I’m just sayin’

I have wanted to write about Michelle Obama since the Democratic primaries death march, but I find that I have more feelings than thoughts about her. I feel a lot of things, but my thoughts are all garbled. I’ve suspected I’m not alone in this, suspected that my friend Johnny is right when he says the real shock is not that America elected a black man as president but that they elected a black woman to be its first lady and that because of this no one knows what the hell to do with her. Oh sure, she’s all over the news and blogs, but these are reactions to her rather than reflections on what she means to this country–all parts of it.

My suspicions about this curious silence were confirmed when I attended a conference at CUNY Graduate Center today. The conference, “Black Women and the Radical Tradition,” was a day-long series of talks, presentations, and lectures about, well… the title is pretty obvious. It was flawed in certain ways, but I did learn interesting things about black women’s history in different political struggles, made a few new friends, and had a perfectly lovely visit with a friend over tea and scones at Alice’s Tea Cup. What I did not hear from anyone, all day, was any word or observation about Michelle Obama. I heard a lot about her husband but not a thing about her. It was like she didn’t exist. I was sitting half a row away from Angela Davis and wanted to say, “pssst; what did you think of that New Yorker Cover? That’s your afro, right?” But I didn’t. I did ask her, during the Q&A after one of her talks, about Proposition 8 but not about Michelle.

Could it be because she’s not radical in the way these women might recognize? Looking at all the different ways that hair can be “natural” at the conference, I couldn’t quite imagine Michelle Obama there (my favorite hairdo was the huge afro on a super skinny young woman; she looked like a black q-tip…adorable!). But she is a revolutionary figure and her ability to walk the fine line of being first-mom without turning into first-mammy is pretty impressive. I think it’s because she’s a woman. Davis made an interesting observation. When Condoleeza Rice was named secretary of state, there was no breathless moment for the “black community.”* Now this might be because of her politics, but Davis didn’t seem to think so, and I don’t either.

I’m sure in the years ahead people will have much to say about Michelle Obama’s true radicalness (not the racist crap the right is calling radical), but the silence about her today was very loud. I’m just sayin’…

*I know the black community is a construct that lets certain parts of the country think we’re more alike than different, but it’s useful shorthand from time to time.


A bit of poetry

I’ve started working on two big projects that I’ve been circling for way too long, a book about the academy and a study of the nineteenth-century novel and its connection to disease and healing. Every fear of writing I have hovers below the surface, causing (sometimes literally) my hands to shake as I take hold of pen and paper. The only thing for the fear of writing is to face it, so face it I do–mostly by fooling myself into the myth that I’m not actually writing. I tell myself that I’m just “jotting down” a few sentences. At other times, my friend Karen infuses me with her own intellectual fearlessness, and I find I’m drawn, almost against my will, to my desk.

When I get too scared, Lucille Clifton’s poetry pops into my head as an invitation and a scolding that if she, who had so much less than I do now, could find the courage to write (and to write poetry!) I can too. Here is the poem that came to me during one of my writing sessions today:

won’t you celebrate with me
by Lucille Clifton

won’t you celebrate with me
what i have shaped into
a kind of life? i had no model.
born in babylon
both nonwhite and woman
what did i see to be except myself?
i made it up
here on this bridge between
starshine and clay,
my one hand holding tight
my other hand; come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.

When I can see my writing as a celebration of the writers who live on the edge of Jane Austen’s shadow or the academy’s struggle with what is written and unwritten, then it’s not so scary…and is even a little exciting.

Blagojevich and Other Delusional Men (written as the state senate votes to remove him from office)

Maybe it’s because I learned about politics in Louisiana. Perhaps it’s because I grew up in the military. Or it’s possible that I’ve spent my entire adult life with and around male academics. And let’s not mention the male artists I have known. For whatever reason, I am not the slightest bit surprised by Blagojevich’s unethical conduct and haven’t been even a little bit distracted by his public performances and analogies, including comparing his struggle to Pearl Harbor. I don’t doubt for a minute that he’s delusional; it just doesn’t surprise me. After all, in college, I new a guy who told anyone who would listen that he had a strong feeling he was going to die at 33. This sense of doom impressed people, especially women. My response when he told me, sorrowfully but with a very stiff upper lip, was, “really. 33? Like Jesus? Puhleeeze!”* Before you feel sorry for him, you should know that despite my caustic response, he was quite popular with the ladies. I mean they seriously dug him.

And that’s the thing.

Deluded, self-aggrandizing men appeal to…well almost everyone. We rely on these men, build entire shows around them (“House” comes to mind almost immediately), and every truly nice guy I know has watched otherwise sane women throw themselves at the Blagojevichs of the world. This isn’t to say that what Captain Hair did was legal or ethical. He should be removed from office, but all this shock and awe seems out of place. Our culture valorizes men like Blagojevich; hell, we elect them all the time. And his over-the-top self-defense is perfectly consistent with our culture where no one admits they’re wrong, have lied, and should step down. Being bold even when wrong is a mainstay of American “cowboy” culture.

Having spent so much time around men like this, I understand the syllogism at work:

I am a good person
Good people don’t do bad things

Nothing I do is bad

Or, to be more precise:

Politicians and other delusional men may make mistakes but only do so for the greater good
I am a delusional politician
Whatever I did was for the greater good

I’m glad he’s gone, but I hope Illinois, collectively, goes to see a therapist to figure out why the state keeps electing dishonest and stupidly arrogant governors. Seriously. From a girl who had her political awakenings in a state where “Vote for the Crook” was the motto of a gubernatorial election (Convicted Felon Edwin Edwards vs. Klansman David Duke), I speak with a special authority.

In case you missed his closing argument, here it is:

*The guy has lived well past 33 and is married with at least one child.