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A Metaphoric Short Circuit: On Michelle Obama’s Speech at the DNC

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Honestly, I was more blown away by Michelle Obama’s carpool karaoke appearance than by her speech at the opening of the Democratic National Convention on Monday night. Specially when she sings that Beyoncé song. Although that’s not the song one perhaps would have loved to hear her sing at this particular socio-political juncture, one could, by way of a metaphoric short circuit of sorts, sing the Formation lyrics into Single Ladies, while still singing along with the First Lady. That’s the part that really blew me away—acting as if she really was singing Formation inside White House grounds on television.

This is the part of her speech that was supposed to blow me away last night:

That is the story of this country, the story that has brought me to this stage tonight, the story of generations of people who felt the lash of bondage, the shame of servitude, the sting of segregation, but who kept on striving and hoping and doing what needed to be done so that today I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves.

And I watch my daughters, two beautiful, intelligent, black young women playing with their dogs on the White House lawn.

And because of Hillary Clinton, my daughters and all our sons and daughters now take for granted that a woman can be president of the United States.

While many might astutely point out that her DNC speech offered a radically new and inspiring retelling of the history of the American presidency, insofar as from now on that history must begin with the labor and lives of the slaves who built the White House, and beautifully and justly passes through the African American family that has called the White House home for the past eight years. And this, I think, is true up to the point when by way of a metaphoric short circuit of sorts, as the audience was called to picture her daughters on the White House lawn, Obama names Clinton as the reason why they, and all of America’s children, can now take for granted that a woman can be President. Seriously?

In The Devil Finds Work, James Baldwin compares white and Black audience reactions to the final scene of the film The Defiant Ones. In the scene, Sidney Poitier’s character renounces his chance at freedom to come to the aid of his white counterpart. Baldwin writes: “Liberal white audiences applauded when Sidney, at the end of the film, jumped off the train in order not to abandon his white buddy. The Harlem audience was outraged, and yelled, Get back on the train, you fool![1]

I’m not privy to either white or Black audiences’ reactions to Obama’s speech, but I sincerely hope that others, like me, felt like she jumped off the train at the moment in which the First Lady said Clinton’s name. It felt like she renounced the history she had so beautifully and radically begun to retell in order to not abandon her white buddy. And so, while she definitely and brilliantly offered a new starting point for all present and future retellings of the history of the American Presidency, one must question the radicality of that new starting point if the story’s own teller chooses to bring the audience to that oh so familiar end: “because of Hillary Clinton white people.”

And so, I for one imagine the First Lady’s daughters reacting to their mother’s performance, requesting an edit. Its not because of Hillary Clinton that they can now take for granted that a woman can be president. If anything, it’s because of their mother. Or because of their mother’s mother. Or because of the labor and the lives of the slaves that built the house they got to call home for the past eight years. It’s because of reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with Hillary Clinton. And everything to do with the inexhaustible futures that America’s other sons and daughters can sing into the songs Michelle Obama chose for her karaoke, or the indomitable futures that daughters like hers can edit into her speech, as she chose to deliver it. On this point, Baldwin writes: “This also means that a story resolves nothing. The resolution of a story must occur in us, with what we make of the questions with which the story leaves us.”[2]

Here’s a question that seems to linger at the end of every story told about America: Because of white people? It’s usually and justly followed by outrage. At times, even, the outraged stay aboard the train. Those times really blow me away.

 

Notes.

[1] Baldwin, James (1998) Collected Essays, p. 525

[2] Baldwin, p. 510

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