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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 | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Speaking The Truth”: Michelle Obama Is Accused Of “Playing The Race Card.” Let’s Check It Out

One of the conservative’s favorite tools for blaming racial polarization on the current occupants of the White House is to accuse them of “playing the race card.” It happens every time one of them mentions racism as a factor in our country.

Usually the signal to noise ratio around such remarks by the President is so loud, it is difficult to unpack it all with much clarity. But recently some right wing publications accused First Lady Michelle Obama of “playing the race card” in her remarks at the opening of the Whitney Museum. It was a fairly quiet event, so let’s take a look and see what we can learn about how this kind of thing happens.

Here’s the quote from the First Lady’s remarks that they zero in on:

You see, there are so many kids in this country who look at places like museums and concert halls and other cultural centers and they think to themselves, well, that’s not a place for me, for someone who looks like me, for someone who comes from my neighborhood. In fact, I guarantee you that right now, there are kids living less than a mile from here who would never in a million years dream that they would be welcome in this museum.

And growing up on the South Side of Chicago, I was one of those kids myself. So I know that feeling of not belonging in a place like this. And today, as first lady, I know how that feeling limits the horizons of far too many of our young people.

That’s it. According to these folks, that’s “playing the race card.” It boggles the mind, doesn’t it? If anyone had any doubts that First Lady Michelle was speaking the truth, all you’d have to do is visit a local museum and count the number of young people (much less young people of color) who are there.

We know that many of the people who read the site I linked to up above will simply see what they wrote and buy that Michelle Obama is trying to stir up racial discord. That’s because it confirms what they already believe about her.

But of course, that’s not all she said. It turns out that the Whitney Museum’s current exhibit is titled, America Is Hard to See. Here’s how it’s described on their web site:

The title, America Is Hard to See, comes from a poem by Robert Frost and a political documentary by Emile de Antonio. Metaphorically, the title seeks to celebrate the ever-changing perspectives of artists and their capacity to develop visual forms that respond to the culture of the United States. It also underscores the difficulty of neatly defining the country’s ethos and inhabitants, a challenge that lies at the heart of the Museum’s commitment to and continually evolving understanding of American art.

As it turns out, Michelle was reacting to the fact that the current exhibit explores our complex cultural roots in this country. The museum is making a concerted effort to reach out to young people from all backgrounds to engage them in answering the question: “How can we truly, fully witness the melting pot of cultures and sensibilities and struggles that make America unlike any other country on earth?” That is the context for the remarks quoted above.

It’s also important to know what the First Lady said next.

You’re telling them [young people] that their story is part of the American story, and that they deserve to be seen. And you’re sending that message not just with the art you display, but with the educational programming you run here. You’re reaching out to kids from all backgrounds, exposing them to the arts, showing them that they have something to contribute.

What was a message from both the Whitney Museum and our First Lady about healing and reconciliation becomes twisted by these people into something ugly and divisive. That their anger and fear are so constraining that they miss out on the beauty of what is happening is actually rather sad.

 

By: Nancy LeTourneau, Political Animal Blog, The Washington Monthly, May 10, 2015

May 11, 2015 Posted by | Conservatives, FLOTUS, Racism | , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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