Michelle Obama: Those Who Say: “I Ain’t Voting For No Nigger”

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I hoped it wouldn’t come into being. But, in my bones I knew this was coming. But, it was still like taking an unexpected gut-shot to the spirit.

I was at a Starbucks yesterday, not a normal occurrence for me. I mostly stay in the cave. But, as I’ve mentioned here on TMV before, I am trying to learn to draw. So, I went with my conte and pages to draw passersby out the window at Starbucks.

… and there at a table, four men were discussing the remark that Michelle Obama made about being proud of her country for the first time in her adult life…

Suddenly one of the four men burst out loudly: “I ain’t voting for no nigger!”

The entire Starbucks of all women patrons and wait-staff went into stop-motion. Silence. Were these guys miscreants, mentally-ill wanderers? No. They appeared to be just four businessmen, two middle-aged, two younger, talking out of their minds over their coffee cups, and laughing about ‘niggers.’

I sensed that if, “I ain’t voting for no nigger,” is said boldly by one person in a public place, by someone who rightly or wrongly feels no fear of confrontation or retaliation, then you can be sure, it is being said aloud elsewhere by thousands more.

Certainly there is much talk today about ‘what Michelle Obama’ said, and really meant. Many kinds of talk and opinion… various people have been discussing or debating or just flatly carrying on about what Michelle Obama meant or didn’t mean, and weighing in on her character, brainpower, heart, or lack of such, etc. (Her husband, later said she meant her words more narrowly with regard to the political process wherein people stood up for change.)

My thoughts however, keep returning to another matter entirely. I’m not new to scabrous words. This man’s outburst at Starbucks is not the first, but merely the elevendy-millionth time as a woman from a minority group myself, I’ve heard such or been felled by such words personally.

BUT, especially since being flash-shot by this man at Starbucks bellowing about “a nigger only gonna be president over my dead and burning body,” ….I rode the Time Machine back over the many decades I’ve be blessed to live thus far, and I see, with immediacy, how far we’ve come in this nation… meaning, that yes, any of us minority persons can be objected to publicly nowadays, and called names out loud, in print, in front of and behind backs….

but NOT immediately and with full looking away by all authorities and cronies, be dragged to the dark of the woods and dealt an ‘inch of one’s life’ beating, or death with finality, there…

when I count the changes of consciousness in law enforcement in many parts of our country, the changes in appellate court sight and insight, the plethora of ways eye-witness news is nowadays availed and delivered, the tireless souls who keep driving for justice for those unjustly treated….

then I am reminded for the uncountable-eth number of times in my life, that such as this man’s outburst at Starbucks, may in fact, represent progress.

Many of us wish, deeply, for FAR more than this kind of ‘progress’ for all of us on earth. But, I think strongly we have to also count even the smallest progressions. 5% here, 2.5 % there, .01% over there: They begin to add up to substance and movement. Some think ‘change’ is something that happens all at once. Most often not. Small increments, whole walls assailed by water time and again, give way. Water can and will wear through stone.

I don’t know that I can ever embrace ‘niggerspicswaztikajapwhiteykike’ talk as some mere cultural oddity. But I find it better, if such can be said, to see disgust and hatred and fear above ground in full daylight, even at such a usually phlegmatic Starbucks, than hidden and larded away in secrecy, wrapped with rage and viper’s breath, and acted out on innocent others in the dark.

Whether via the internet, in public places, or in private… I’d count this public marking of where levels of inhumanity still thrive, and in the most BANAL of places, as a significant veering away from ‘what once was’ considered the only option: The deadly one.

I grew up mere miles from where the KuKluxKlan was founded. It used to be Death of any person deemed insulting, unworthy, irritating, and/or expendable just for the fact that they lived, walked, spoke, thought as they do… all dispatching of persons by brutal means done in secret, undercover, away from ‘do-gooders’ and the ‘misguided’ who would risk their lives to intervene in such injustice.

Yes, it’s different now. Not secret. Easy to mark with red flares. Easy to note. Yet, still in need of vigilance.

Maybe it’s an ultimate irony that the screed-fest unleashed by some regarding Mrs. Obama’s words, perhaps poorly-fleshed out by her at the time… is actually an improvement, a seeming toothless one, over the immediate death sentence that used to be pressed on any outspoken person, poor white, black, Latino, or other.

Maybe at last a significant majority understands and holds to the idea, all posturing to the contrary aside, that bridges have never been made for hanging people, but that bridges are meant to hold both sides in even tension… so that people can cross to the other side, so that people can know and see what they have not known or beheld before… something new, something different, and hopefully something usefully good.

I know you’re maybe wondering what I said to the four men at the table. They were so close to my table I could have reached out and touched two on the shoulder. In moments like those, I think any sane person would have acted like I did. I thought, Why me, God? How come no one else is saying anything? Heartbeat, heartbeat. Then I thought, How do I know they aren’t going to beat me up outside? Heartbeat, heartbeat. Besides, I likely can’t change their minds about this or anything else. Then I heard my grandmother speaking to me: You can never tell outcomes; just speak.

I didn’t think anymore then. I just gulped and smiled sweetly and leaned directly toward the men, excusing myself, saying that I was sorry, but I couldn’t help but overhearing their conversation and I just wanted to make sure it was okay that I was sitting near them, for I have black blood, like most Latino Catholics who once were Jews from Moorish Spain, not to mention the African slave trade to the east coast of Mexico in the 1500s and 1600s.

Heartbeat, heartbeat.

The men stared me up and down. Silence.

Then, one man: You don’t look black.

I said Yes, there are a lot of people who carry black blood who don’t look like they do. I said, “But, we’re hidden everywhere. Especially in lighter-skinned people.” (I wasn’t going to say this next, but I could hear my grandmother goading me, Say it, say it aloud. So, I did…) “Like you and me, for instance…”

Your Dr E, I am afraid, went on then. On and on. Do you ever have those moments where you can’t stop speaking even though another part of you is going, stop stop, you’re going to get us in trouble….but there’s yet a strong imperative to speak, one way beyond the merely human…

So, I told the men words pretty close to these ……

You never know who is what. Why, one of my daughters was talking to me about mitochondrial DNA the other day and she said that you can now test the males of the family and find out all kinds of things about their blood lines, and it is becoming less and less expensive to do so, and soon, wouldn’t that be something, likely many people are going to be quite surprised about their actual bloodlines, but you know, maybe that will be helpful and bring us more together and….

The men squinted and kind of went blinkless while I was riffing, and suddenly they all seemed to remember they had a very important group appointment all the way across town and were late and they packed up their briefcases and took their coffee with them and actually left before I was done with my last sentence.

I don’t know, maybe words can act like an exorcism without meaning to. I packed up and left a minute after the men pulled away, just kept my eyes down and got into my pickup, thinking a little insanely, ‘my work must be done here.’

Was anything accomplished? I don’t know. Likely I’ll never know. But maybe 1% here or there, in someone other than the four men, maybe someone who overheard, but maybe one of the men in his right heart will remember a snippet of what was said years from now and it will be a blessing on him, or maybe someone who hears the story here….

All I know for now about Michelle Obama or anyone else, is, I ain’t voting for no good soul to go silent. Even when they have to call on extra cojones or ovarios from the angels in order to speak about what some deem, unspeakable.

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Columnist Shaun Mullen here on the differing kinds of expression blogwise re Michelle Obama’s statement.

Also see Amba’s excellent commentary and wide ranging referencese to various reactions re Michelle Obama’s recently released undergraduate thesis.

Author: DR. CLARISSA PINKOLA ESTÉS, Managing Editor of TMV, and Columnist