James L. Taylor: Why Michelle Obama is "Fair Game" : News & Views Find out why Michelle Obama is considered "fair game" for criticism by her detractors.
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James L. Taylor: Why Michelle Obama is "Fair Game"

Political Positions

In an unscientific News & Views poll, 83 percent of respondents said Michelle Obama does not need an image makeover.

The premise for the poll question: Criticism and outright attacks on Michelle Obama for being, as her detractors say, unpatriotic, race-conscious, and abrasive.

In this week's installment of Political Positions, James Lance Taylor offers a historic perspective. His piece is titled The UnAmerican Americans: Or, Why Michelle Obama is "Fair Game."

Taylor is associate professor of politics at the University of San Francisco and president-elect of the National Conference of Black Political Scientists.

At the turn of the 20th century, W.E.B. Du Bois wrote of a concept widely discussed in contemporary intellectual and campus circles as "double consciousness," the sense of reconciling "two warring ideals" of being of African and American descent in a patriotically racist society that made these dichotomies the litmuses of who belongs to America and to whom America belongs.

This academic concept fits Barack Obama more than Michelle and traditional "African Americans" like her, whose ancestry is traceable to the slavery epoch, nine decades of enforced segregation, and the post-Civil Rights desperation of urban, rural, and suburban ghettos in Chicago and throughout the country.

Michelle and Barack Obama
Michelle and Barack Obama embrace during an election day speech at the end of the 2008 Democratic Party primaries.

Emmanuel Dunand, AFP/Getty Images

Harold Cruse would later suggest that Du Bois's idea was autobiographical and did not apply to desperately poor, peasant, and working-class African Americans in the post-bellum South, whose daily experience prevented them from having the convenience of "double consciousness." They knew who they were and what they had been in American society. For middle-class and affluent African Americans — as the Obama's now are — this idea yielded a sense of "twoness" concerning being in America but not of America.

Years later, Cornel West took the double consciousness construct and clarified that its major shortcoming was the failure to realize that the earliest Europeans who came to America were as alien to the land as were the Africans. Early American whites were "incomplete" Europeans and as much "bastards" of the American continent as the first Negroes.

Both populations were alien to the land, their first and most enduring contact occurred during slavery. In his book Prophesy Deliverance, Cornel West explains, "Black Americans labored rather under the burden of a triple crisis of self-recognition. Their cultural predicament was comprised of African appearance and unconscious cultural mores, involuntary displacement to America without American status, and American alienation from the European ethos complicated through domination by incompletely European Americans."

Many of these groups were finally assimilated in the United States, after centuries of being pariah in Europe (e.g., Jews, Poles, Irish, Turks, Southern Italians), with Black Americans' un-Americanness representing the standard of their eventual acceptance in the United States. Black Americans went from being pariah to stigmata.

The ideas that Michelle and Barack Obama are somehow unpatriotic, Muslim, anti-American racist Christians — who are anti-Islam — refuse to wear the lapel flag, to pledge allegiance to it with hand over heart, and are just recently "really proud" of their country, "terrorist fist" bumpers who secretly wear Islamic Somali traditional clothing, wrote angry undergraduate papers, might be assassinated between now and the Democratic National Convention like Bobby Kennedy in 1968, and can be a Harvard-educated married "baby mama," are all rooted in a history of "American alienation" that plays well in the strange world of American politics.

In the present, if Barack Obama suffers from double-consciousness because of his very unique racial experience in Hawaii and Kansas, Michelle Obama's world in the political turbulence of the 1960s through the 1980s "crack" era in Southside Chicago disabused her of any such confusion. It is this clarity in Mrs. Obama that has led some media and other critics to suggest "she simmers with undigested racial anger." This has been the caricature of urban Black America since the 1960s.

Some think of Black Americans' nationalist traditions — from Garveyism to Afrocentrism — as representing the "African" side of the equation and its "American" side represented by the social and political ambitions of integrationism embodied in Martin Luther King, Jr., and the NAACP.

I do not support this notion primarily because Black Americans, who are among the land's oldest Americans, arrived in America with the Spanish by more than a century before all other Europeans, including the British Pilgrims, who came in 1620, one year after the first Black indentured servants arrived in Jamestown, Virginia.

With the exception of the indigenous peoples, the various native populations (Mexican and Native Americans), the Africans' presence in the Americas profoundly influenced America life. There has seemingly always been a tug-of-war between these competing orientations among American Blacks.

David Walker, Malcolm X, Louis Farrakhan, and yes, Jeremiah Wright, Jr., reflect one orientation and Bayard Rustin, James Baldwin, King, Jesse Jackson, and Barack Obama represent the others. To be sure, there is a great deal of overlap between these tendencies and there is plausibly a third strata that includes many individuals who harbor elements of both, such as King between 1965-1968, Ella Baker, Maxine Waters, Michelle Obama, and a majority of ordinary African American people.

Like Harlem, Chicago remains a vital center of "political" Black nationalism, the sort that catapulted Louis Farrakhan from Chicago to the fore of Black politics in the 1980s and 1990s and imposed itself on Jackson's presidential campaigns in a manner similar to the way that Jeremiah Wright, Jr., has in the Obama campaign.

But there is a difference in "political" Black nationalism and latent feelings of group solidarity among individual African Americans that is akin to the differences between "political" conservatism of Republicans and Southern and rural Democrats that targets say, gay rights, and the conservative attitudes people may hold about homosexuality in general. The "political" is often parasitic of peoples' ordinary dispositions.

Michelle Obama represents the latter.

That Barack Obama does not have a slavery ancestry in the United States makes his potential Democratic nomination and election amenable to the ridiculous claim and much desired goal of American society and culture having become "post-racial," on the cheap. A chorus of denial, no acknowledgment, no injury, "what happened to your people didn't happen to you," "get over it," "stop being a victim," "we voted for Obama." Is this a concession that everything before the Obama campaign was "racial"?

Does this mean that the prisons have been opened and Black Americans are no longer vulgarly overrepresented in them? Does it mean that public education has been eradicated? Does it mean that the ghettos of America are filled with all groups? Does it mean that Hurricane Katrina was a post-racial event?

If history is instructive, there is a potential scenario where race and racism will become more, not less salient if Obama is elected. Every major precedent in American race relations, has been followed by the rise of reactionary forces; after abolition ("southern redemption," Jim Crow, and lynching), after Jack Johnson (the Mann Act and lynching); after Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson (Jim Crow strengthened as status quo); after Brown v. Board of Education ("Southern Resistance" and lynching of Emmitt Till); after the "I Have A Dream" March on Washington (bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham); after the Civil Rights movement (race conservative backlash and the Reagan Revolution).

Whatever "post-racial" means, this ostensibly "new" state of things, where many whites are now "comfortable" voting for a "black candidate" for President has occurred in some people's minds despite the fact that African Americans organized a civil rights movement in order to vote for competing white male candidates, beginning two centuries ago. It is the absence of a complaint against the American state and society that has inspired his eighteen million, mostly liberal and moderate white Democratic supporters to vote for him since the Iowa Caucus. The absence of this complaint has made him, not a Jesse Jackson, not an Al Sharpton. And no single development facilitated this more than Jeremiah Wright's Black rage.

Nothing was more "anti-American" in the 1960s than for African Americans in search of an alternative national and spiritual identity to renounce their Christian names and to adopt African and Islamic names such as Kweisi, Kwame, Ahmad, Khadijah, Shabazz, Ayesha, Hakim, Muhammad Ali, Karim, Jamal, Amiri Baraka and so forth in protest. Barack Obama's very unWestern, UnAmerican given name would be a "political act" if he were a "traditional" African American whose ancestry was rooted in the long complaint against slavery and racism. More than the rest of us, Civil Rights and Black Power veterans must be shaking their heads over the possibility that the first African American major-party nominee and possible President, is named Barack Hussein Obama.

His name, no matter how odd or "funny," as he likes to call it, is forgivable because his story is not traceable to a Southern plantation as is the case of Michelle Obama and most American Black people. No doubt Colin, Condoleezza, Eldrick "Tiger" Woods, Oprah, and other uniquely named American Black people are able to achieve "success" and high social, political, and media status supported by the American white majority.

But their respective successes, (or even former UN Secretary General Secretary Kofi Anan's) are tempered by the fact that their achievements in comparison to what Obama is on the verge of, are relative to what the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the Secretary of State, the UN Secretary, a great golfer, or a billionaire talk-show host is to the Office of the President of the United States of America.

In fact, they are the default exceptions that demonstrate the rule. The point is not whether Black people with odd names can achieve success in America, it is about a legacy. It speaks to the fact that there is no "unfinished" racial business evident in Obama's story as there is in the humble, working-class origins of Michelle Obama's. She, more so than Barack Obama, embodies the very contested "racial contract" in America that Obama's book says "America had already begun to weary of over forty years ago." Barack Obama represents the new America, Michelle Obama represents segments of traditional Black America; she embodies an "unforgivable blackness."

Like most Americans, Obama has had his hardships growing up as he has said, "without a race," without a father, without a sense of community. Whatever personal alienation he may have felt growing up part African, part American, part abandoned by his African father, part Hawaiian, and part Kansan, no one in his ancestry was ever subject to the Supreme Court's Dred Scott ruling as were all Black people in the United States; none were subject to Jim Crow; and none lived in an American ghetto. But Michelle Obama on the other hand would be the first American with a slavery ancestry to occupy the White House; minus the slaveholding presidents.

That her comments, "for the first time in my adult lifetime, I am really proud of my country," could be used to question her patriotism by fraudulent blogs, cable news programs, and print media despite the fact that the adverb "really" actually heightens her sense of pre-existent pride in the country, is made possible in a place where Black Americans' patriotism has been trumped by the very fact of their blackness. Michelle Obama represents parts of Black America in ways that Obama cannot; and that is her original political sin. If Obama's Black "half" is forgivable, his better half Michelle's is not.

— James Lance Taylor

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