Martha S. Jones: Don’t Miss Out on What Michelle Obama Actually Said in 2008
We welcome the following commentary and book excerpt from Martha S. Jones, co-editor of Toward an Intellectual History of Black Women. Despite recent advances in the study of black thought, black women intellectuals remain often neglected. This collection of essays by fifteen scholars of history and literature establishes black women’s places in intellectual history by engaging the work of writers, educators, activists, religious leaders, and social reformers in the United States, Africa, and the Caribbean. Dedicated to recovering the contributions of thinkers marginalized by both their race and their gender, these essays uncover the work of unconventional intellectuals, both formally educated and self-taught, and explore the broad community of ideas in which their work participated. The end result is a field-defining and innovative volume that addresses topics ranging from religion and slavery to the politicized and gendered reappraisal of the black female body in contemporary culture.
Don’t let Melania Trump’s Monday night speech be your guide to what Michelle Obama said in 2008. Instead, keep listening. There is more to learn than who borrowed what words. Mrs. Obama’s speech before the Democratic National Convention was more than platitudes and boosterism. She explained for the nation the relationship of black women to the body politic. Mrs. Obama was the daughter of two social movements—women’s suffrage and civil rights—she related. To understand that year’s race between Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton required more than a worn out dichotomy. Race versus gender was a false dividing line, one that black women’s leadership aimed to overcome. It was a lesson in intersectional feminism from the main stage. No less relevant today, it is not one that Mrs. Trump is likely to appropriate any time soon.
Read more about Michelle Obama’s historic summer 2008 speech here in a excerpt (pp. 279–281) from my essay “Histories, Fictions, and Black Womanhood Bodies: Race and Gender in Twenty-First Century Politics.” The full text is available in Toward an Intellectual History of Black Women.
When Michelle Obama took to the podium at the August 2008 Democratic National Convention (DNC), she came armed with an ambitious arsenal. Her speech drew upon childhood reminiscences, moral philosophy, and her role as a mother and turned on a view of the American dream as produced through struggle and determination. Struggle was part of our history, Obama suggested, and she placed the occasion of her speech squarely into a historical frame: “This week we celebrate two anniversaries. The eighty-eighth anniversary of women winning the right to vote and the forty-fifth anniversary of that hot summer day when Dr. King lifted our sights and our hearts with his dream for our nation.” Obama claimed two histories: the history of gender—as represented by the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, and the history of race—as expressed through the civil rights movement. She continued: “I stand here today at the crosscurrents of that history, knowing that my piece of the American dream is a blessing hard won by those who came before me.” Obama took her audience back to the dichotomies set for by [Gloria] Steinem and [Mark] Leibovich [in the New York Times] and then mapped out the intersections—or, in her terms, crosscurrents—that expressly ran through her black womanhood body. In Obama’s vision of American political culture, she was the daughter of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Frederick Douglass, and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, and of Martin Luther King Jr., Gloria Steinem, and Shirley Chisholm. Race and sex, in her analysis, were not a fraught dyad or risky political categories of analysis; they were the lived experience of African American women.
In an echo of Steinem, Hillary Clinton, who had tried to avoid confronting head-on a race-sex analysis, was drawn into the debate. In her address to the DNC, Clinton also turned to the past to explain how Democrats, particularly her women supporters, could see their way to backing Barack Obama in the general election. She offered a vision that might reconcile the race-gender divide. Clinton began by invoking a touchstone that Michelle Obama had already held up, that of the Nineteenth Amendment’s eighty-eighth anniversary. Clinton explained: “I’m a United States senator because in 1848 a group of courageous women and a few brave men gathered in Seneca Falls, New York . . . to participate in the first convention on women’s rights in our history. And so dawned a struggle for the right to vote that lasted seventy-two years. . . . Eighty-eight years ago on this day the Nineteenth Amendment giving women the right to vote was enshrined in our constitution.” Until this point, Clinton seemed wedded to the script that Steinem and Leibovich had sketched out. She invoked the rights of women and allied herself with the figure of Elizabeth Cady Stanton. She arguably was more attentive to history, however, pointing out that there were indeed men among the participants in the Seneca Falls convention. What about race? Could Hillary Clinton navigate the fraught dichotomy?
Clinton took the plunge and attempted to traverse the race-sex dyad. The continued: “How do we give the country back to [courageous Americans who defy the odds]? By following the example of a brave New Yorker. . . .” At this point, we might have expected her to invoke Frederick Douglass, who spent many years in upstate Rochester. But, Clinton had learned from Steinem’s self-inflicted strife. Instead she continued, “. . . a woman who risked her life to bring slaves to freedom along the Underground Railroad. On that path to freedom Harriet Tubman had one piece of advice: ‘If you hear the dogs, keep going. If you see the torches in the woods, keep going. If they’re shouting after you, keep going. Don’t ever stop, keep going. If you want a taste of freedom, keep going.'” It was inspired political theater, and the convention hall roared. Clinton had offered a resolution to the race-sex divide and it came in the form of a black woman. Indeed, Clinton’s implicit pairing of two histories—that of Cady Stanton and of Tubman—argued that not all the women were white and not all the black people were men. For a moment, the possibilities for Democratic Party politics and Barack Obama’s election relied upon the wisdom of an African American woman. Or did it?
The following day commentators scrutinized Clinton’s remarks. Most appeared to know something about Tubman even prior to Clinton’s speech. But while they knew of her courageous leadership among fugitive slaves, questions emerged about the veracity of Clinton’s remarks. “Did Harriet Tubman Really Say That?” queried Sewell Chan of the New York Times. It was a curious inquiry that simultaneously undercut Tubman and the political candidate that invoked her. The answer, it turned out, was “no,” and a small group of historians had the last word on Clinton’s attempt to mend the race-gender rift in her party. In an eerie parallel to Steinem’s invention of Achola Obama, it turned out that Clinton, too, relied upon a fictionalized Harriet Tubman. Tubman had been the subject of recent historical study, generating three book-length, scholarly biographies. Milton Sernett puzzled at Clinton’s move to quote Tubman. She had not been a literate person and so most of what is attributed to her is highly mediated through others, he explained. But with respect to Clinton’s specific quote, Sernett pointed out that it approximated a four-line quatrain attributed to Tubman. Unfortunately, despite being often repeated, particularly in children’s literature, there was no evidence that Tubman ever uttered such words. Sernett explained that the origins lay in several midcentury semifictional accounts alone. Historian Kate Larson agreed with Sernett. Clinton had relied upon fictional accounts of Tubman’s life written more than a half century earlier. In their final assessment, both Sernett and Lawson attempted to prop Clinton up. Sernett ultimately condoned her reliance upon the fictional Tubman, noting that it went toward establishing a refrain in her convention speech “that was more feminist than some of her other speeches.” Larson did the same, suggesting that the words were in the spirit of Tubman, who “encouraged black and white women to ‘stick together’ to win the battle for the right to vote (many white women activists were willing to sacrifice giving the vote to black women in order to attract southern white women to the cause).” Tubman was left somewhere between the historical and the fictional, reduced to a symbol for “feminist” ideas and giving women the right to vote. Tubman looked less and less like the intersectional figure that black women had promoted.
Excerpt from Toward an Intellectual History of Black Women, edited by Mia Bay, Farah J. Griffin, Martha S. Jones, and Barbara D. Savage. Copyright © 2015 by the University of North Carolina Press.
Commentary by Martha S. Jones, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. Follow her on Twitter @marthasjones_.
- Michelle Obama, BarackObama.com, August 26, 2008, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sTFsB09KhqI (accessed October 1, 2010).↩
- Sewell Chan, “Did Harriet Tubman Really Say That?,” New York Times, August 27, 2008.↩
- Kate Clifford Larson, Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero (New York: Random House, 2004); Catherine Clinton, Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom (New York: Little, Brown, 2004); Milton C. Sernett, Harriet Tubman: Myth, Memory, and History (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2007).↩
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