Bourgeois like me

Michelle Obama's ordinariness may be her most radical feature, argues Ta-Nehisi Coates.

Published January 15, 2009 4:42PM (EST)

"The first time I saw Michelle Obama in the flesh, I almost took her for white," writes Ta-Nehisi Coates in his essay on our soon-to-be-first lady at the Atlantic. It’s a statement that his own father has a few quibbles with. "This is a nearly six foot tall, strikingly black woman," says Paul Coates, former Black Panther and publisher of Black Classics Press, in a podcast on the Atlantic’s Web site. "How did you take her for white?"

In response, his son invokes Bill Cosby (on whom he wrote a striking essay in last May’s issue that is well worth reading), who once said: "African-Americans are the only people who do not have any good ol’ days." In contrast, Ta-Nehisi was struck by Obama’s comfort in waxing nostalgic for her youth, when a blue-collar worker like her father could support a family of four, including a stay-at-home mother on a single salary. He writes:

In all my years of watching black public figures, I’d never heard one recall such an idyllic youth ... For years the rule was that all our bios must play on a dream deferred, must offer a nod to dilapidated public housing and mothers scrubbing white women’s floors. But Obama waved off Richard Wright. Instead, the blues she sang was the ballad for the modern woman, casting her story not as an essay on the illusory nature of the American dream but as a rumination about our collective fall from motherhood, Chevrolet, and a chicken in every pot. I was waiting on slave narratives and oppression. I was looking for justice and the plight of the poor. Instead, I got homilies on the sainted place of women in American society.

While he is well aware that Obama, like any politician, does craft the stories she wishes to tell, Ta-Nehisi argues that part of her character was formed by having a comfortable middle-class childhood filled with board games and "The Brady Bunch," one in which her parents could "protect their kids from the street life, and also from direct, personal racism." Growing up in a mostly black middle-class neighborhood in the South Side of Chicago, he argues, gave her a "cocoon," which she only left upon going to school at Princeton:

For the legions of black people who grew up like Michelle Obama -- in a functioning, self-contained African American world -- racial identity recedes in the consciousness. You know you’re black, but in much the same way that white people know they are white. Since everyone else around you looks like you, you just take it as the norm, the standard, the unremarkable. Objectively, you know you’re in the minority, but that status hits home only when you walk out into the wider world and realize that, out there, you really are different.

So the “whiteness” Ta-Nehisi sees in Obama is mostly the comfort and confidence of one who is brought up to feel like one’s life represents the cultural norm. And, according to Michelle's mother, Marian Robinson, it's crucial to avoid labeling the Obamas as exceptional:

"I keep saying this: Michelle, Barack, and my son are not abnormal. All my relatives, all my friends, all their friends, all their parents, almost all of them have the same story. It’s just that their families aren’t running for president. It bothers me that people see [Michelle and Barack] as so phenomenal, because there’s so much of that in the black neighborhood. They went to the same schools we all did. They went through the same struggles."


By Amy Benfer

Amy Benfer is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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