Maybe you remember when Michelle Obama was scary.
Surely you do; it was just a few months ago. A fire-snorting amalgam of Angela Davis and Sister Souljah she was, a militant, terrorist fist-bumping sister girl whose hatred of America was exceeded only by her hatred of “whitey.” Or so we were told.
If you remember all that, then perhaps you are as amused as I am by the transformation of perception that has since taken place, culminating in last week’s triumphant visit to Great Britain where the famously formal queen (“whitey” doesn’t come any whiter than that) stunned royal watchers by putting an arm around the first lady. But why should her majesty be any different from anyone else? Seems like everybody has embraced Michelle Obama.
Pollsters tell us she is more popular than her very popular husband. You cannot pass a magazine stand without seeing her smile. Women are gushing over her toned arms and elegant fashion sense and she’s being called this era’s Jacqueline Kennedy. Then there’s that whole thing of Elizabeth II throwing an arm around her like they were sorority sisters or something, leaving the British, with their arcane protocol governing every interaction with their monarch down to and including how many times one may blink in her direction, well and truly gobsmacked.
And you wonder how it is any anyone ever thought this woman was scary.
That goes back to the campaign, of course, which in one sense was like every campaign from the beginning of time. In whispered innuendo and shouted accusation, candidates always struggle to define one another, to stamp the opponent with some quality repellent to voters. They said McCain was too old, Edwards too pretty, Kerry too effete, Bush too dumb.
And they said Obama was too black, by which they meant something alien to the American experience.
That’s absurd, of course: to be even rudimentarily versed in American history and identity is to understand that black is central thereto. But then, few of us are even rudimentarily versed in American history, so the effort, prosecuted by Fox News, the Hillary Clinton campaign, the McCain campaign, certain pundits and a shadowy network of extremist bloggers, proceeded with fascinating shamelessness.
With the exception of the bloggers, the word “black” was seldom used derogatorily. Rather, the language was carefully coded, the objections cautiously couched: a manufactured controversy over the candidate’s place of birth; talismanic repetitions of his middle name; charges that his color gave him an unfair advantage; specious claims that he refused to salute the flag or that his wife hated “whitey” or that both hated America. Coded language, and yet it was understood well enough that people yelled out racial slurs at a Sarah Palin rally.
Every politician, Obama included, seeks to paint the opposition in repellent terms. But to use the raw wounds of race and culture toward that end was shameful and potentially dangerous. To its credit, the electorate rejected those appeals to its basest nature.
And now, just months later, with Obama going about the business of being president and his wife being embraced by the queen, it all feels like a faded and faintly embarrassing memory, an artifact from some far distant time. One is reminded that to be African-American is inevitably to find yourself defined by other people’s distortions and fears and that the work of a lifetime is to make them see you — not the you that they’ve been told, but the you that you are, standing there.
Consider Michelle Obama. Six months ago, she was terrifying. Now she is beloved. If you’re wondering how that happened, I can only say this: It was not she who changed.
— Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald. He chats with readers from noon to 1 p.m. CDT each Wednesday on www.MiamiHerald.com.