Black journalist DeWayne Wickham has an article in Monday’s USA Today whose title tells you more about the substance of Michelle Obama’s controversial commencement speech at Tuskegee University last weekend than anything in the body of the piece. The title is “What Michelle Obama really said.” When your defenders have to start explaining what you really meant to say, you haven’t said much.
Actually, that isn’t a fair assessment, because the closing of the speech was actually fine, if formulaic for a commencement address:
And if you rise above the noise and the pressures that surround you, if you stay true to who you are and where you come from, if you have faith in God’s plan for you, then you will keep fulfilling your duty to people all across this country.
It’s what came before it that has generated so many op-ed page syllables. The first lady spoke of the “questions and speculations” that attended her and her husband’s rise to prominence in 2008, but much of what she goes on to say is projection:
Was I too loud, or too angry, or too emasculating? Or was I too soft, too much of a mom, not enough of a career woman?
I would be surprised to learn that no other future first lady, none of whom was black, didn’t have the same fears and misgivings upon being thrust in the public eye, but Mrs. Obama alone turns it into a “black” thing:
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.
The drawing, which appeared on the cover of the New Yorker in July 2008, was intended as satire — but not of her and her husband. Rather it was meant to skewer those on the right for — in the words of the illustration’s creator, Barry Blitt — their “use of scare tactics and misinformation in the Presidential election to derail Barack Obama’s campaign.”
At bottom, the speech was so much victim politics. It would have been fitting and appropriate had it been delivered decades ago, before affirmative action, which Michelle Obama has acknowledged helped her get into Princeton, and before her husband’s election and reelection.
Maybe her lament about having been mistaken for the “help” would ring a little truer if it weren’t coming from a woman who has spent the last six years living in the lap of luxury, surrounded by more “help” than most of us can imagine.
Most important, if she wants to recall all the injustices that were done to her in 2008, she might also want to revisit her comment that year about feeling proud of her country for the first time in her life. If a lot of Americans who love their country don’t love the Obamas, comments like this — not institutional racism — are the reasons why.
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- University report: A room full of white people is a microaggression