If Michelle Obama’s critics actually paid attention to her recent commencement speech, they would hear a lot of advice that conservatives like to hear — when it is not coming from Michelle Obama.
Rest assured, you can enjoy the first lady’s speech to graduates at historically black Tuskegee University without being a white-hating racist, although you would not know it from the complaints of her right-wing radio critics.
What upsets them most is the brief section of her speech that made news: her first-hand descriptions of how it felt to be bombarded during a cutthroat presidential campaign by media depictions of her that did not remotely resemble the self that she knew.
“One said I exhibited ‘a little bit of uppity-ism,’” she recalled. “Another noted that I was one of my husband’s ‘cronies of color.’ Cable news once charmingly referred to me as ‘Obama’s Baby Mama.’”
And her husband? “Even today,” she said to her highly receptive audience, “there are still folks questioning his citizenship.” Oh, yeah. That.
Rush Limbaugh, a leading lion of right-wing radio resentment, growled on Monday’s show that the first lady was “doubling down” on “playing the race card,” has “a giant chip on (her) shoulder” that’s “getting worse” and may only have thought she’s been treated poorly because people “didn’t fawn enough” over her.
Conservative radio host Laura Ingraham that same day mocked the first lady as “angry” and delivering “a litany of victimization.”
Glenn Beck similarly fumed: “White people in droves went out to vote for you. You were somehow invisible so much that you became the president and first lady of the United States of America? Tell me about the troubles that you have seen!”
Right. Blacks have a black president now, so they should stop complaining. I hear that argument a lot from conservatives. What I find ironic is how seldom I hear it come from people who actually voted for Obama.
That’s politics. Having grown up in Chicago, a city whose politics — in the immortal words of Finley Peter Dunne — “ain’t beanbag,” one might presume that Mrs. Obama knew what she was getting into. Still, when hit with a surprise like the New Yorker cover cartoon version of her with a huge afro and machine gun, it “knocked me back a bit,” she recalled. “It made me wonder, just how are people seeing me?”
It is not hard to imagine that young graduates, still wrestling with their own identities, can appreciate a story like that as they face the challenges of their own professional futures. Mrs. Obama appropriately referenced a 1952 novel that continues to be one of my own favorites, Tuskegee graduate Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” the first black-authored novel to win the National Book Award.
In the conservative National Review, writer-historian Victor Davis Hanson challenged the validity of “the aggrieved Mrs. Obama’s allegation of black Americans being ‘invisible.’” How can that be, he wrote, in this “age of African-American ubiquity” in sports, entertainment, government, academia and business.
But Hanson ironically misses her point. As Ellison’s protagonist says, “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.” Even in our age of African-American ubiquity, that refusal persists. Those who sound insulted, for example, that the nation’s first lady would feel insulted by their insults, simply refuse to see her. Or hear her.
And that’s too bad. Her central message transcends partisan and ideological boundaries. Although negative racial experiences can be harsh and bizarre, she cautioned, they were “not an excuse” to “lose hope.” Anger and despair will lead you to lose, she told the young graduates, but you win with hope, ambition and hard work.
“Our history” she said, “… teaches us that when we pull ourselves out of those lowest emotional depths, and we channel our frustrations into studying and organizing and banding together … (w)e can take on those deep-rooted problems, and together — together — we can overcome anything that stands in our way.”
Indeed. I think her usual band of conservative critics could find a lot to like in her speech, especially if somebody else was delivering it.
Clarence Page is a Tribune Content Agency columnist. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.