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Black & Blacker


Michelle and Barack, with their mothers, on their wedding day.   

The lunatic-fringe memes of terrorist fist bumps and jelabas can be reasoned away. But race in America is a matter of deep family neurosis. A real conversation about it, such as the one invited by Obama in his speech after the controversy over the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, would be full of missed communication and mutual incomprehension—not the best discussion to have during election season. Even though pretty much everyone—even Al Sharpton—would agree that grievance politics has run its course, that doesn’t mean that the grievances are gone. In general, most white people think that America’s problem with race has been solved, and any suggestion that it hasn’t tends to ignite an unstable keg of guilt and anger—the kinds of feelings Oprah would tell us to confront head-on, though it’s easier to live in denial.

The Obamas, who embody a drama with race as its central theme, know the score, racially speaking, even if they can’t say that they do. By virtue of Obama’s calm, collected nature—most likely learned during his childhood in Hawaii, where losing one’s temper is taboo—he has been able to completely defang the stereotype of the angry black male (with a helpful foil in John McCain, who seems perpetually on the verge of smoke pouring out of his ears). There’s only one moment where Obama got a little upset, on Good Morning America, reprimanding conservatives for beating up on Michelle—“Lay off my wife,” he said, then flashed his zillion-watt grin. In any case, he earned extra points for that, because who doesn’t love a man who stands up for his woman? For the first time in years, this presidential couple seems not only to be an egalitarian unit, but like they’re really in love with each other (the fist bump, whether it was spontaneous or not, had a lot of eye contact associated with it).

The description of the Obamas’ life together displays no evidence of their connections to black culture, especially now that it’s not prudent for them to join a new church before the election. They take pains to make sure their lifestyle is as boring as possible. They’ve easily resolved knotty personal issues: Michelle’s 71-year-old mom, Marian Robinson, takes care of the girls, so they don’t have to hire a nanny, which would make them look a little too buppie. (The girls still have the packed schedule of upwardly mobile kids: soccer, dance, drama, gymnastics, tap, tennis, piano. Obama doesn’t like them watching TV.) “When we’re all together in Chicago, we like to play games like charades,” Michelle tells us. “We also love a busy house, which means potluck dinners with our close friends and family as often as we can.” We have little idea of the racial makeup of such potlucks. “Some of Michelle’s closest friends are white, and her sister-in-law Maya is white,” says Angela Acree, a friend of Michelle’s. “She says reporters always get these shocks when they call up her white friends. ‘Yeah, I’m a white girl!’ her friends will say. ‘Now, what’d you want to know?’ ”

And what does the white world know about black people like the Obamas, really? “The black middle class is the most invisible, unknown group in the country,” says Gayle Pemberton, a professor of African-American studies at Wesleyan University. “There are millions and millions of people in it, and yet we know nothing about them.” One would think that the Obamas enjoy being called the black Kennedys, but maybe they don’t. “This Camelot myth has formed around Barack and Michelle, but they come from almost the opposite place in the world from the Kennedys,” says Obama’s friend Kenneth Mack, a law professor at Harvard University. “If you saw Barack on a yacht, that would be pretty unseemly. He’s the guy from the basketball court who used to go around in jeans and a leather jacket. In law school, he was really uncomfortable with the markers of elitism, like even dressing in a suit.” It’s a sitcom, this miscommunication between black and white people: In fact, a manager in Hollywood told me that he’s getting calls from producers searching for TV writers to work on All in the Family–style shows for next year—they know the country will be hungry for this type of comedy if Obama is elected.

While Michelle hasn’t made many interesting statements in public—it’s a very small canon of comments, over the course of almost two years of campaigning—they’ve taken on enormous meaning. She’s not quite as smooth a political player as Barack: “Whenever Obama enters the room, there’s a sense of calm and satisfaction,” says a former campaign aide. “Michelle can get a little more tense. Before she goes on-camera for interviews, we’d have to give her a couple of minutes to compose herself. She’ll sit down, raise her hands over her head, and go, ‘Ugh, God!’ ” That’s a mask she’s wearing in public, most of the time, and we aren’t sure what is underneath. When she uttered her fateful words about how, for “the first time in my adult life, I’m really proud of my country,” she unleashed an explosion of emotion, because everyone who’s awake could read between the lines—she was angry about the treatment of black people in America. And anger will not do. Besides, what does she have to be angry about, with her Ivy education and Hyde Park mansion? Isn’t she herself an example of the fact that racism is over in America?


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