Mark McKinnon, who used to strategize for George W. Bush, said a few hours ago, “Michelle Obama delivered one of the best speeches I have ever seen in my career in politics.” I concur. And I was particularly struck by this sentence:
“I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves.”
She has said that before — most notably last month, during a City College of New York commencement address — but it was great that she referenced the factoid for millions of viewers who may well have been hearing it for the first time. And she did it not to make whites feel guilty, but to remind us of how far we’ve come as a nation. Full context:
“I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves. And I watch my daughters, two beautiful, intelligent, black young women playing with their dogs on the White House lawn. And because of Hillary Clinton, my daughters and all our sons and daughters now take for granted that a woman can be president of the United States. So, look, so don’t let anyone ever tell you that this country isn’t great, that somehow we need to make it great again. Because this right now is the greatest country on earth.”
History lesson, patriotic cri de coeur, and Trump rebuke … it was a veritible three-fer. Especially the patriotism factor. Tom Sugrue, an historian at New York University who’s in town for the convention, said that he was struck by “the optimism imbued in her remark — especially since this is someone who, eight years ago, was accused of being ‘anti-American,’ and of later doing a ‘terrorist fist bump’ with her husband.”
One can quibble with Michelle’s reading of slave history — as some right-wing keyboard warriors have predictably done — because the White House wasn’t solely built by slaves. But the White House Historical Preservation says it’s irrefutably true that slaves were pressed into service, especially for the hardest labor:
“The D.C. commissioners … initially planned to import workers from Europe to meet their labor needs. However, response to recruitment was dismal and soon they turned to African American(s) — enslaved and free — to provide the bulk of labor that built the White House.” A stonemason, Collen Williamson, “trained enslaved people on the spot at the government’s quarry …. Enslaved people quarried and cut the rough stone that was later dressed and laid by Scottish masons to erect the walls of the president’s house.”
And Jesse J. Holland, author of an ’06 book, “The Invisibles: The Untold Story of African American Slaves in the White House,” wrote: “With the invention of steam shovels still several years away, these slaves dug for the clay on site with hand shovels, working day and night to get the raw material to the skilled brick makers and at the same time, opening up ground on the site for the space that would become the White House’s foundation and cellar.”
But Michelle’s right-wing critics, who have dogged her since 2008 (to no effect; in polls, her favorability rating tops 70 percent), are most incensed about her attitude. Or what they take to be her attitude. They don’t think her slave reference is a testament to how far we’ve come. They think her attitude smacks of ingratitude.
After Michelle used the line last month in her commencement speech, she was assailed on one conservative site for “preachy race-baiting.” Another site denounced her “completely loaded race-baiting comment [uttered] for the express purpose of creating more division among the people …. Interesting that she’s lived there for what, eight years now? And it hasn’t really seemed to bother her much. Then again, how ironic a comment coming from someone who has earned the nickname ‘Mooch’ as we the American people are now the slaves paying for her rent, utilities …”
“Mooch?” Is that a thing inside the right-wing bubble? I don’t seem to recall a bubble rebellion about the cost of Laura Bush’s light bulbs.
Whatever. Michelle’s tenure is almost over, and they never laid a glove on her. That alone is worth a smile.