Stop Getting Married On Plantations

Monuments to slavery won’t lose their romantic allure until Americans understand the horrors of their own history.

 

It was not a kind thought that flitted across my mind while I was waiting in the airport in Montreal. The weather was bad, my flight was late, and I was having lunch on the “American side” of the terminal, listening to a big, jovial man talking about his son’s wedding on a plantation in Charleston, South Carolina.

The man was discussing ordinary things—the weather, the bride, the wine served, what music they played. Everyone, he said, was dressed in antebellum clothing.

“So much fun!” is how he summed it up.

“Dancing on graves!” is what went through my mind.

Was I being uncharitable? I am the third generation in my family whose body is not legally owned by others—the carnal issue of a legal fiction and a political proof that reigned supreme in the not-so-distant past. My mind drags those details into the present involuntarily, for these feelings are deep in me. At the same time, this is the narrative by which I was protected, insulated, cautioned, and by some measures made paranoid: They might own your body, but they can never own you.

I am safest, I learned from my grandmother, when I discipline myself to leave the body behind. It is a mystery, a kind of magic, to be raised both within and without, to see and to see oneself seeing. Still, there is a certain traumatic remove in the distance required to surveil oneself from afar—the stress that W.E.B. Du Bois called “double consciousness.”

But back to the “American side” of the Canadian airport. The man and his companion seemed like good people—happy and racially innocent, swaddled in a kind of bubble of bliss, however radioactive it might have seemed to me. I wondered again if I was being uncharitable. This kind of self-consciousness is ingrained by now; more than one white friend has called me “too politically correct” to ever relax. It is not the man’s fault, I am made to understand. After all, it is not a mortal sin to marry one’s child off in the magnolia-​scented bosom of a Confederate mansion built and serviced by the invisible slaves. How could they know? Is it really their responsibility?

Recently, The Washington Postpublished a story about the discomfort some white people experience during tours of antebellum mansions in the Deep South. “My husband and I were extremely disappointed in this tour,” wrote one online reviewer, noting that her family had never owned slaves. “We didn’t come to hear a lecture on how the white people treated slaves…. The tour guide was so radical about slave treatment we felt we were being lectured and bashed about the slavery…. I’ll go back to Louisiana and see some real plantations that are so much more enjoyable to tour.”

These thoughts upset me. I set aside the vexed question of “real plantations” for the moment, gently, so that I could better digest my soup.

My friends are right: I don’t relax. This history is too resonant in my body. It’s not easy for me to work up any kind of nostalgia for a style of life that depended on slaves, hierarchy, imperiousness, and pomp. And I frankly despise how the tourism industry has underwritten childish rituals of antebellum dress-up in crinoline and whalebone and marketed them as romantic, swoony, and gossamer.

I am no fun at all, I know.

But I continue to explore this affective power as worthy of serious thought. I try to acknowledge the deep pleasure of that parent at his child’s wedding and to place it in a different part of my heart from the resentment I feel about the choice of venue. I try to winnow the anger I feel about how much of that cruel history has been steamrollered into oblivion by deep-fried, honeysuckled symbolism. The winnowing is hard work. And I sometimes feel another kind of resentment about how the burden of such emotional assortment falls disproportionately on black people.

Some time ago, the artist Kevin Beasley was interviewed for ashort film titled Kevin Beasley’s Raw Materials. In the film, produced by the arts non-profit Art21 and screened at the Whitney Museum in New York City, he reflected on the legacy of the cotton industry in his family’s history and in the American South, asking himself, “Why am I so mad at this plant? This plant is not doing anything except growing and being beautiful.” I completely understood the paradox: We hate the traces of slavery; no matter their innocence, the symbols summon pain. They pull a perfumed scrim over atrocity. It is the same reductive euphemism of those who refer to slaves as “African immigrants” or “indentured servants.”

In February 2019, the legendary sportscaster Warner Wolf was arrested in Naples, Florida, after defacing a sign at the entrance of the gated community where he lives, which reads “Classics Plantation Estates.” He allegedly tore off the word “Plantation.” Without condoning the vandalism, I was nonetheless heartened. It is too rare to hear of a white person so powerfully overcome by the same historical associations that occur to most African Americans. I felt as though “my” history might be more generously shared as comprehensively “ours,” as a pan-racially American history, with plantation life seen for all its complex and divisive repercussions.

Aesthetically, the antebellum plantations of the Old South are undeniably beautiful—flowering, gracefully constructed, with seemingly benevolent stretches of fields and lawns. But they’re built on human degradation, and so they live on as icons of romance premised on the fragile privilege of racial innocence, historical oblivion, and educational denialism. American schools do not teach our own history. We write much of it out of the grand narrative, gussying up the bad bits, playing down the sorrow. And then, in the spacious vacuity of mutual misapprehension, we butt heads, we bleed.

We stumble in circles, so close to one another and yet so far apart, locked out of the homes and neighborhoods we forget we built together.

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Boris Johnson Interviewed Me for His Column. Here’s What Didn’t Make It Into Print.

On Brexit, race, and criminal justice, Britain’s new prime minister has always played both sides for maximum expediency.

 

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Artificial Intelligence Is Failing Humans

When someone’s always watching, we lose our sense of self.

In a recent New York Times editorial titled “Why We Should Stop Fetishizing Privacy,” entrepreneur Heidi Messer posited the ultimate list of techno-optimist clichés. Tech companies drive the economy, bringing health, wealth, jobs, and truth. Those who caution against a host of risks such as monopoly, hubris, and shortsightedness should be dismissed as ignorant “privacy evangelists.” Public regulation is bad because tech companies have “the talent and resources” to protect us against cyberwarfare and “foreign and criminal intrusion.” We should follow the example of “digital natives,” who “start with an awareness that their data isn’t private.” According to Messer, public oversight would only gum up the workings of all the utopian delights of this shiny new world. Given such blessings, why would we want to break up big tech companies?

There is much to unpack in Messer’s breezy dismissal of both unchecked monopoly power and the invasive apparatus of totalistic technological surveillance. For present purposes, however, I would like to think about how the concept of the self is affected by the widening use of algorithms to translate more and more bits of ourselves into numerical representations. Artist Trevor Paglen gives a succinct example: When people upload pictures of their kids, algorithms reading those photos feed invisible data sets in ways that may eventually influence something as apparently unrelated as those children’s health insurance. Similarly, if a teenager uploads a picture of herself having a beer, her underage drinking may be marked as information that can be sold, utilized by police departments whose scrutiny “will be guided by your ‘pattern of life’ signature,” warns Paglen. “When you put an image on Facebook or other social media, you’re feeding an array of immensely powerful artificial systems information about how to identify people and how to recognize places and objects, habits and preferences, race, class, and gender identifications, economic statuses, and much more.”

Recently, a 10-year-old in Maryland shared clearly marked play money with classmates while riding on his school bus. The driver contacted his supervisor. Police were called, and finally, the Secret Service—all to investigate the child for counterfeiting. While this is absurd on its face (and yes, the child was black), what’s more invisibly sad is that each time a person enters a database for having had contact with police, it will affect all sorts of other life chances, including risk assessments for employment, credit, and child custody.

That’s largely because artificial intelligence dispenses predictive computations based only on what it is trained—by humans—to see. Many universities now useCanvas, a course management platform on which students can discuss material or share lecture notes while their instructor is talking. When I was being trained to use the program, I noticed that the IT department had a screen on which the entire faculty was numerically ranked based on who generated the most comments during lectures. I was told that it would help us know what parts of a lecture stirred interest, but to me, it seemed only a whisker away from a Kim Kardashian standard of generated buzz as professorial achievement—a test I surely fail because I often tell my students to close their laptops.

Nevertheless, that kind of scoring is becoming a more important metric in all walks of life, particularly on social media. Are you getting hits? Are you being seen? I was tempted to run out and buy a glitter bustier and some feathers in order to raise my rank. The system incentivizes me to be splashy—in the eyes of a machine reading the abstraction of students representing me via the abstraction of how often their fingers strike the keys over the course of an hour.

What gets lost between life and the screen is that we are contextual beings. That’s where machines and AI fall dismally short. Machine learning has troubledistinguishing the serious from the ironic or a pig butt from pornography, while as humans, we can smell fear, taste excitement, and feel the heat of someone else’s humiliation. There are sensory dimensions that go into our calculations of whether to like or not like someone, to grow close or pull back, to rescue, forgive, or let die.

AI also threatens an important aspect of democratic identity: the right of self-invention. The word “persona” means “mask,” as in ancient theater. It is something through which one presents oneself to the world. In jurisprudence, the persona is both the protection of one’s inner privacy (or freedom to think without censor) and the right to invent oneself outwardly. We present ourselves differently at the opera than the pool hall. We code-switch between accents and languages when speaking to our babies as opposed to our bosses. We seek amnesty for our misdeeds. But we lose that ability to compose ourselves fluidly and situationally if we are eternally confined by our last worst moment—if our weakest and most foolish acts are always fresh and foremost in the unnuanced mechanical brain of deep data.

W.E.B. Du Bois and Frantz Fanon described the stress of double consciousness experienced by black people living in white worlds—the phenomenon of always having to be aware of who’s watching. Life under these conditions is no longer one’s own creative, whimsical, and enjoyable construction. It becomes about a constant fear of offending. That kind of disembodying quality can be hard to bear, even when it’s praising you—just think of the obsessive gaze focused on celebrities like Princess Diana or John Lennon, who were ultimately adored to death. Yet it’s what tech giants like Google and Facebook seem intent on normalizing. Internalizing the panopticon has always been an extraordinary stress on marginalized populations like migrants and people of color. If this is the new norm for everybody, we will see those kinds of stresses magnified, stretching us ultimately to the breaking point. A merciful society gives us room to breathe.

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Eurovision’s Muddled DNA

Pop genetics don’t belong in a musical event—or its marketing.

Although unfamiliar to most Americans, the Eurovision Song Contest is the longest-running televised musical event in the world. Launched in 1956 by the Eurovision broadcasting network as part of a broader attempt to unite Europe after World War II, the competition borrows from the campy musical aesthetics of Abba and Céline Dion (both past winners) and precedes popular shows like The Voice by many decades. Eligible entrants may come from countries with a European Broadcast Union member—including nations in Europe, other states on the Mediterranean, and via no easy historical logic, Australia.

The main sponsor of this year’s competition, which runs May 14 to 18 in Tel Aviv, Israel, was MyHeritage, a DNA ancestry-tracking company that launched a campaign called One Big Family to promote the event using the contestants’ genetic profiles. Unsurprisingly, most of them show relations to populations from the continent of Europe. Others reflect the identity politics of recent population shifts: Dami Im, who represented Australia, is described as having migrated Down Under as a child from “her native Korea” in a way that pits race against citizenship. Though Im “is (ostensibly…hold that thought!) not of European origin,” the MyHeritage test breathlessly reports her as “2.1% Finnish.” The dramatically hyped reveal implies that that dollop of Finnishness makes her part of the “family” after all.

Sweden’s John Lundvik, who appears to be black, has no DNA profile on the website, but 1991 Swedish champion Carola Häggkvist does. She’s supposedly “100% Northern European,” with “3300 relatives from 30 different countries on MyHeritage that she can now reach out to directly.” Never mind that having thousands of relatives in 30 separate nations would seem to call into question the possibility of being 100 percent anything at all—and instead point to the empirical truth that all humans are extremely and recently interrelated.

As Häggkvist’s example demonstrates, the incoherence of simultaneously asserting purity and diversity makes sense only through the powerful cultural confusions that mistake politics and geography for biology. This romanticizing of genetic connection translated into percentages is an old problem. Describing someone as 25 or 50 or 75 percent this or that is a reinscription of eugenic proportionalism that goes back to slavery, to Jim Crow, to Nazi blood laws, to the walled and war-torn worlds of half-breeds, quadroons, octoroons.

Of course, it’s also a new version of an old problem. Political standoffs around the world are increasingly informed by narratives of biological difference. These beliefs have terrible implications for democracy, equal protection, and justice. Yet there is profit to be made from such fictions—so ancestry-tracking companies have invested in selling the romance of family connection as a way of mining, owning, and exploiting the samples that consumers submit to them. Ubiquitous television ads push idiotic assignments of cultural inheritance: “I’ve traded in my lederhosen for a kilt!” proclaims a satisfied customer on one. And consider 23andMe’s advertisements during the 2018 World Cup. Proffering a “new way for people to experience global events,” the company produced a campaign named Root For Your Roots. “Why not pick a team based on your genetic ancestry?” the website announcement reads. Another customer says in a sidebar, “Team England is in my DNA… Go Team England!”

It’s human to want to write ourselves into mythic narratives and epic lineages. And technology has fast-tracked the romantic memorialization of our place in the world. At its most utile, DNA ancestry tracking allows us to identify certain close familial relations and, more generally, some of the broad continental contours from which our ancestors might have come. However, it’s unfortunate that companies claim to deliver results in biologized percentages that overlap with purely social categories like race, ethnicity, and belonging to a nation-state, as well as even more incoherent designations like “Hispanic.”

There is great irony in an arc that begins with Eurovision’s redemptive, post-Holocaust origin story yet lands us in a world where the bounds of “one big family” are mapped by assays for biological purity. This isn’t intended as disparagement of Eurovision’s greater project. Music can create community, and its prescriptions are the literal manifestations of harmony with others, despite the contest’s many controversies—from Austrian contestant Conchita Wurst, a drag queen whose 2014 win caused a homophobic backlash in Russia, Serbia and Turkey, to this year’s “parodic” promo in which the Israeli public broadcaster greeted attendees with a song touting the “complex identities” of Israelis and a line that went, “Most of us are Jews, but only some of us are greedy.”

Aware that my yearning for international chorale was born of my own experience as an African American, I watched the show and sang along. “My father raised me like the wind / Blowing softly, singing, telling fairy tales,” crooned Joci Pápai, who identifies as Roma and was Hungary’s representative this year. “He lived where every road ended / One thousand and one years aren’t enough for a life.” Now, as in the 1950s, a friendly coming together in song feels like an appealing way to soothe lives marked by loss, disappearance, and unnatural death. But if we are to truly heal our collective sadness, we must find a path to community other than genetics. Biological reductionism is not romantic. It is not a game. It ought not be driven by data dives for profit. The powerful return of biological determinism in all parts of life—from our credit ratings to our criminal predispositions—is built upon deadly hierarchies of inheritance. We should fear this, for praxis makes perfect, and repetition, over time, will render it real.

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Why Everyone Should Care About Mass E-carceration

The social costs of constant surveillance are greater than we might think.

Electronic monitoring is popularly hailed as more liberating than jail. But as New York Times columnist Michelle Alexander writes, it is also a blatant manifestation of “the newest” Jim Crow, or the systemic oppression of African Americans through the criminal-justice system. Under e-carceration, limits on mobility “may make it difficult or impossible to get or keep a job, attend school, care for your kids or visit family members. You’re effectively sentenced to an open-air digital prison, one that may not extend beyond your house, your block or your neighborhood,” she writes. That concern is immeasurably amplified when the technology is designed to do more than mere geolocation. In 2014, Prison Legal News reportedon GPS ankle monitors that were equipped with cell-phone features that let police, prosecutors, or prison supervisors monitor the conversations of pretrial defendants and parolees without their knowledge or consent. When a defense attorney noticed authorities could talk to his client through an ankle bracelet, he filed a complaint, noting that SecureAlert, the company that manufactures the device, could unilaterally activate the microphones without notice. His client’s device was temporarily removed for the duration of the trial, but it remains unclear how many of the approximately 125,000 devices worn by those on supervised release in the United States are also equipped with eavesdropping capabilities.

Now it turns out that the ankle bracelets worn by juvenile offenders and pretrial defendants in Chicago have been equippedwith microphones that permit social services, probation officers, and other government agencies to make unscheduled calls and send push notifications concerning their wearers’ whereabouts. Most alarmingly, the devices allow authorities to listen in on conversations, including interactions with parents, teachers, psychologists, or peers in the bedroom, in the bathroom, or during consultation in an attorney’s office. The monitors confound the obligation of confidentiality with lawyers, therapists, and other fiduciaries. They turn the constitutional right against self-incrimination on its head. Wiretapping children helps the state monitor their entire social world, exposing intimate personal lives far beyond the criminal-justice system’s jurisdiction.

These days, many of us imprison ourselves with analogous technology by choice—the smart watches we wear on our wrists, the GPS tracking on our cell phones or car-location apps, the mellifluous reassurances of Siri. These aren’t perceived as disciplinary tools; instead, they are marketed as ways to connect. Take the ads on Amazon for wearable child trackers that promise constant oversight of one’s progeny: all smiles and pastel colors, not a hint of dystopia. And while this sort of thing could well be handy for lost dogs, Alzheimer’s patients, or those with cognitive disabilities, perpetual radio contact also introduces a control-freaky, dependency-inducing moral tether into parent-child relations.

Verizon’s GizmoWatch, a tracker with an LTE smart watch built around it, is a good example. According to one breathless review on the website Wareable, the “smartwatch stuff” does double duty by priming youngsters for long-term patterns of consumption, in that it “is actually aimed at getting kids used to the idea of wearing a smartwatch.” Plus, there’s a Mickey Mouse edition, a built-in step counter, inactivity reminders, and “a hopscotch tracker and a voice changing mode to make things a little more fun.” More to the point, the GizmoWatch has two-way calling and messaging and can be programmed with up to 10 contacts approved by parents, with location tracking and GPS fences that parents can delimit.

Similarly, a platform called Canvas Parent advertises itself as empowering parents “to take a greater role in overseeing their children’s academic work.” The app maker pitches it as “a convenient communication channel for schools and parents,” promising to let parents “view assignment descriptions, assignment grades, course grades and course announcements, as well as set reminders for assignments and alerts for specific grade activity.”

While advertised as enhancing transparency, the app burdens children by perpetually measuring their performance, complete with multiple daily push notifications of what must be done and done now. It’s sold in the name of educating children, but in practice, it teaches parents not just how to participate but also to intrude by providing little space for kids to learn anything for or by themselves.

Someplace between digital prisons and digital playpens are the apps, cameras, and microphones that govern us all. Insurers ask how much you exercise, employers monitor how long you take for lunch, and Amazon even patented wristbands that could tell if workers “were about to place items in the wrong bins.” Some of these systems require employees to download trackers onto their personal phones. The social cost of 24/7 surveillance, then, is not merely the mechanization of our duties at work; it makes us uncreative robots in the process, forming us into obedient soldiers.

Scholars Woodrow Hartzog and Evan Selinger recently underscored the simple human importance of obscurity—that is, being able to move relatively unnoticed in the world, even through public spaces. Despite the too-easy bromide of “I have nothing to hide,” our mental and constitutional health requires a degree of protected thought-space in order for us to become self-reflective, responsible, and aware. A precious species of whimsy and personal satisfaction flourishes only when we are not constantly under a spotlight. The shelter of obscurity, Hartzog and Selinger remind us, operates as a “barrier that can shield you from government, corporate and social snoops.” Without that most basic allowance of autonomy, we will have capitulated to a civic practice of nothing less than totalitarianism.

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Our Toxic-Speech Epidemic

Trump likes his words free, loud, and hateful. Just don’t take him literally.

 

When Breitbart asked Donald Trump about his recent executive order to “protect” speech on college campuses, the president gave a wandering reply that included something of a threat: “I can tell you, I have the support of the police, the support of the military, the support of the Bikers for Trump—I have the tough people, but they don’t play it tough until they go to a certain point, and then it would be very bad, very bad.”

If Trump’s statement sounded inconsistent with his mandate of free speech, the backdrop against which he spoke was even more remarkable. The news that week was filled with reports that Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has been deploying armed motorcycle gangs as extrajudicial enforcers in his country. (By the same token, Vladimir Putin’s fondness for the paramilitary bikers known as the Night Wolves is notorious.) Trump’s statement also came just days before a sitting member of Congress, Representative Steve King (R-IA), hypothesized about “another civil war” in the United States: “One side has about 8 trillion bullets, while the other side doesn’t know which bathroom to use…. Wonder who would win.” Again, an alarming image of our polity divided between armed and unarmed, right and left, the tough and those who didn’t see it coming.

Most glaringly, Trump bragged about his de facto backup crew just days before a heavily armed gunman killed 50 Muslims in New Zealand and cited the US president as a “symbol of renewed white identity” (albeit just “one time,” as Trump aide Kellyanne Conway noted helpfully). Obviously, a politician’s words don’t necessarily make him liable for the acts of all his admirers. But the issue is not about proving a direct causation between Trump’s speech and the violence it inspires. It is just as worrying that there is a US president who so relentlessly dehumanizes, infantilizes, hypersexualizes, pathologizes, and criminalizes. Trump is not Hitler, but the rhetoric he employs isn’t that far off. Hitler wrote that Jews were a “poison” to national bodies, causing “a ferment of decomposition” among peoples and races that renders them, in the broader sense, “a dissolver of human culture.” Trump and many of his appointees have reinvigorated such sentiments with a caustic new life, applying them to everyone from Mexicans to Muslims to Democrats to dead war heroes: low-IQ, lowlife, parasitic, worst-of-the-worst, scummy, wussy, disgraceful, ugly, fat-faced, coddled, vicious, animal, raping, drug-dealing, a bad-very-bad subhuman invasion.

The philosopher Lynne Tirrell writes about toxic speech in the contexts of Nazi demagoguery and the Rwandan genocide. She casts it as a public-health problem in which hateful memes spread and can be tracked according to predictive patterns that “divide groups, make people think the group division is natural,” and encourage the use of “derogatory terms to refer to the group you plan to eliminate, especially terms that have action-engendering power.” Words that are “action-engendering”—that move people to act—are sometimes imperatives or have institutional heft. They are the bridge from purely linguistic descriptions to the nonlinguistic behaviors that such terms license or permit.

As Tirrell observes about the dehumanizing images deployed in the Rwandan genocide: Boys “learn how to kill a snake with a machete, and so when Tutsi were called snakes, the Hutu militia knew exactly how to attack.” She notes that the bipolar division into “us and them” is an especially efficient action-engendering device in the creation of bunkered populations. There is a persistent bipolarity concerning who is or is not entitled to share in the president’s envisioned American destiny: Republicans versus Democrats, right versus left, real versus fake, good versus bad, “our people” versus the rest. For all his professed devotion to the notion of free speech, Trump has consistently expressed the wish to shut up and put down those whom he deems not among “my people.” At a Michigan rally, he urged security guards to remove a protester with these words: “Get him out. Try not to hurt him. If you do, I’ll defend you in court…. Are Trump rallies the most fun? We’re having a good time.” When a protester heckled him at a gathering in Las Vegas, Trump declared: “I’d like to punch him in the face.” The president even offered to pay supporter John McGraw’s legal fees after McGraw sucker-puncheda black heckler and then told an Inside Edition crew that “we might have to kill him” if he saw the protester again. McGraw, Trump purred, “obviously loves the country.”

Hitler described the bonding effects of mass meetings as essential for “esprit de corps.” He wrote in Mein Kampf: “When from his little workshop or big factory, in which he feels very small, [the ordinary man] steps for the first time into a mass meeting and has thousands and thousands of people of the same opinion around him…when the visible success and agreement of thousands confirm to him the rightness of the new doctrine and for the first time arouse doubt in the truth of his previous conviction—then he himself has succumbed to the magic influence of what we designate as ‘mass suggestion.’”

The Washington Post recently published statistics showing that counties that hosted Trump rallies saw a 226 percent increase in hate crimes over those that hadn’t. “It is hard to discount a ‘Trump effect’ when a considerable number of these reported hate crimes reference Trump,” the story noted.

We are living through a time of emergency—just not the one to which Trump would assign meaning. The emergency I fear is precisely the great collective power among the armed and angry warriors to whom the president throws the red meat of his words. His words are more than insult or defamation; they carry the weight of constant threat, for, as commander in chief, his speech may be construed as imperative. Which of “us” will follow that command?

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Trembling With Thought: Immersed in the world of the former First Lady

review by Patricia J. Williams, Times Literary Supplement, published February 8. 2019

_______________________________________________

BECOMING

by Michelle Obama

488pp. Viking. £25.

978 0 241 33414 0

US: Crown. $32.50. 978 1 524 76313 8

_______________________________________________

One of the most useless questions an adult can ask a child [is] – What do you want to be when you grow up?  As if growing up were finite. As if at some point you become something and that’s the end.” This assertion appears on the first page of the former First Lady Michelle Robinson Obama’s new autobiography, and its implicit commitment to life’s infinite possibilities resonates invitingly on every page thereafter. Indeed, Obama’s fidelity to what she calls the “responsibility” of optimism is reflected in the very choice of title: Becoming .

Perhaps we all grow up by learning to be curators of our own dreams. And this is a book about the care and cultivation of the American Dream, in its best sense: the dream of survivors, played forward through generations of their descendants. The myth with which every American child is imbued – that anyone, no matter how humble their origins, can grow up to be President – is a tribute to the tenacious faith-in-a-better-tomorrow of slaves, serfs and victims of pogroms and genocides. The election of Barack Obama was supposed to have been the apotheosis of that dream, the “post-racial” triumph of the Civil Rights movement, in concert with Emma Lazarus’s paean to equality, human rights and mercy, as inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty– “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”.

Of course, dreams require a wakeful world in which to be made manifest. And so there is a kind of lurking dread as one reads of Michelle Obama’s donning a floaty gown for the Inaugural Ball, her heart filled with appreciation for the “dreaminess” of her family’s trajectory from a crowded walk-up apartment on Chicago’s South Side to the White House. We know that time has marched on to Donald Trump’s proclaimed nightmare of “American carnage”; and that the generosity of birthright citizenship has been besieged and unbalanced by wildly alienating fears of “alien invasion”.

Perhaps part of the power of Becoming derives from the rueful longing one feels for the Obama administration’s coherence and gravitas – and from the reminder of the sorts of metamorphoses made possible by kindness, inclusivity, good education and good health care for all. This acute sense of then and now inspires reflection on difference, and the meeting of extremes – what the philosopher and man of letters Édouard Glissant might have called a “trembling of thought”: he captured in that phrase an awakened state of vulnerable humanity that “unites us in absolute diversity, in a whirlpool of encounter”. Such thought trembling at this political moment operates like a quiet call to action.

Obama’s meditation on her life is broken into three sections: the first, “Becoming Me”, is about having to engage with the myriad negative messages conveyed to children like her, growing up in a working-class, largely black neighbourhood on the South Side of Chicago. She is in primary school when she observes white neighbours disappearing in droves, moving to suburbs, motivated by the notion that having a black neighbour, no matter how congenial, will “lower the property values”. (The unfortunate demographic transformation known as “white flight”, begun in the 1950s, was underwritten by government banking policies through which white people could get subsidized mortgages to live in leafy, suburban white-only geographies, while black applicants were consigned to “red-lined” “urban jungles” that had been arbitrarily designated “too risky” for loans.) In short order, her neighbourhood becomes an “inner city ghetto”. The precocious Michelle Robinson experiences this most directly as systematic disinvestment in education for children who look like her. “Failure is a feeling long before it’s an actual result”, she observes.

Fraser and Marian Robinson, Michelle’s determined parents, fight hard to educate her and her elder brother, Craig. They place a premium on books, piano lessons, gentle self-discipline and orderly comportment in a disordering world. They bypass the strictures of shamefully underfunded neighbourhood schools and, against the odds, place their children in racially integrated, city-wide programmes reserved for “gifted” students (by which is too often simply meant well resourced and privately tutored). Her parents teach her to push past the “perfunctory, patronizing” smiles of guidance counsellors who, with “practiced efficiency”, tell students where they do and do not belong. “I’m not sure”, says one such counsellor, “that you’re Princeton material.” Both Michelle and her brother defy those challenges – despite the price and the constant self-doubts–and graduate from Princeton with flying colours.

She goes on to Harvard Law School and then to work at Sidley Austin, one of the US’s leading law firms, where she meets, mentors and marries the remarkable man who will be President. Having checked off all the boxes of success, and having ambitiously and obediently proved that she is indeed “good enough”, she finally finds time and respite to listen to her own inner desires. And with that, a door opens to an important realization –that, no matter how much she excelled at it, she “hated being a lawyer”.

The next section of the book, “Becoming Us”, reveals the shape-shifting reinventions Michelle Obama undergoes in the early years of her marriage to a man she describes as both the love of her life and her dispositional opposite. Barack Hussein Obama is loose and relaxed, while she adheres to careful planning. She fears the relentlessly unforgiving world of politics as he increasingly throws himself into it. Amid this new configuration of her life she reveals yet more layers of her own complexity: never a static being, she leaves her well-paying law firm to turn to public interest projects, eventually becoming the executive director for community affairs for the University of Chicago Medical Center. She loses her father, becomes a mother, juggles the duties of work and home. She is constantly rethinking, redoing, remapping. She forgives herself as she forgives others. She is generous, nimble, resilient.

In the section entitled “Becoming More”, we are privy to an unprecedented and intimate view of both the hyper-visibility and the secrecy of life in the White House. Obama’s prose up to this point has been graceful, poignant and witty; here it really takes flight. In her tenure as First Lady she must confront the near-superhuman demands and constraints placed on any political spouse –demands and constraints that are, in the Obamas’ case, amplified by their being the first African American First Family. Here we become party to her worry as her daughter Sasha leaves for her first day of school in a government van, “peering through ballistic-proof glass”. We learn in fine detail the toll it takes, living under such scrutiny: of the bullets someone on the street fired into the windows of the West Wing; of living in a house where opening a window for fresh air or venturing outside without overseers, advance approval, and a bevy of handlers, is impossible. She makes us feel the odd sensory deprivation that results from bombproof insulation’s dampening of sound. We learn what it feels like to have one’s person constantly demeaned as too big, too dark or too “mannish”. She learns to handle being simultaneously idolized and disparaged by anonymous “kooks”, not to mention high-ranking members of Congress. “Dignity is a choice”, she declares. Most famously, she resolves that “when they go low, we go high”.

Obama does ponder the long history of racial violence in America and its ongoing eruptions; but for the most part she is remarkably restrained in calling out the retributive voices of right-wingers such as the shock-jock Rush Limbaugh, who continues to intone “I hope Obama fails”, even now. There is circumspection in her words as she struggles to describe the emotional devastation wreaked in 2015 by the white nationalist Dylann Roof, who shot nine black parishioners at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston South Carolina, proclaiming as he did so: “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go”. What she does not say is that Roof’s murders were committed on the 193rd anniversary of another massacre at the same site: in 1822, white citizens suspected Denmark Vesey, the founding pastor of Emanuel, of planning a slave revolt. As a result of that rumour, Vesey and thirty-five others were hanged and the church burned to the ground. Roof claims to have chosen his mark with that history in mind. Obama also refrains from observing that Roof’s views are echoed to an alarming degree in the discourse of her husband’s successor. Without substantiation, President Trump casts generalized blame on asylum seekers from Latin and Central America for rape, drug trafficking, child smuggling and murder. “These aren’t people”, he has said of undocumented migrants. “These are animals.”

Obama’s composure breaks, however, when she writes of her profound distress at Trump’s insidiously xenophobic and baseless conspiracy theories about her husband: that he was not born in the US, that he was not a citizen but instead a “secret Muslim”, a fifth columnist of Kenyan infiltration. To Trump, she writes, this was a game. “He knew it wasn’t true.” Yet these “loud and reckless innuendos” were “putting my family’s safety at risk. And for this, I’d never forgive him”. It is not lost on her, the fact that, to certain minds, the election of an African American President seemed almost equivalent to a foreign invasion, a radical takeover, a palace coup. No matter how genial, competent or well mannered, “we ourselves are a provocation”. Yet even as she acknowledges that such reactionary resentment is as “old and deep and dangerous as ever”, she never adorns her description of this history with any hint of bitterness. “We lived with it as a family, and we lived with it as a nation. And carried on as gracefully as we could.”

It is in her carrying on that we learn to appreciate the enormous talent for life, justice and joy that characterizes this remarkable woman, amid her teams of guards, servants, secret service, managers of schedules and controllers of information and image. We learn of the care with which she figured out how best to wield the “soft and undefined” yet still extraordinary power that comes with being First Lady: the power to lobby for causes such as better school nutrition or veterans’ benefits. It is here, too, that we learn of how deeply attentive she and her husband are to notions of public service, self-sacrifice and the pursuit of the “collective best” as a balance to individual self-interest. We learn of her pride in the complete absence of scandal during the entire eight years of her husband’s administration. (Indeed, the Obamas paid for all their own expenses while living at the White House, including any food they or their guests ate, personal sundries, and even “every roll of toilet paper”.) She notes that her husband made a point of reading ten citizens’ letters every night from the thousands received; some of them were fan mail, some quite the opposite. “He read all of it, seeing it as part of the responsibility that came with the oath . . . he knew he had an obligation to stay open, to shut nothing out. While the rest of us slept, he took down the fences and let everything inside.” Barack Obama’s understanding of his job, she says, was “to take the chaos and metabolize it somehow into calm leadership”. How she and the President “comported ourselves in the face of instability mattered”: “Part of our role, as we understood it, was to model reason, compassion and consistency”.

It is not until the epilogue that Obama gives her greatest display of resilience. After the emotionally fraught campaign of 2016, and the transfer of power to a man whose political agenda she euphemistically describes as having “caused many Americans to doubt themselves and to doubt and fear one another”, while leaving “vulnerable members of our society exposed and dehumanized”, she returns to the resolute faith that begins with opening the hearts and minds of children, teaching them possibility rather than reinforcing labels such as “ghetto” or “militant”, labels that “foretold failure and then hastened its arrival”. We who are adults, she says, must set the table for our children’s future, and that means providing the instruction in how to believe that there is a future. To her, there is no other choice: “We have to hand them hope. Progress isn’t made through fear . . . . It was possible, I knew, to live on two planes at once – to have one’s feet planted in reality, but pointed in the direction of progress . . . . You got somewhere by building that better reality, if only in your own mind. . . . You may live in the world as it is, but you can still work to create the world as it should be”.

Her words contrast with the alarmist hysteria now emanating from the White House. And it is the election of Trump that leads Obama to pose a question that haunts her whole narrative: “What lasts?”

If Obama’s tale is all about becoming, the undercurrent of that tale is one of enduring –at Princeton, in the White House, in America itself – and ultimately the generosity involved in belonging. Hence, she is careful to position her “I” so that it is never far from broad coalitions of “we”. Knowing that her life in politics has made her an attention magnet, she decides that if the media “wanted to follow me, I was going to take them places”. And so she does, directing that attention to the needs of the homeless, the status of military veterans, disability rights and social goodwill: “the gaze belonged here”.

When she visits a girls’ school in London, in 2009, she hugs “every girl I could reach”, acutely aware that she is melding for them “where I came from” with the symbolic power of being First Lady. Such existential complexity is precisely what is missing from Trump’s world view: his static, declarative sentence structure is locked in inherency.  You are what you are. Or else you aren’t. It’s all in the blood. Trump’s uncle taught at MIT; the President has cited this as reason enough to believe in his own “very stable genius”.

By the last chapter of Becoming , one wants to linger among the many affable images of the Obama family with their mutual respect, kindness and general level-headedness. One wants to wallow in descriptions of the floppy bounding of their two large amiable dogs. On finishing I started reading the book again, just to stay muffled a bit longer in its bright and uplifting faith in the world.  The late Amos Oz once recalled the advice given by so many elders, recent refugees from the Second World War, to “enjoy every day because not every child grows up to be a person”. It was, he mused, “probably their way of telling me about the Holocaust or the frame of Jewish history . . . . I wanted to become a book, not a man. The house was full of books written by dead men, and I thought a book may survive”. This passage comes to mind because Michelle Obama’s memoir is threaded through with similar apprehensions of short-livedness; as a child she was sheltered by elders who used African American history both to warn and to inspire. Both Oz and Obama grew up with the mandate to soak in as much knowledge as they could while proceeding with the daily enjoyments of life– card games, shared meals, the company of cousins, books on the walls of small apartments, the reinforcements of love intertwined with sad dark histories.

Becoming provides a kindly disruption to the status quo. As Michelle Obama writes on the very last page, as though it were a threshold to the future:  “Let’s invite one another in”.

 

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