the U.S.’s social, economic, and especially political systems. Many of us are all too aware of the ways African Americans are taken for granted and/or ignored in national elections, and the ways that Black Americans are often invisible at the uppermost levels of the political spectrum. We see how infrequently loving, caring, happy relationships between Black men and women are depicted, and we notice the scant coverage that polished, smart, passionate Black women receive in the mainstream media. So to see Michelle Obama speaking about her husband with love and pride, to hear him tell her after her speech that she looked “very cute,” and to see their adorable children conclude with “we love you, Daddy!” was an incredible moment for me and many other African Americans who are acutely aware of how infrequently these types of images are shown.
We’ve talked a lot on this blog about the challenges facing Barack Obama, the covert and overt racism inhibiting his historic campaign, and the ways intersections of race and gender have shaped the ways Michelle Obama is depicted as an “angry black woman.” It’s pretty clear that Barack Obama still has an enormous task ahead of him in overcoming white racism. It is unfortunate that Michelle Obama must work so hard to combat gendered racist stereotypes that demean and belittle her. But as an African American woman, it was such a profoundly moving moment to see someone who looked like me included, rather than excluded. Whatever else happens in this election, Barack Obama’s candidacy has been a welcome departure from the implicit “whites-only” norms of presidential politics, and has given a glimpse of America’s opportunity to finally start cashing that check that keeps coming back marked “insufficient funds.”
I have admired and appreciated Barack and Michelle Obama as a couple since he completed his 2004 keynote address at the Democratic National Convention, went backstage, and grabbed his wife in a huge bear hug. In the Obamas, I see my husband and I, our friends, and our family members. In many ways, we’re similar to the Obamas– typical, everyday, working professionals, but we are painfully aware that Black Americans like us are rarely the subject of media attention, much less present in a central, defining role in American politics. Watching Michelle Obama speak eloquently and candidly about her love for her husband, her family, and the familiar particulars of her life story, I (and many other Black Americans) experienced a welcome departure from the typical feelings of exclusion and marginalization induced by national politics. Like her, for the first time in my life, I felt not only proud, but represented and included in a way I’ve never felt before.