No matter how often people claim otherwise, Americans are more stupefied by certain things than obsessed with them. One is sex, the other is the Negro, especially the kind who is intelligent and relaxed like Michelle Obama. Some of us seem to believe that this is the most exotic brand and become extremely angry if those people seem to go their own ways and are not looking for advice on how to be themselves. Their parents reared neither fools nor airheads. A dark-skinned person of that sort inspires all manner of hostile drool and childishness—see two interesting cases from the past week.
On the Huffington Post, Curtis Watson revealed something last week that had been in the air and was backwater talk since the future first lady had appeared and gained momentum in our media. Watson’s truism was that black women would not have been so supportive of Barack Obama if he had married a woman the color of his mother. Obama had gotten their support precisely because his Michelle made it clear that he was a man more loyal to the group than so many who become successful.
Michelle Obama is a balm to dark-skinned and insecure Negro women. But being considered the Queen of Spades brings it own problems.
More than a year ago, a highly intelligent black man said that same thing to me shortly after Obama had put a hard smack on Hillary Clinton in Iowa. He also said that Obama had played it smart all along because white people were continually reminded that when they looked at him they were also looking at themselves, and black women were constantly relieved by Michelle and his children because they proved that he had not abandoned “them” for his version of Nicole Brown Simpson. He had "respected" their sense of romantic entitlement and proven that an impressive black man was not almost always scared off by smarts, spunk, and precisely what Ray Charles meant by "just a little bit of soul now." Down there in the turnip greene and the tears, hope remained alive.
So Michelle Obama was an apparent balm to dark-skinned and insecure Negro women. But being considered the Queen of Spades brings it own problems. Mrs. Obama has also become an obvious thorn in the paws of those lionesses of trivia and unwarranted insult that seem to use Ann Coulter as a model. On the first lady’s inevitable website, Michelle Obama Watch, we hear yet another predator looking for some high-profile black female meat to give the gnaw and the claw.
Her name is Tammy Bruce, and, filling in on the Laura Ingraham Show, she accused the first lady of being “trash.” Let us hope that Bruce herself is not part of the almost legendary Scots-Irish blend that resulted in so much predictably so-called white trash. It would serve us all well to know how porously open we all are to models of behavior far beyond the color line. As the reporter Fox Butterfield points out in the indespensable All God’s Children, Southern white “trash” may have had a much greater influence on the culture of black violence than we would easily assume. (This provides an actually repulsive example of "acting white" as opposed to just being black, refined, polite and middle class. Hello: The Crips and the Bloods have cultural parents with red necks. Think about that!)
Even so, we learn a lot from what Bruce pretends to misunderstand, or understand out of context. Last week, while visiting a poor neighborhood in Washington, D.C. and answering querstions from public school students, the first lady explained part of her own success being the result of mastering English. She then attacked the idea that her learning to use the English language correctly meant that she sounded “like a white girl” to others with whom she grew up. Bruce almost shrieks, “What? What does that mean?” There is surely another question. In exactly what hole of protean ignorance has this woman remained for the last 20 years?
Is it so hard for Bruce to understand that Michelle Obama is yet another rejoinder to the black American version of anti-intellectualism masking itself as ethnic “authenticity”? One should hope not, but memories and high points in our ongoing ethnic melodrama are soon forgotten—if they were ever widely acknowledged.
No one ever accused Martin Luther King, Jr. of lacking authenticity or “sounding like a white man,” but that was before mush-mouthed misinformation was confused by both black and white alike as “real.” Dr. Alvin Poussaint, one of the advisers for The Cosby Show, had to correct some pompously ignorant Negro who called in to the talk show on which the good doctor was a guest and complained that the characters in the fictional Huxtable family were not “real black people.”
As if predicting the worst of hip-hop and the worst of our most crude, stupid, and far-from-funny black comedians, Poussaint said that limiting to white people only those things such as success, stable families, and even being able to speak the national language correctly was a dangerous stereotype that could have very bad results. Tammy Bruce, suffering from a problem on the right and the left, proved herself ignorant of actual American problems that go as deeply into our cultural history as slavery, which was here 150 years before our founding documents were written.
Bruce’s greatest willful misunderstanding was charging Michelle Obama with narcissism for saying that she sought A’s in her classes because she wanted them for herself after she found out what they meant, not because her parents raised her a certain way. Obama was actually telling those children that they had to be ready to stand alone and be their own impetus for high-quality performance, that each of them was responsible for becoming what it took to spread those growing wings in an open sky.
Ours is not yet a country convinced of the value of the inner life, or the life of the mind, but it will get there once it ceases to be distracted and stupefied by glitter and distortedly large bags of hot air attached to small points, like those huge extensions of the bodies of queen termites. Superficial fluff defines our time and is too often provided by insults to the possibilities of the species. One version of such insults are those like Tammy Bruce, who was quite right when she said that trashiness knows no limitations of class or color. Yes, there are all-American assholes better at talking trash than providing actual thoughts or enriching insights. Tammy Bruce, the intellectual slut on the talk show bus, clarifies one thing: They prove themselves what they are if you let them talk long enough.
Stanley Crouch's culture pieces have appeared in Harper's, the New York Times, Vogue, Downbeat, the New Yorker, and more. He has served as artistic consultant for jazz programming at Lincoln Center since 1987, and is a founder Jazz at Lincoln Center. In June 2006 his first major collection of jazz criticism, Considering Genius: Jazz Writings, was published. He is completing a book about the Barack Obama presidential campaign.