In the summer of 2008, when I met Michelle Obama, I asked her for a "victory fist bump." My friends, knowing that I'm always the one to do some craziness, warned me against it. "Are you crazy Suzan?" wasn't such a crazy question, since it was just six weeks after the fist-bump foolishness that ensued when Michelle gave Barack a fist bump at a Minnesota campaign event. Within the hour Fox News rushed to classify the gesture as some sort "terrorist fist jab". They were quickly made fools of for being so out of touch with popular culture where a fist bump was a common greeting. So while I was waiting for the "grip and grin" with the future first lady, I thought about what I would say if I didn't get thrown out of line for bringing up a sore subject. She accommodated my fist bump request without hesitation and with a big smile. Now that I had her attention, I told her that although I didn't look anything like her, people told me that I did, and that in truth, it was because she gave black women like me -- strong, brown, professional, fashionable, intellectuals, working mommies and multi-taskers- a recognizable brand. But it took the rising celebrity of the first Black FLOTUS to give the rest of the world this great "aha!" moment, finally realizing that we were there all along.
This week of watching the Democratic National Convention play out on TV has been electric. You can see the excitement swelling. You can feel the passion through the screen. The swagger has been reinstated. The audacity of hope, now branded FORWARD, is back. When Michelle Obama took the stage she looked like First Lady of Everything. Her words (and delivery) for the country about her husband, her history, his history, their history and how it paralleled the middle class struck me. Here we are, so fortunate to watch this race and presidency play out, able to participate in a truly historic moment. To bear witness to this time in America is incredible.
Ironically, during the 2008 election campaign, I heard the most disrespectful things about Mrs. Obama from those who were never going to vote for her husband. I can distinctly remember my personal trainer telling me the White House toilet seats would have to be XXL if Michelle were its next resident. Was that a throwback to the perception that all black women have ample bootys? Right after that he told me that the only people on welfare were black. I wanted to spit on him but instead I walked out of the gym and never gave him anymore of my money. His virulence was a foreshadowing.
Recently, my friend Donna, while listening to NPR's coverage of a Romney campaign stop in Indiana, where a random GOP supporter commented on the president and first lady. She said this: "I just don't like him. Can't stand to look at him. I don't like his wife. She's far from a First Lady. It's about time we get a First Lady in there who acts like a First Lady and looks like a First Lady." When Donna told me the story, we looked at each other and asked the only logical question: "Well, what does a real First Lady look and act like"? All we have to compare it to are the scores of white first ladies, so that must be what she means.
In truth, Michelle Obama has stepped into her role in history with grace, intelligence, style and a fierce loyalty to and protection of her family and America. She is the personification of a First Lady. She has gone from being called a radical angry black woman during the campaign to being revealed as an extraordinary human being, mother and wife who is committed to raising the standard of living and the quality of life for the middle class. The issues she's championed -- ending childhood obesity and supporting military families -- were underserved causes that now enjoy the national spotlight and all the resources that brings. To see this woman as anything less than "what a First Lady is supposed to act and look like" is the sad proof that racism and ignorance still simmers.
About a week ago, during the Melissa Harris Perry Show on MSNBC, a panel of Democratic and Republican guests argued about the "racial dog whistle," a catchphrase that captures the idea that the GOP has fabricated the new food-stamp rhetoric claiming Obama has removed the work requirement for welfare recipients, a statement one political expert after another has proved to be patently false. The bill actually gives states the opportunity to create welfare to work solutions that will be most effective for their population. It's not federal legislation at all as it gives the power to the states to implement innovative programs that guarantee getting welfare recipients into the workforce. The racial dog whistle is the political strategy of imbuing subtle meanings into TV ads that use words such as "welfare recipient" and "the poor and uninsured" to stoke racial resentment with some white voters who may interpret it to really mean "lazy African Americans taking advantage of the system."
Is the country more or less racist since the election of President Barack Obama? That's a difficult question when you have a Black man, the unlikeliest of victors, elected by a heavily white American majority as the most powerful man in the world. His presidency excites those of us -- black and white -- who know that racism is stupid, useless. His victory is our victory and a step in the right direction. But yes, sadly Obama's presidency has revealed just how racist America still is. The irony is his presidency has allowed America to show its racist side, because now they had to choose a side. The class of insults that he has been subject to -- from GOP Representative Joe Wilson's "you lie" outburst at Obama's first State of the Union to the birther obsession to no one from the GOP denouncing the vile, blatantly racist comments of Rush Limbaugh -- is alarming. When white supremacist hate groups grow by 755 percent since Obama's election, you cannot dispute that there are people and organizations that are pissed a black man is their president. But actually, it goes beyond race. America is more polarized than ever, unveiling the chasm of rich vs. poor, conservatives vs. liberals, the 1 percent vs. the middle class and working poor. Cant we all just get along?
Yet, no matter how insulting the attack, Obama reacts with calm perseverance. Because he cannot risk being seen the "angry black man," having been elected "of the people" which includes the WE, as in ALL the people, not just black people. He stands in political quick sand, thin ice for an electorate not fully evolved and not monolithic in its core beliefs. His inherent calm is also a political strategy, made convenient by his nature.
I believe Barack and Michelle (like I'm on a first name basis with them) are the best of America, stepping into their destiny and activating a cultural power they wield with care. They are on their way to being an iconic political family and have been given an extraordinary opportunity and burden to be judged by history for being the most powerful couple of their time.
I am not an angry black woman and I don't care if you think I am. Truly, I value discourse, observing the world, dissecting human nature and engaging in lively, intelligent communication that will push our understanding further. This week, our First Lady gave a powerful address at the Democratic National Convention. I'm unapologetically smitten with who she is and what her character represents to me as a woman who tries every day to be valued for who I am, and what I do, not what color I am. There are an army of us who concur.
During her speech, she said about her husband, "Being president doesn't change who you are, it reveals who you are." At this stressful apex in history, I hope that WE THE PEOPLE will be revealed as a country that can objectively make a decision and cast a vote that is not based on race or party, but on intentions, character, actions and deeds.
This post has been edited from its originally published version.
Follow Suzan McDowell on Twitter: www.twitter.com/suzsyd