It’s been a long time since I replicated my family’s childhood tradition of sitting up late, eating salty snacks, and watching the Democratic National Convention. But we did it last night, and so I heard Michelle Obama’s speech in real time. There were things in it that should have rubbed me the wrong way: I’m a woman, so I’m going to be all about motherhood and the kids; our forefathers… greatness… greatest country… But nevertheless, she knocked it out of the park.
The annotations sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom (known to Twitter as Tressie McPhD) provided clarified for me how that happened. Some of it was necessary political rhetoric (the “our forefathers” line being a bell that has to be rung, and I’m with Tressie – “I hate that bell.”) Some of it was shrewd knitting together of a raveled party by using stepping stones from being a proud but worried parent to electing the first black president to electing the first woman president. Some of it was just blunt, hard, but inspiring truth, bringing back the tears I shed the day Obama was elected.
When Trump refers to greatness, he’s referring the power of a country that used enslaved people to build the house he wants to live in. He wants a return ticket to that past. When Michelle Obama tells us about greatness, it’s the greatness we can achieve if we stop equating America with wealth and white folks.This moment in the speech (plus the earlier mention of police and Black Lives Matter in Dallas working to make the kids safe) is what rang my bell in a way that can never be unrung.
That is the story of this country, the story that has brought me to this stage tonight, the story of generations of people who felt the lash of bondage, the shame of servitude, the sting of segregation, but who kept on striving and hoping and doing what needed to be done so that today I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves.
And I watch my daughters, two beautiful, intelligent, black young women playing with their dogs on the White House lawn.
I can’t improve on Cottom’s analysis, so here it is:
This is a dig at Donald’s nihilism the other night. But it is also saying, hey, there is no great american past. Remember, Obama had just referenced slavery a paragraph earlier. She’s making an elegant case that any allusion to the past is necessarily one that is closer to slavery. We are great now, she says, because we are at least greater than that. It is the idea that for black Americans, this country’s best days are always necessarily yet to come. It’s a stark contrast to the idea that America was only great when, as historian Ira Katznelson said, “affirmative action was white”.
It’s disappointing that we can’t have the kind of barn-burning change that the success of Bernie Sander’s campaign suggested was possible right now, that to avoid catastrophe we have to vote for someone who is firmly grounded in the kind of liberalism that screwed so many people. But getting to that other world will take work, long hard work. Conservatives have done that work in school boards and statehouses and in secret rooms where copy-paste legislation is written. This is ironic, considering the party of “small government” is so much better at manipulating government levers than those who don’t automatically think public servants are trash. We have to get better at organizing while dodging the kind of cynicism and exhaustion that comes with seeing the problems so clearly. Black Lives Matter is working on it. The rest of us need to get to work, too.
Change is hard and rage won’t get us there. Rage is the power-source for Donald Trump’s engine and it will get us somewhere we don’t want to be. If those girls can live in that house built by slaves, can we make this country that began with native genocide and slavery-based prosperity the home we want to live in? I have to hope we can.