The great Toni Morrison once said in an interview that whenever she bumped up against some incident of racial exclusion or insult as a child, her father would shield his daughter’s tender heart by reminding her, “You don’t live in that neighborhood. That is not your home.”
When Michelle Obama takes the stage as the keynote speaker at the Democratic National Convention tonight, I will think of those words, which pierced me when first I read them. Because of all the remarkable things about this remarkable woman who may become our first lady, what seems most remarkable to me is that Michelle Obama clearly lives in no one’s neighborhood but her own.
I’m not suggesting that this is a new or singular accomplishment. Zora Neale Hurston had the same kind of vibe going on, and that was decades ago. Hurston, like Obama, was entirely her own woman, utterly herself. She wrote, famously, “Sometimes, I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company?”
I, myself, know legions of beautiful black women who stand secure and confident in who they are and what they bring to the world. But for most of us, such self-possession is an accomplishment, one very few arrived at easily or overnight.
Oprah Winfrey is a shrewd business woman and the most powerful person in American media, but we’ve all had to witness her hard uphill climb to selfhood (and beyond). Halle Berry’s formerly fragile and emotional self was painfully documented in the tabloid press. A few months back, I watched a documentary about the peerless Ella Fitzgerald which suggested this great singer remained shy and self-conscious about her appearance well into her career. And she always, always yearned for love.
For some of the most amazing black women I know, it took hard and conscious work to fight through both external and internalized obstacles and find their way back to the neighborhood. As James Baldwin put it, “You know, it’s not the world that was my oppressor, because what the world does to you, if the world does it to you long enough and effectively enough, you begin to do to yourself.”
Michelle Obama, on the other hand, seems never to have left her home. Her sense of self comes across as being as natural a part of her as her beautiful skin or her bold and funky walk. It is a birthright, immutable and clear. For a woman—especially a black woman, especially a black woman who did not grow up clutching either the silver spoon of wealth and privilege, or the silver spoon of a normative kind of beauty—to possess such an unshakable sense of self is, as my grandmother would say, something! It is also something not often seen in America. Which is precisely the reason Michelle Obama has sparked the reactions that she has.
That Barack Obama is so clearly a man in full has been explained, variously, as the result of his biracial heritage, his direct African connection, his distance from the “bitterness” of regular black folks or his international upbringing.
But Michelle possesses none of those elements; she is not the exotic that her husband can sometimes be made out to be. She is deeply, fully, indisputably rooted in the African-American experience that, for so many, can be a weight. How do we explain her? I do not know.