Wednesday, September 05, 2012

I Am A Woman: From Sojourner Truth To Michelle Obama

That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain't I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain't I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man - when I could get it - and bear the lash as well! And ain't I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother's grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain't I a woman?
If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back , and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them. - Sojourner Truth, 1851
 So maybe Michelle Obama was supposed to humanize her on Tuesday night, in her big speech. Maybe she was even supposed to humanize herself. But she wound up doing something very different, and something far more rare, and something that not only answered the people who insist that she is not like them but also had to shame them: She was simply human, and so as American as any of us could hope or dare to be. - Tom Junod
So Michelle Obama gave a speech last night, and like many politicians, she became a blank sheet of paper upon which the audience could create an image from their hopes and fears.  That she did what she did is a testament to the rise in prominence of the First Lady since Nancy Reagan; somehow it seems necessary, at least to political consultants, that the American people be reminded the President is above all else a person within some kind of relationship.  Thus it is we have Presidential candidates' wives trotted out to speak on behalf of their husbands, testifying to their basic goodness (regardless of the facts; Reagan was a pretty lousy Dad, according to the testimony of his children; the basic soundness of a Presidential parent becomes irrelevant the moment myth-making is needed).

Yet, at Tom Junod's piece at Esquire, we see a further hurdle Mrs. Obama is forced not so much to leap but clamber over: Even here, at a titularly "liberal" site, Michelle Obama must first demonstrate her fundamental humanity to many for who skepticism on this point continues to matter.  'Twas ever thus, one could say, in particular for women of color who have had to establish not only their bona fides as women, but their humanity as well.  Thus it is that even an accomplished, intelligent, attractive, thoughtful person such as Mrs. Obama has, in the words of Mr. Junod, to make herself look human.

Were I married to Mrs. Obama, I'd smack him up side his head for such presumptuousness.

Thankfully, the First Lady demonstrated not only through her poise but also her courage, standing in front of an in-house crowd of thousands and a television crowd of millions doing what most of those watching could never do; she also demonstrated that she feels no desire to assuage the doubts of people like Junod who think that it is always incumbent upon minorities to calm the fears of the majority.

In 2008, there were wild rumors abounding that a video existed . . . somewhere . . . of a speech Mrs. Obama allegedly gave . . . somewhere . . . in which she spoke of her hatred of white people.  Of course, no such thing exists, yet the rumors continue, and there are many on the right who believe this video has disappeared through some wild machinations by the President.  Even those who don't believe crap like this, however, still think Mrs. Obama had some task to perform to settle their good liberal fears that she might just be that Angry Black Woman of American mythology.  Instead, of course, she told a typical American story that resonated with those in attendance in Charlotte because Mrs. Obama has answered Sojourner Truth's question in the affirmative, demonstrating that, indeed, as an African-American female she is every bit a woman, and an American woman at that.

That kind of courage, to set to one side the expectations so many white men seem to demand in their silent looks of expectation, demonstrates the necessity of remembering Truth's question.  It also shows that Mrs. Obama knows to her bones this is the reality she faces and doesn't care.  She is who she is, a woman indeed with strength and ability, and she just doesn't care whether or not some folks are nervous or upset about that.

Virtual Tin Cup

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