“Uppity,” translated from thinly-veiled racial code, is meant to describe a black person who doesn’t know her or his place. It is as paternalistic as it is racist, meant to convey that a black person is somehow lower, in need of guidance back to the subjugated existence that makes the dominant caste more comfortable. Heaven forbid one even consider her or himself an equal. Or superior!
It’s a word I’ve been called once to my face, a few times online, and likely more behind my back. Unlike “nigger,” I’ve always felt oddly affirmed by it. It’s a term of hatred, no doubt, but someone who thinks me “uppity” considers my very existence a threat. That’s a good thing. We are threats to them and their detestable worldview, and Michelle Obama’s life, perhaps even more so than Barack’s, is a testament to this.
The first lady reminded us of these insults and slights in a commencement speech on Saturday, all in the context of facing “pressure to live up to the legacy of those who came before you; pressure to meet the expectations of others”—a fitting message for the new graduates of the historically black Tuskegee University in Alabama, where the Tuskegee Airmen, famed black military pilots of World War II, were educated while they trained at nearby Moton Field.