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“In Defense Of ‘Uppity-ism'”: Michelle Obama, “Rise Above The Noise”; All Black Americans Should Take Her Advice

It became clear during the 2008 presidential campaign that America was going to have some real trouble handling the prospect of a black president of the United States and a black first lady. Despite hip-hop having defined much of pop culture since the 1980s, a fist bump was all of a sudden unfamiliar: Is it a salute or a “terrorist fist jab?” Cue the disingenuous shrugs.

Coded and blatant racial insults were everywhere during that election season and haven’t abated in the seven years since. Michelle Malkin, herself a woman of color, called Michelle Obama one of her husband Barack’s “cronies of color” in her 2009 book Culture of Corruption: Obama and His Team of Tax Cheats, Crooks, and Cronies. A Fox News Channel graphic colloquially insulted the married mother of two daughters, calling her “Obama’s baby mama.” Another slur came from conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh in 2011, when in the course of lying about the public paying for presidential vacations, he charged the first lady and family with “a little bit of uppity-ism.” There are, of course, many more vitriolic examples.

“Uppity,” translated from thinly-veiled racial code, is meant to describe a black person who doesn’t know her or his place. It is as paternalistic as it is racist, meant to convey that a black person is somehow lower, in need of guidance back to the subjugated existence that makes the dominant caste more comfortable. Heaven forbid one even consider her or himself an equal. Or superior!

It’s a word I’ve been called once to my face, a few times online, and likely more behind my back. Unlike “nigger,” I’ve always felt oddly affirmed by it. It’s a term of hatred, no doubt, but someone who thinks me “uppity” considers my very existence a threat. That’s a good thing. We are threats to them and their detestable worldview, and Michelle Obama’s life, perhaps even more so than Barack’s, is a testament to this.

The first lady reminded us of these insults and slights in a commencement speech on Saturday, all in the context of facing “pressure to live up to the legacy of those who came before you; pressure to meet the expectations of others”—a fitting message for the new graduates of the historically black Tuskegee University in Alabama, where the Tuskegee Airmen, famed black military pilots of World War II, were educated while they trained at nearby Moton Field.

“As potentially the first African American first lady, I was also the focus of another set of questions and speculations; conversations sometimes rooted in the fears and misperceptions of others,” she said during her speech. “Was I too loud, or too angry, or too emasculating? Or was I too soft, too much of a mom, not enough of a career woman?”

These sorts of questions are regularly hurled at women in America, of which the first lady is an avatar of sorts. They have a special appeal to sexists seeking to challenge the manhood of the president, a job that required the kind of fortitude and strength our culture has misguidedly sought to find in a pair of testicles. But given the entirety of Michelle Obama’s experience, we have to consider these narrowing notions in the context of race.

In an essay for The Root last September about the New York Times Arts review, historian Blair L.M. Kelley reminded how deeply rooted the stereotype of the angry, emasculating black woman is:

Beginning in the early 1830s, the first ‘black women’ American audiences saw on the American stage were minstrel ‘Negro wenches.’ Using burned cork and greasepaint to blacken their skin, white men in their performances as black men and women became wildly popular in the mid-19th century. White men used crude drag along with the burned cork to mark black women as grotesque, loudmouthed, masculine and undeserving of the protections afforded to white ‘ladies’ in American society.

Michelle Obama told the graduates how out here in the world that this sort of framing may seem small in the face of those denied a house or a job because of their race, and she’s right. But I’m glad she brought them up. (Frankly, I’m always happy to see a black person in the public sphere reflect black reality, as opposed to the white stories we’ve been forced to tell and celebrate for so long.) Microaggressions like this feed the systemic, more obvious incarnations of racial discrimination. And in that light, “uppity-ism,” as Limbaugh termed it, is worth claiming for our own and defending.

“Eventually,” she told the graduates, “I realized that if I wanted to keep my sanity and not let others define me, there was only one thing I could do and that was to have faith in God’s plan for me. I had to ignore all of the noise and be true to myself—and the rest would work itself out. So throughout this journey, I have learned to block everything out and focus on my truth.” The First Lady closed by urging the graduates to “rise above the noise,” a fitting metaphor for the Tuskegee crowd.

Being deemed “uppity” signifies a specific kind of arrogance to a predominantly white power structure. For that, I embrace the term. Not as how oppressors seek to define it, but for what it literally represents: a desire to prove yourself superior to an inherently racist society and above the category they would otherwise assign you.

I’m hardly the first to do so; former National League president and baseball player Bill White used the word as a title for his frank memoir four years ago. “It’s a person, especially someone of a different color, who says, ‘Hell no’ and stands his ground,” he told the Times. It’s a crude declaration of the power of black ambition and steadfastness. Those are things I’ll never look down upon.

 

By: Jamil Smith, The New Republic, May 11, 2015

May 12, 2015 - Posted by | Black Americans, FLOTUS, Michelle Obama | , , , , , , , ,

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