Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Here is a compelling argument about the one aspect of Michelle Obama’s speech that really did stand out. It’s from one of Andrew Sullivan’s readers:

I am a 36 year old African American woman. I have two girls ages 10 and 8. The country does not get the full import of this moment. My daughters and I sat together along with my husband to watch Michelle Obama tonight. Mr. Sullivan, we were all in tears. This is a day that cannot be fully described. This country has systematically oppressed Black women for centuries. My ancestors were slaves and my great, great, great, grandmothers raped and treated as property. My daughters have very few Black women to look up to in popular culture as role models. They do not feel seen, they are not held up as the standards of American beauty. We shed tears tonight as a family because Michelle (with her elegance and grace) is holding all of us up with her. You don’t understand the burden that she bears.

This was the one part of Michelle’s speech that did get to me the other night. The tales of wonderful and hard working parents instilling “American values” on their children don’t move me; I’ve simply heard it too many times, and what politician doesn’t tell the same story? But when she noted the crossroads of two important anniversaries — women getting the right to vote 80 years ago and Martin Luther King Jr delivering his “I have a dream” speech 45 years to the day before her husband accepts the nomination on Thursday — that was powerful.

The reader aimed her words at Sullivan but they could have been aimed at me as well. And she’s right, I can’t possibly understand how this feels to her; I’m a white, straight, middle class male with all the attendant privileges that come with that. But I can still recognize the importance of Obama’s nomination in general, the change it both symbolizes and promises. And as someone who cannot listen to that King speech without tears, I’m not immune to having my emotions moved — they just aren’t moved by canned stories. But that part of her speech was not canned, nor was it a platitude. That part was personal and unique; what other possible first lady could be a symbol of the importance of those two events the way Michelle Obama most certainly is?

As I’ve said many times, the dominant theme in American history to me is the story of progress toward making the promises of the Declaration of Independence a reality for those who were initially denied the freedom and equality that document so eloquently called for. Martin Luther King brilliantly employed the language of the Declaration, calling it a promissory note that was now due. The progress toward that reality has been slow and halting. It has cost the blood of a great many brave people to extend those promises where they should have applied right from the start — first for women, then for blacks and now, inevitably, for gays and lesbians as well. And I do understand, as best I can at least, the power of both Obamas as symbols of that progress and what it represents for so many.