NPR logo DNC Day 2: Will America Accept First Lady Michelle?

Conventional Wisdom

DNC Day 2: Will America Accept First Lady Michelle?

Conventional Wisdom

Author and Columbia University professor Farah Jasmine Griffin shares her thoughts on Michelle Obama's DNC address last night. She writes, in part, "It is Michelle's blackness that has deeply disturbed many Americans and much of the press, and it is that same blackness that has endeared her to many, but not all, black Americans." Read and respond.

Farah Griffin

By the time Michelle Obama — the woman who many hope will be America's next First Lady — took center stage, the Pepsi Stadium was electric with anticipation. We'd just watched a well-produced video, South Side Girl, documenting her "American" story.

It was followed by her brother's loving introduction. Watching her, resplendent in teal, perfectly made up and coifed, I wondered, "What will it take for Americans to love this woman?" Surrounded by tall placards with her name in bold white print, I thought "What will the pundits make of her performance?" I had no doubt she would be elegant, beautiful, intelligent and graceful. She always is. I wasn't concerned that she might slip up and speak a basic truth about our deeply flawed nation. She has learned her lesson and there are now handlers to assure that she makes no such slips.

It is Michelle's blackness that has deeply disturbed many Americans and much of the press, and it is that same blackness that has endeared her to many, but not all, black Americans. For those of us who share her race, gender and generation, the negative reaction she has inspired is stunning. As with Michelle, we are the daughters of hard working, even struggling, parents.

We are the daughters who were constantly told that we mustn't ever fit the stereotypes "they" have of us. We were raised to take advantage of the opportunities created for us by the Civil Rights Movement (and though rarely acknowledged, by the Feminist Movement as well). We grew up in black communities that were proud of us.

And, when we went off to predominantly white, elite colleges and universities it was with the reminder that we must do better than well, and that we dare not forget those we left behind. Why are black women like Michelle Obama, black women who have been educated alongside and worked with white Americans as equals, so unfamiliar to so many Americans?

Unlike Oprah, a billionaire media mogul who serves as a spiritual mother to millions of American women, Michelle is mother only to her own precious daughters. An accomplished professional, a devoted mother, sister, wife, daughter and friend, Michelle Obama is like countless other American women and yet many white Americans have found it impossible to see themselves or their aspirations in her.

Maybe it is because they cannot imagine her as First Lady. "Lady" is not a designation easily bestowed upon black women. In fact, it is an identity that we have had to fiercely fight for. In an effort to leave behind a legacy of forced labor and forced sex, formerly enslaved women valued ladylike behavior and instilled it in their daughters as if that alone would save the race.

However, in both legal and popular discourses, the privileges of ladyhood were reserved for white females. Many white Americans are comfortable with fictions of welfare and quota queens. Unfortunately a younger generation, encouraged by irresponsible artists and greedy corporate conglomerates, have also grown comfortable with "video hoes." But are Americans ready to bestow that designation — Lady, First Lady — on a black woman? And, at what price?

Last night, Michelle Obama was all that one would have expected of her. She was articulate and empathetic. She was patriotic and visionary. She stressed the importance of education without emphasizing her own educational pedigree. She was elegantly dressed, replete with portrait collar and flattering 3/4-length sleeves. Her hair was "appropriately" straight. She acknowledged her debt to past struggles for social justice, both those for racial equality and gender equality. She was magnanimous towards Hilary Clinton. She was not threatening or loud. She did not raise an eyebrow. She painted a vision of a glowing future led by her husband. And she gave Americans a picture of themselves as a people striving together toward a better tomorrow. She gave no specific policy points (Americans tend not to like that in their first ladies) nor did she acknowledge any ongoing racial tensions. She was soft and feminine.

By the end of her speech when she was joined on stage by her daughters and the stadium erupted in thunderous applause, my heart was full but my mind was still aflutter with questions:
Did she successfully do what the campaign wanted her to do? Will working class white Americans feel any closer to her and, by extension, to her husband? Will middle-class white professional women and stay-at home moms see themselves in her? Will self conscious (and a few self-hating) black Americans think she represented the race well?

I can almost say with certainty that elderly black women, the church and neighborhood mothers, were indeed proud. And the rest of us who have loved her from day one can only pray for her protection, her safety and her sanity on this mad journey.



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Can you imagine if Michelle Obama had an issue with drugs and lying like Cindy McCain? Michelle Obama has succeeded despite racism. I have read blogs where white males have attacked her as a woman with disparaging remarks. The remarks are baseless and words they would never use in the presence of their mothers. The only white that seem upset with Michelle are the ones who are not a success at life. All those entitlements and still a failure must hurt. lol

Sent by Kipersting | 12:23 PM | 8-26-2008

Letter to the Delegates
by M. D. Friedman
( )

We want America back!
We want America to follow the American Dream.
No more poor fighting rich men's wars.
If someone really must go, send the big CEO's.
Then leave them there. They'll find someone to bring them coffee.

We don't care about the Iranian bomb.
Too many have died in the crusade
against weapons of mass destruction.

We are not worried about a terrorist
following us home like a rabid dog.
We are not afraid of your boogie man bombers.

We only fear our mistakes,
we're afraid the bombs we have dropped on babies
will hail back down on us like smoking guns.

We want to fight the good war,
the war against stupidity and cruelty.
There is never a justification for torture.

We want America back!
We want to see Obama face off McCain
in a nationally televised slam.
We want gays to run the military
and a lesbian marriage on the White House lawn.

We want to build homes for the homeless
that have not been marinated in formaldehyde,
to help disaster victims even if they are not rich and white.

We don't want to hear people saying someone half black is racist,
when it's the one that's all white we should worry about.
What does George's "W." really stand for anyway?

We want America back! (We want it all back.)
We want our jobs to realize
we work to live not live to work.
We need time to play, and our kids
need time to just be kids.

We want it make it hard to get married and easy to get divorced.
We want to make blind patriotism illegal
and to legalize marijuana.

We want good music in the groceries stores
and art on the walls of Walmart.
We want a national holiday for Allen Ginsberg's birthday.

We want schools that are not
brain numbing factories
where our kids can learn what they care about.

We want to pay our teachers like baseball players.
We want to give awards to parents
who both speak and listen to their teenagers.

We want free college and healthcare.
We want hospitals
that treat humans not just disease.

We want to retire early and securely.
We want Jimi Hendrix music
in our Senior Centers.

We want America back!
We want to live in community.
We want to understand and respect
our neighbors across the street
and all across the globe.

We want to tear down the walls on our border
and welcome the hard working immigrants
that have always made America great.

We want to learn new languages,
embrace new cultures
and be seen as a partner not a bully.

We want to feed the hungry
no matter where they live
or what color they are.

We believe in human rights
for all people
even if they don't have oil.
We want America back!
We want all Exxon employees to walk to work,
Clear channel to never play the same song twice,
Procter & Gamble to worry more about cancer than profit,
General Mills to make their food sacred.

Take the money we pay farmers not to plant
and help them to learn sustainable farming
with respect for the earth.

We want to let the trees grow
and give land back to the animals.
We want our Native Americans to manage our national forests.

We don't want to drill the last of our wilderness.
We want the power of the wind
and the sun and the oceans.

We want rivers we can drink out of
and cities we can walk in.
We want one rider SUVs banned from all public highways.

We want the oil companies to give back
the money they are stealing from us.
We want electric cars not tax rebates.

We want America back! (We want it all back.)
We want a real democracy,
where voters pick the candidates.
We want to elect our president
by national popular vote.

Ban all campaign ads.
Use the money to register more voters,
to run more candidates.

We need a president who leads
with hope instead of fear,
who can speak the truth

in complete sentences
and can pronounce words
longer than one syllable.

We need a president that understands we want America back!

Sent by M. D. Friedman | 12:27 PM | 8-26-2008

Fannie Lou Hamer, Shirley Chisolm, Barbara Jordan, and Carol Mosely-Braun (just to name a few) have all walked this road before. Michelle Obama is not the 1st and won't be the last African American Woman trailblazer in American politics.

Sent by Bill M | 1:52 PM | 8-26-2008

Michele Obama made a comment early on in the campaign ("For the first time in my life...") that appears to have framed the voting collectives' idea of what she's like as a person.
Alternatively, Former President Clinton made comments during the Primary that many thought bordered on racist. I'm not suggesting that Former President Clinton is a racist. In fact, there is nothing in his history, that I have read, that would make me believe that he may be racist. However, he was forgiven for his words/comments and the nation appears to have moved on.
Michele Obama has learned the hard way that there are statements you cannot make when your spouse is seeking the highest office in the nation.
Its not that she is not smart. Not very many slouches matriculate into Harvard law. However, this is new territory for her. Never before have people held onto every word that comes out of her mouth. Many may want her to make comments that may be viewed as "disloyal" or "ungrateful" so that these words can be attributed to her husband and his aspiration to the Presidency.
Can this country warm up to a black, female, Harvard lawyer from the south side of Chicago. You bet! Will Michele have her detractors on both sides of the aisle? Certainly. Will blacks, whites, brown people and yellow throw shade because of her education and demeanor? Yep. It goes with the territory. Haters never tire.
Bottom-line, Michele has what it takes to represent this country on the biggest stage. She's as smart (probably smarter) as any other first lady. She just needs to be given a chance to do some on the job training. Given the chance, I am confident we as a nation can learn to appreciate her for all of the great qualities she brings to the table.

Sent by Jerry | 2:00 PM | 8-26-2008

mr fiedman maybe you want that but most of us don't time will tell

Sent by john bechman | 3:02 PM | 8-26-2008

I guess it is because I'm a black woman that I found it very easy to give Michelle Obama a thumbs up from day one -- but then again what's not to love. She is obviously intelligent and accomplished, but not boastful. Everything she has, she has worked (hard) for; the life she has was not handed to her on a silver platter. She has a natural beauty that everyone can relate to.
However, I was disappointed in her speech last night. She blew the perfect opportunity to win over the rest of America that cannot relate to her the way I can. I thought the touching film, narrated by her mother, put to rest these unjust bourgeoisie/out-of-touch with the commoners rumors, which began with the Clinton campaign (causing me to switch my support to the Obama camp) and further perpetrated by the McCain campaign. Her brother's introduction basically reiterated the central points made in the film. Needless to say, I was let down when Michelle used this precious moment to, once again, hammer the non-substantive point that she is a working class girls who's done good. Instead, of this redundancy, Michelle should have used this platform to illustrate what she will do as First Lady. Will she encourage kids to 'just say no' like Nancy Regan, or fight for universal health care, like Hillary Clinton. I think a personal platform utilizing her education, skills, and background would have more endearing than -- dare I say -- rhetoric.
-Former student of Prof. Farah Griffin

Sent by Loy | 3:12 PM | 8-26-2008

I really enjoyed your post Dr. Griffin. It is interesting and understandable at the same time that a subset of White America feel that they do not "know" Michelle Obama. On CNN after the speech, one commentator remarked that Americans don't feel like they "know" Michelle Obama. As a psychologist-in-training that studies racial microaggressions, I read between the lines and saw that the America he was referring to was White America. The larger issue is that a subset of Caucasians don't know or understand the Black experience. By proxy, they don't understand Michelle Obama. God giveth more grace, it's not the first time that they haven't understood and it won't be the last. Thankfully, we've never needed their understanding to break through barriers and shine.

Sent by Erika M | 3:55 PM | 8-26-2008

That oft quoted statement by Michelle Obama continues to be misquoted: she said "for the first time my ADULT life, I am proud of my country." One must remember that, being a relatively young woman, her adult life began only about 25 years ago, making it about 1980. And what has happened in America since 1980? Well, lets' see: how about the Iran-Contra scandal, the growth of greed as a creed, a horrendous trade imbalance and national debt, the current Iraq "war", the United States military now sanctions torture, NAFTA, stolen elections, abuse of immigrants, the denigration of labor unions, the shame of the Katrina response, 9-11 and Muslim bashing, a presidential sex scandal that illustrated a personal weakness not a dereliction of duty to his office, several mass murders at public schools and universities, a declining middle class, millions without any access to health care, growing numbers of homeless people brought on primarily by medical debt, unprecedented numbers of home foreclosures, growing unemployment, squalid conditions in V.A. hospitals, and the lsit goes on and on. I'm with Michelle--there isn't much to be proud of except millions of people inspired by her husband and willing to set aside old, racist attitudes and truly judge him by the content of his character and not the color of his skin. She made that remark in the context of that realization and I think she had a point. I'm a middle aged white woman who by all demographic data should have been supporting Hillary Clinton, but I noticed Barack Obama back in 1984, was intrigued by him, bought his books and actually read them both and have been supportive of his candidacy ever since. I think Michelle Obama is destined to be a magnificent First Lady--strong, passionate, intelligent, well-educated, honest, practical, humble, and beautifully elegant. Those are qualities I admire in any person. For heaven's sake, stop the petty criticisms and see her for the person she really is. She represents the best of what America has to offer and she deserves no less than our collective respect.

Sent by S. Ferguson | 3:59 PM | 8-26-2008

THE pros and cons of Michelle Obama,is not personal(at least should not be).
But this is an Ivory Leauge elite professional who husband seek the most powerful position in the world, yet she is above people critical viewpoint.

Sent by jerry a. Myers | 4:17 PM | 8-26-2008

I have nothing but respect for Michelle Obama. You don't accomplish what she has without hard work, drive, intellect, and self-discipline. And I don't have to be black or have working class roots to get that.

But it distresses me that she's being called on to play this "helpmeet" role. The way we require our political leaders to parade their family life and their personal lives makes me ill. I understand why Ms. Obama had to do this; why her two lovely daughters had to be there with her; why they all had to perform this script and say "I love you" on cue. But this kind of thing makes my skin crawl almost as much as the way Joe Biden's dead wife and daughter get trotted out to illustrate his "personal journey." I hope they manage to preserve some crumb of privacy and intimacy as a family -- even in the White House.

Sent by janet | 4:35 PM | 8-26-2008

Excellent synopsis Dr. Griffin. As I watched the MSNBC coverage with Matthews, Obermman, and Buchannan I could not help but feel sorry for Buchannan as he referred to Michelle Obamba as "gal" obviously unable to allow his hardened heart to refer to her as simply Michelle Obama. I am sure he and othes like him were seething with indignation. How truly small they are...

Sent by Shirley C | 5:18 PM | 8-26-2008

I am a 60-year-old white woman, liberal from birth. I listened to Michelle Obama last night. She was so perfectly cast and scripted to "fit" with "everyone's ideal" of a first lady should be. I wanted to go through the screen and shake her and say, "Michelle, you are awesome, so just be real and be yourself." Yes, you are a wife, mother, daughter, but you are also an awesome lawyer, non-profit professional, teacher, community-minded person who has a lot to offer this nation. Please DO NOT have a "cookie baking" moment, just share your talents with this nation that needs you and your wonderful husband. Both of you are leaders that have vision. Do not let the handlers squeeze that out of you." You will be a wonderful First Lady in the genre of Eleanor Roosevelt. Step into the role and do not let anyone intimidate you from it!

Sent by Carlynn | 6:21 PM | 8-26-2008

Watching Mrs. Obama was electrifying and promising.. I only hope that middle american can recognize the change that the world needs.. The clinton's changed the country.. The obama's have changed the world... Are we ready? I know I am.. I hope everyone get's on board and does their part as an American. Vote for Obama people.. I don't think you want another four years with Bush posing as MCCAIN

Sent by Sinaa Greene | 8:31 PM | 8-26-2008

There is NOTHING wrong with Michelle and I won't entertain the question of is she 'qualified' whatever that means or will America accept her.

Carlynn and Loy (at the end) both right on.

Unfortunately,The anti-intellectual dumbing down of EVERYTHING so as not to offend insecure, ignorant & one dimensional fossils like Joe six pack means that America isn't ready for high-level discourse at a time when we REALLY need to be.

That's why simplistic NEGATIVE campaigns work, because we are not an evolved culture.

America looks to the future through a mirror.

Sent by Jon J | 9:03 PM | 8-26-2008

I believe that Michelle's speech was scripted to appeal to as many people as possible. Most idiots (oops, I mean People..) would be intimidated if she did not come off as feminine, and as white-looking as possible.
She will be more free to 'be herself' after she is in the white house.
I am a white female, in my 50's.
We need Obama to turn this country around!

Sent by Donna | 11:54 PM | 8-26-2008

Interesting comments thus far...what America is seeing is politics play out in a very deliberate manner. Running for President is not for the weak. We will look at this time in history and marvel at the work that America has accomplished, but also be overwhelmed with what is left to do. A Black woman as the "First Lady" is new for all as is a Black male President.

One only has to look back and see Hillary as first lady and know that she was shaped as well, but look at her now. Don't women always adopt a role. Sometimes men adopt the role as well. The fact is American's aren't real fond of reality we are a country founded on ideals. What is the ideal woman or for that matter ideal "Black" woman? That script is continually changing.

Michelle has known for some time what she would have to do for Barack to be President. Barack refers to her as his rock because in many ways he needs this type of woman to be the man he must be. Marriage is a partnership with negotiated give and take. I was proud of Michelle Obama and I was proud of what she has accomplished! I believe Michelle and her girls know that they are part of something larger than themselves. You can script moments, but the real experience plays out in larger context. Did you see Sasha's eyes as she came on stage? I think a 7 year old's wonder at the moment was the most honest part of the evening. Children can not be scripted as much as adults. I believe that her I love you's and insistence on talking to her daddy were real. The Obamas are a loving family this can not be scripted and will not change.

Sent by C. LeAnn | 3:18 AM | 8-27-2008

I am a black woman, I like Michelle Obama. So many black and white women at like her. We often discuss something there.

Sent by sally | 5:02 AM | 8-27-2008

Michelle Obama's speech was a carefully orchestrated attempt to portray her as "less black", less intelligent, and less opinionated than she probably is. This is not surprising in the slightest but is still a powerful example of some of the most saddening aspects of America and American politics, such as rampant, if sometimes subtle (to white people) racism (and sexism), the political ignorance of many Americans (e.g., that transparent advertising-type tactics are more moving to most people than is their own daily experience or an even slightly thoughtful reflection on the welfare of themselves, their families and friends, and their fellow humans), etc. I didn't find Michelle Obama's speech to be a negative reflection of her, but of ourselves, and of the corporate powers that rule our world and constantly mold our thinking through the media they own. I'm sure the Obamas will do a great job, at least relative to what the Republicans have and will continue to do. Unfortunately, I wonder if anyone who could actually have a chance of winning the presidency will actually have the desire and power to take our country back from the transnational corporations (rather than taking huge amounts of money from them) and begin to make the changes needed to keep America and our civilization from crumbling under the weight of overpopulation, global climate change, war, famine, and all the other heavy problems currently faced by our world. There will be a time when even "simple people" will have to wake up and work to make these changes themselves (e.g., by turning off the TV, putting solar panels on their houses, riding their bikes or plug-in cars to work, fostering a multi-party political system in America, and working in at least small ways to help other beings on this planet).

Sent by D | 8:32 AM | 8-27-2008

The fact is that although much has changed - much has not. Minorities and women continue to endure double-standards when it comes to being evaluated by the majority community. 'We have to do twice as well to be even marginally considered "as good." As Kipersting noted in the first post 'Can you imagine if Michelle Obama had an issue with drugs and lying like Cindy McCain?' Or what if she had accidentally killed another teenage driver at age 17 as did current First Lady Laura Bush managed in 1963? For that matter - how harshly would Senator Obama be criticized if he had been involved in the Savings and Loan scandals of the 80s and 90's that caused the collapse of 747 banking institutions nationwide and cost the taxpayers 125 billion? Allow me to answer - the media would have savaged either of the Obama's and we wouldn't be having this conversation. The only reason that we are in fact having this conversation is that both Obamas have done a remarkably good job of avoiding imprpriety and scandal - even the accidental ones. Are they perfect? Not by far....but they both are much better suited for the job and position than any of the other competition on either side of the aisle. If largely white voting block that will determine the outcome of this election fails once again to put the best interests of the country ahead of partisanship and race - then we all will certainly continue to pay dearly for their shortsightedness.

Sent by Whole9 | 9:32 AM | 8-27-2008

Comparing her fine speech to that of Hillary Clinton's fine speech the next night, I'm sure Michelle Obama would have loved to call the roll of other black sheroes and heroes who have paved the way for her and her husband, but she would have been seen skewered and lampooned as a black nationalist whose only concern is with black people and black issues!

Too bad Michelle Obama had to use class to make herself palatable to and draw a connection with the rest of America.

Too bad she could not mention race, nor call up the example of any black women forerunners (other than her mother) when she addressed the convention the other night.

Sent by rjweems | 11:10 AM | 8-27-2008

It is my opinion that Michelle Obama possesses all the poise and intellect required to back her husband as he prepares for the election and ultimately, the presidency. The controversy surrounding the Obamas is a mere distraction from the real issues that plague our country. Certainly if anyone should doubt the Obamas' patriotism, simply listen to their story-it is the quintessential American dream.

Sent by Julie | 4:29 PM | 8-27-2008

The reality of such disparaging remarks about this remarkable woman prompts the voice of our ancestor (Black American Woman) Sojourner Truth passionately inquiring, "Ain't I a Woman?"

Sent by RevSisRaedorah | 10:32 PM | 8-27-2008

Yes, Michelle Obama will make a very Lovely First Lady. She's achieved in her career, also she's an excellent Mother and wife. She gives all her time in supporting in assisting her Husband in his Political Career. I pray that Sen. Barak Obama wins the office of President of United States of America. Our Country needs Mr. Obama to bring us out of this situation our country is in.
Michelle keep your FAITH and TRUST in
JESUS CHRIST and he will see you through the JOURNEY that GOD has for you and your Husband, and MOST of all your Children."The Best Is Yet To Come"

Sent by Sheila L. Palmer | 10:08 PM | 8-29-2008