2. Change You Can’t Believe In
I was drawn to Barack just as much as the next hopeful, anti-war, down with poverty, eco-chic, anti-Bushite.
But in many ways, I was drawn to Michelle even more.
Her story was my story, just written about fifteen, to twenty years earlier. She was, like me, a child of American slavery. Her folks were from the South Side of Chicago. My folks were from Tennessee. She went from the colorful comfort of an insulated black community to the often toxic quarters of the Northeast’s most prestigious centers of higher learning. Michelle toiled at Princeton, and then Harvard, all the while wondering how much she’d really have to pay, in psychic and emotional currency, to these institutions.
I traveled from Oakland, California to Brunswick, Maine. I could count all the black folks in my graduating class at Bowdoin on my left hand, plus two fingers from my right. It wasn’t until graduate school that I’d encounter this beautiful thing called “women of color,” in academe. But by then, the “damage” had been done and the sense of isolation already imposed. I was no longer “at home” when I went back to East Oakland. And I certainly wasn’t “at home” in the white-male run history, politics and philosophy departments that intrigued me so much. So when I saw Michelle, when I read about Michelle, when I experienced this regal, beautifully brown, compassionate and intelligent black woman who lived in the very interstices I feared would swallow me whole, I thought, yes, she must be my First Lady.
How seductive a reprieve from invisibility can be, no?
Like my friends, all of whom considered themselves so left of the left as to not really be party to American political discourse, I was secretly ambivalent about the Obama campaign but didn’t dare say so in public. I made a quick trip to Borders and bought The Audacity of Hope, just to make sure I was frowning at Obama for all the right reasons. Sure enough, his basic acceptance of American ideology and the essential legitimacy of capitalism were red flags – harbingers of more shitiness to come.
But, he was handsome as hell, with a beautiful smile and a wife I thought I could talk to, and kids I wouldn’t mind babysitting. For the first time my desire for a personal relationship with a political family interrupted the neatness of my political critique. They felt like folks I knew: Michelle and Barack were my aunt and uncle from Chicago, Sasha and Malia my little cousins. Ambivalence was the best I could do. Well, that and a clear rejection of the idiocy and self-righteous mediocrity of the McPalin’s.
With that I stood in a long, jubilant line at the Alameda County Courthouse to cast my ballot for Barack, Michelle, Sasha and Malia a day before the election. I was excited, proud and worried all at once. How would colored folks respond when they began to see that the game Barack was playing didn’t have liberation in the playbook? When would they understand that the middle class for whome he sought relief didn’t include them? And when would we figure out that Dr. King and Barack Obama are not really one and the same? The MLK I admire was anti-war in contrast to Barack’s increasing pro-force position. The MLK I love saw capitalism, and its necessary motor: rampant poverty, as the overarching problem, within which racism was a crucial organizing princple. The Barry O we’ve come to know doesn’t have much of a problem with capitalism as such, he just dislikes golden parachutes and excessive rewards for the wealthy. He gets that racism is a problem at the structural level, but his very presence in Washington is fodder for the multicultural machine.
Much to my dismay, the First Family – our Cliff and Claire Huxtable for the 21st century – is the apotheosis of the new liberal multiculturalism. Where the Bush II Administration left off, fudging the lines of race and gender to such an extent that some believed the glass ceilings were breaking, the forthcoming Obama Administration will complete the job, with glass shards in toe.
But why be dismayed?
Simple: from my perspective getting beyond the proverbial “glass ceiling” means gaining entrance to the coveted “Family of Man,” (qua human) a family heretofore characterized by whiteness, heterosexuality and maleness. The mere presence of people of color and women within that space doesn’t reconfigure what it means to human as such, it simply means more people can be “human” on narrowly conceived terms. Such conditions ought to compel us to ask: “Where’s the Change We’re Supposed to Believe In?”