- ESSAY // MICHELLE OBAMA – “I det øjeblik, jeg fik et glimt af hende, høj og elegant i sin lyserøde silkebluse og mørke nederdel, holdt jeg vejret. Det var første gang, jeg befandt mig i det samme rum som hende. Jeg var begejstret men også bekymret for, at hun måske ville miste balancen, idet hun vandrede ned ad trappen i høje hæle uden at holde i gelænderet, mens hun vinkede. I det øjeblik indså jeg, at jeg havde båret på disse to samtidige følelser af beundring og bekymring for Michelle Obama hele tiden – lige fra begyndelsen.” Sådan indleder den verdensberømte forfatter, Sarah Ladipo Manyika, sit nye essay om Michelle Obama i tidsskriftet Granta. POV bringer med Grantas og Manyikas tilladelse et uddrag af essayet nedenfor.
‘If you wanna know Michelle Obama, you’ve got to know that little girl Michelle Robinson in all her contexts,’ said Michelle, on stage at a book tour stop. ‘You can’t judge me unless you know all of that. You can’t revere me unless you know about my bumps and bruises.’ And so it is that the first third of Becoming covers Michelle’s childhood starting in the South Side of Chicago where she lived in a tiny apartment with mom, dad and brother.
While Becoming is a moving family memoir, it is also a story of race and inheritance.
Michelle’s family flight from Jim Crow South to Chicago could easily have been one of the stories chronicled in Isabel Wilkerson’s historical opus, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.
Sometimes, no amount of striving can overcome the odds stacked against one
Not only is Michelle’s family story (on both sides of the family) one of black migration from the South to the North but it’s also the story of racial discrimination in the segregated North.
Sometimes, no amount of striving can overcome the odds stacked against one.
Michelle writes about her grandfather, Dandy, a scholarly man, who had to abandon his dreams of attending college as well as lesser dreams in the face of discriminatory work practices on account of his skin color.
He eventually became a postal worker who lived, as Michelle describes it, ‘with the bitter residue of his own dashed dreams’. Racial discrimination was pervasive in Michelle’s family past and its present.
‘The color of our skin made us vulnerable,’ she writes.
Whether it was her family car being keyed when they visited a white neighborhood, or the police officer who assumed her brother had stolen his brand new bike, or Michelle’s white dorm mate whose family moved her out so she wouldn’t have to room with black people, race, as Michelle writes, ‘was a thing we’d always have to navigate.’
Her college experience at the elite, majority-white institution of Princeton – where the burden of assimilation was placed on black students – was also a part of this story of race.
Nigeria had its own challenges, but has no history of apartheid and no established tradition of societies structured along racial lines, so in contrast to Michelle, I didn’t experience race as a defining element of my upbringing or identity
Had I been reading about Michelle’s childhood from my childhood home in Jos, Nigeria, I might have been surprised to hear of the persistence of racial profiling and discrimination in America.
Nigeria had its own challenges, but has no history of apartheid and no established tradition of societies structured along racial lines, so in contrast to Michelle, I didn’t experience race as a defining element of my upbringing or identity.
And as a child, much of what I gleaned about America from its music and TV, was positive.
In 1978, I wrote to President Jimmy Carter’s daughter, Amy, curious to know what life was like in the White House. She was the same age as me and, at the time, her father’s name was frequently mentioned in adult conversation, as Nigeria was transitioning from the Westminster style of government to an American-style Presidential system.
As a girl, I didn’t think twice about wanting to be pen pals with Amy.
I wonder now, had I been a young black girl from Chicago’s South Side, would I have been as enamored? Indeed, would a letter from Chicago’s South Side have been answered as quickly as mine was, coming as it did from a foreign country?
I found myself pondering Michelle’s school photographs which showed the shift from an ethnically diverse kindergarten classroom to one that became predominantly black by fifth grade – the result of white flight.
I was surprised by the degree to which I saw aspects of my childhood in Michelle’s story. Perhaps this is the power of her story, in that it allows us to see aspects of ourselves in it
This change in classroom demographics mirrored mine except that at the American missionary school that I attended in Nigeria, where previously few black students had once been accepted, the shift signaled progress rather than decline.
I was surprised by the degree to which I saw aspects of my childhood in Michelle’s story. Perhaps this is the power of her story, in that it allows us to see aspects of ourselves in it. Listening to the responses of many who have read her book, I know that I am not alone.
While others may see different things, for me, thousands of miles away from Chicago’s South Side, and only five years younger than Michelle, I too grew up ‘to the sound of striving’ from where we lived in a tiny two-bedroom apartment (the size of the two-car garage over which it sat) on Naraguta Avenue in Jos, Nigeria. Like Mr Robinson, my father (a vicar) worked at the same job for many years and my mother stayed at home with the children.
I saw myself in her personality traits and in particular, the extent to which she worried about being good enough. ‘Are you good enough?’ runs like a refrain throughout her book.
This is a sentiment that many young girls and women have experienced – many of us with accompanying stories of the low expectations placed upon us based on gender and/or race. Michelle writes about her guidance counselor, who doubted whether she was ‘Princeton material’, noting that ‘failure is a feeling long before it’s an actual result.’
I too experienced something similar when I’d moved to England and was attending a sixth form college. I was not encouraged to apply to Oxford and Cambridge. Instead, I was directed by the school’s careers office to one of the ‘caring professions’ – not a doctor as I’d once dreamt of being, but a nurse or teacher.
Michelle’s story, while deeply rooted in the American story, speaks to experiences that are universal. It speaks to the universal challenges that women and young girls continue to face around the world, as well as to those of less privileged backgrounds where one encounters, to use Michelle’s words, the ‘universal challenge of squaring who you are with where you come from’.
As I read, I found additional connections to my own life. In 1991, Michelle visited Kenya with her then boyfriend, Barack Obama the ‘strange mix-of-everything man’.
Because I’d lived in Kenya several years earlier and because I’d read Dreams from My Father, in which Barack writes of his first visits to his father’s home country, I was curious to know how Michelle had found Kenya.
It’s a curious thing to realize, the in-betweenness one feels being African American in Africa. It gave me a hard-to-explain feeling of sadness, a sense of being unrooted in both lands
I’d hoped she might feel some sort of connection to the country and the continent.
But, as she writes, ‘It’s a curious thing to realize, the in-betweenness one feels being African American in Africa. It gave me a hard-to-explain feeling of sadness, a sense of being unrooted in both lands.’
Her response reminded me of James Baldwin’s writings, in particular his essay ‘Encounter on the Seine’, in which he describes the sense of ‘alienation’ between African Americans and Africans ‘over a gulf of three hundred years’.
Baldwin, who understood Africa and America well, offers in his writing bridges across this gulf. As Michelle’s memoir travels around the world, I believe it too has the potential to bridge this gulf.
After living in Kenya, I moved as a teenager to Islington in London. As such, Michelle’s visit to Islington’s Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School, a mile from where I once lived, was of particular interest to me.
The school includes many working class students and recent immigrants. And because I could see my teenage self among these students it was easy for me to understand the positive impact of a First Lady’s visit. Back in the 1980s and 90s, I used to look to America for everything from black role models to black hair products.
The only professional black woman that I saw on TV at that time was Moira Stuart – the first female black British TV newsreader.
While there were other professional black British women of note, few enjoyed the visibility of their white counterparts. Looking back, it’s probably no coincidence that I dreamt of being a newscaster and that the first job I applied for after leaving college was with the BBC.
The First Lady’s visit must have had a similarly empowering effect on those she met for, as she notes, the school saw a marked improvement in test scores following her visit.
Uddraget er et kapitel i det 12 sider lange essay, “Meeting Mrs. Obama”, skrevet af den prisvindende forfatter Sarah Ladipo Manyika – hvis seneste bog Som et muldyr der bringer flødeis til solen udkom på dansk den 4. maj 2018 på forlaget Rebel with a Cause.
Essayet om Michelle Obama kan læses i sin helhed i magasinet Granta: https://granta.com/on-meeting-mrs-obama/ og bringes efter aftale med forfatteren og forlaget.
From Nobel laureates to debut novelists, international translations to investigative journalism, each themed issue of Granta turns the attention of the world’s best writers on to one aspect of the way we live now. Granta does not have a political or literary manifesto, but it does have a belief in the power and urgency of the story and its supreme ability to describe, illuminate and make real.
Granta magazine was founded in 1889 by students at Cambridge University as The Granta, a periodical of student politics, badinage and literary enterprise, named after the river that runs through the town. In this original incarnation it published the work of writers like A.A. Milne, Michael Frayn, Stevie Smith, Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath.
In 1979, Bill Buford transformed Granta from a student publication to the literary quarterly it remains today. Granta Books came ten years later, quickly becoming one of the most independent-minded and prestigious literary publishers in the UK.
Granta’s Best of Young issues, released decade by decade, introduce the most important voices of each generation – in Britain, America, Brazil and Spain – and have been defining the contours of the literary landscape since 1983. As the Observer writes: ‘In its blend of memoirs and photojournalism, and in its championing of contemporary realist fiction, Granta has its face pressed firmly against the window, determined to witness the world.’
Topfoto: Flickr, Creative Commons.
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