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Michelle Obama: The black man’s burden

By Professor Ken Mufuka

United States President Barack Obama illustrates the idiom that opposites attract each other. While Obama is gentle, always thoughtful, looking before he jumps and the last man in the house to lose his cool, his wife Michelle is the strong overwhelming powerful black woman. One cannot ignore her presence.

Michelle Obama
Michelle Obama

During the last several weeks, she has used her lofty position, at graduation ceremonies, to lash out at the white society which has oppressed her people for so long. She has come out as less than grateful for her fate and position in the universe.

She wants to write her own narrative and that of her people in Egypt. She feels that the black story has often been told by our oppressors, and that our successes are regarded as unusual and unique rather than as normal and commonplace.

“You need to help us tell our story…the story of my family and your families, the story of sacrifice, our hunger, our hard work.” She told a high school audience at Martin Luther King Preparatory School in Chicago.

The story

During the first election, I was one of those who wrote to the democratic committee to shut Michelle’s mouth, because every time she opened it, she made many white voters angry. And yet her story is not unique; it is a story of humiliation and condescension on the part of those who enslaved us in Egypt. She calls it a burden which every black man must carry with dignity.

Every black man, she told the graduating class, has gone through struggles, hardships, failures and humiliations, but these are not to define them, but to inspire, a reminder that they were hurt, but also that they survived.

Her mother, Robinson is often asked: “How on earth did you ever raise kids like Michelle and Craig?”

The question assumes that black mothers do not raise their children to dream the American dream, and that those black children who do well are exceptional and not the rule.

Michelle complaints bitterly that “so often, we hear a skewed story about our communities, a narrative that says that a stable, hardworking family in a neighbourhood like Woodlawn or Chatham is somewhat remarkable, that a (black) person who graduates from high school and goes to college is a beat the odds kind of hero.”

To white people who voted for Obama and made a black man president, the unkind cut was the following. “Wherever you go, you will encounter people who doubt your very existence; folks who believe that hardworking families with strong values don’t exist in (black areas) or in Detroit (a black city) or in El Paso (Hispanic) or in Indian country…They don’t believe you are real.”

Blackness and constant humiliation is a “burden that President Barack and I proudly carry every single day in the White House, because we know that everything we do and say can either confirm the myths about folks like us.”

“Woman, thou dost protest too much!” says Shakespeare.

To many whites this is a brazen attack on the very existence of white goodwill towards the children of Abraham. Surely, President Obama’s campaigns were financed by white people of goodwill. Surely, without a white mass which voted for him in New England territories, his election victory would have been a pipe dream.

Michelle is addressing a wider issue. How many times and how long shall the children of Abraham complain about past injustices? In doing so, we miss an opportunity to help our people, to make friendships with Pharaoh’s children who rule the universe. But I suppose that is not the issue. The issue, as we say in Zimbabwe, is to show that one is a stalwart Africanist.

Michelle has been compared to Booker T Washington, who suffered even worse humiliations than she did.

If Michelle had used her lofty place as a reconciler rather than a speaker of fighting words, she might have brought 100 businessmen with her to rebuild the school.

Washington was asked by a rich white woman to carry her garden equipment to her car. He assisted her with grace and a smiling face. When the white woman realised that she had shown contempt for the most famous black man in America, she was remorseful. “Not to worry,” said the great man: “there is plenty you can do to help my college,” he added.

The woman served as a benefactor at Tuskegee for many years till her death. Washington saw the necessity for truth speaking. “It is sometimes helpful for us to speak frankly to each other, but (the purpose) must be to promote friendship rather than enmity.”

Michelle reminds me of my own beloved Zimbabwe stalwart Pan Africanists. She did not bring any help to the school which she loved so much. She spoke the truth, but to what purpose? She went to the school empty handed, left the children without bread. But surely, she must have served a higher purpose, to curse out the children of Pharaoh, who have caused us to shed so many tears of blood, asking us to make bricks without straw.

Michelle is a heroine among blacks, who believe that truth is its own reward.

Washington and Martin Luther King, in whose name she spoke, saw truth speaking only as a weapon, to promote friendships rather than enmity.

Professor Ken Mufuka can be reached on [email protected]