The Public Humanist

Voice Matters in the Land of the Free and Un-free

michele-obama-by-george-miller

The word matter – both a noun and a verb naming a quality as well as an action — has achieved new significance in the 21st century as Americans of various histories, complexions, and zip codes debate and act out together in the eye of the public who and what matters in this celebrated land of the free. This is the country where so many want to be because of the roulette chance it represents, the risk and possible reward of being able to go and do and say what you want, and even amass enough money to live royally. But then there are the losers in the game, without the latitude to go and do and say what they want, when they want. Under surveillance constantly, their feet seem stuck in a yesterday that is decaying and also idealized, as the past often is, as a place and time when life was better for the now angry and vocal, who want back a yesterday when their status mattered more than now. No matter that that was a time when the now majority was much less equal and free, determined by skin and gender.

And so divided reactions ensued for a dark woman wearing blue who spoke strong words that matter on what is at issue today and its link to yesterday and tomorrow. On the first night of the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, Michelle Obama, the nation’s first lady, whose forcefulness as a thinker and a voice that matter was copied, without acknowledgement by a first-lady wannabe in white, a significant, much-debated shade in her husband’s campaign, talked about time and the presidency. Mrs. Obama, who is not a shadow figure, but very much her own person and power, argued that the future is what the incoming president, whoever that will be, inherits. It will be his or her role to create policy that makes the future better for the children of today and tomorrow.  At the same time that her eyes surveyed the road ahead, she also took stock of the road covered, and she measured America’s progress in terms of its laboring communities and her personal family. She and her husband did not break the sound barrier, but they breached the color line, which has deeply divided Americans, based on the transatlantic ships that brought ancestors to these shores. Michelle’s forebears came in chains, and it is a major index of national maturity and growth for her that she, descended from the once enslaved, now lives in an iconic house, acknowledged as a primary site of world power.

Many Americans today are loath to admit and acknowledge that the enslaved created more than a few of the monuments and emblems of democracy that we now take for granted.

Moving beyond its plantation-style columns and the fact that its front was originally its back, the First Lady considered its design and foundation, dating back to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when a goodly number of the arms and hands, likely the majority, quarrying the stone, moving it into place, and erecting the walls, floors, and rooms of the White House, were designated as property, not as people. However much, we as Americans want to deny the irony that slavery built a great deal of what we think of as the land of the free, the subordination of un-free others put in place much that still stands in this country.  We live with that evidence. Yet, many Americans today are loath to admit and acknowledge that the enslaved created more than a few of the monuments and emblems of democracy that we now take for granted. As Bill O’Reilly said in his recent rejoinder to the First Lady, at least those slaves got food and a cot, as if that totally settled the score; but the owners, not the owned, were paid.

Instead of being ashamed, Michelle Obama, whose ancestors were chained and lashed in the South and forced into the unpaid labor army, understands the matter of living in the house slavery built. And she is proud of that history and of a country where major progress is not only possible but actual and deeply lived. Still, although she graduated from some of the best, most prestigious universities in the country and is a certified expert on the law, her words were met with skepticism and scrutiny, and automatically assumed to be untrue. She is wrong; the many said. Slave labor had no role in constructing the white house; it was built by the native-born, solid and strong, with perhaps a few skilled immigrants lending a hand. To suggest slaves put their sweat and muscle into so exalted a task is downright divisive.

What is also evident here is that words spoken by an African American tongue, even an exalted one, are immediately split open to niggling question, as was true when enslavement ruled the roost.

The morning after, New York Times fact checkers verified that Mrs. Obama knew her history. What is also evident here is that words spoken by an African American tongue, even an exalted one, are immediately split open to niggling question, as was true when enslavement ruled the roost. Knowledge coming from one of former chattel class membership is suspect until vouched for by one or more owner-class Americans.  As it was in the past, so it is now but may not forever be. That is the fork in the road that matters this crucial election year. Do we stay in yesterday or move to a new, re-gendered day?

[Photo by Congressman George Miller, https://www.flickr.com/photos/repgeorgemiller/]

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