Why the former First Lady’s presence is needed more than ever
Kevin Kapenda, Columnist // Illustration by Fiona Dunnett
Fox News and the alt-right have been giddy lately. In addition to the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, who has been accused of rape by three women, it appears that the Republicans’ big and very white tent is getting a little more diverse. Apparently, Trump’s favourability amongst African Americans has risen slightly, as milk does to a cup of tea. While it is difficult to know who to believe or trust in this age of “fake news”, this claim is one that I have no trouble buying given the Democratic Party’s current leaders, Pelosi, Schumer and Sanders. It is also why the Democrats need to turn to the “real MVP” of the last decade, Michelle and not Barack, if they’re going to take back the House and possibly the Senate this November.
Just how does a biracial candidate with a Kenyan last name assemble the most robust coalition in American electoral history? With the help of Joe Biden, one of the most important voices for the white working class, and his African American wife, whose story is as common to any slave-descending black family in the US. Michelle was born in Chicago, IL to parents whose roots can be traced back to slaves from pre-Civil War South Carolina and Georgia. Her life in Chicago was a result of the Great Migration, which saw hundreds of thousands of African Americans leave the “Jim Crow” South for the lure of non-agrarian jobs in the North and the Rustbelt. Discussing her family’s journey from the South to the North is something Obama discussed in many speeches, bridging her experience with the African American voters who propelled her husband to the Senate and later, the Presidency.
One of the questions that loomed over Obama’s rise between 2004 and 2008 was whether he was “black enough”. This query was further compounded by the fact that he was mainly raised by his white mother and her family. However, in defense of African American critics, including Tom Joyner and Tavis Smiley, the discussion was about more than just the colour of President Obama’s skin. While the US is home to large immigrant populations from the Caribbean and Sub-Saharan Africa, the majority of African Americans are descendants of slaves from the South, the original builders of the United States. Therefore, Obama, the son of influential Kenyan liberationist Barack Sr., was effectively campaigning to represent a population of slave-descended people, of which he did not belong. The question was fair if you ask me, but was certainly problematic. The solution to it? His wife.
On the night the Democrats won the presidency in November 2008, Charles Gibson of ABC declared that for the first time in the country’s history, African Americans will reside in the White House – which was built by slaves. In my view the most influential First Lady ever, or at least since Nancy Reagan (1981-1989), is who helped shut down any discussion of Barack not being black enough on her way to the White House, while proceeding to accomplish so much more as its past tenant. Whether it was due to her addressing the childhood obesity epidemic through outdoor play and sport, championing education for girls and racial groups that are underrepresented in post-secondary institutions or famously coining the empowering and contagious phrase “when they go low, we go high”, never has the loss of an unelected voice in an unpaid ceremonial position been mourned more. A figure that was essentially beloved by most, except racist sexists, Michelle will be remembered as an apolitical figure in an era defined by extreme polarization.
Once again, the Democrats are in a familiar but scary place. They’re far more popular than the Republicans according to the generic ballot. Furthermore, as we’ve been repeating like parrots since 2010, the Democrats have a demographic advantage over the GOP, whose narrowing base is increasingly white, straight and old. However, like in 2016 and the three election cycles before then, it’s proven that if your diverse and growing base does not trust your leadership outside of Obama, you end up with a nutjob Congress and a white supremacist President who won because the Clintons’ anti-black demons came back to haunt them. The Democrats need to win back the House in November and stop Trump before he permanently destroys the country. I hope to see Michelle (and Barack) on the trail in the coming weeks. Lord knows they need her more than ever.