Man at His Best

Why Michelle Obama's 'House Built By Slaves' Line Was So Iconic

It gave us a dose of what we desperately need: reality.

BY BRITT JULIOUS | Jul 27, 2016 | Culture

Getty

“I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves," Michelle Obama said last night, "and I watch my daughters–two beautiful, intelligent, black young women–playing with their dogs on the White House lawn." In an election season gripped by falsehoods, inaccuracies, corruption, and histrionics, the First Lady delivered a speech at the Democratic National Convention last night that offered an alternative solution: reality.

Politics in America exist in a binary. People on both sides feel that there is "us" and there is "them." The stakes are high. But these current difficulties are not impossible to overcome.

Make no mistake—reality, and everything the hard truth of reality entails, is not a pleasant concept. It is thick and messy and viscous like a quicksand that will pull one under without notice. Reality is not what we shout online. It is our livelihoods, our day-to-day interactions with other people and the world as a collective body of different races, ethnicities, sexualities, genders, and capabilities. But what the world (and the left in particular) needs now more than ever is a hard and fast dose of reality. We live in an ugly time. That's the reality.

More than anything, what that reality relies on is our understanding of history and our ability to make decisions based on that history for our collective future. "That is the story of this country," Obama began. "The story that has brought me to this stage tonight, the story of generations of people who felt the lash of bondage, the shame of servitude, the sting of segregation, but who kept on striving and hoping and doing what needed to be done.”

People on both sides feel that there is "us" and there is "them".
 

History is not linear. What we gain from history is the knowledge of the past, the recognition of that information in the present, and the ability to change the future. When Obama said that the White House was built by slaves, what she was doing was inserting history into our present to light a flame beneath us.

Slavery, civil rights, equality–these things are not distant relics of the past. Perhaps they'll never be. For as long as we pretend in our present that they are merely dark corners of the past, we are at risk of repeating them in the future. These are things that inform the policies, systemic structures, and livelihood of millions of Americans everyday. These things are the backbone of American society. And although Michelle Obama, Barack Obama, and their children have overcome most of the debilitating effects of that history, it does not mean that history, as a whole, ceases to matter for the health of the rest of our country.

Obama mentioned the words "children," "child," or "kids" 25 times last night. This was not an accident and, in hindsight, it wasn't even overkill. Children are the next generation for us to protect, and the next to protect us. "Hillary understands that the president is about one thing and one thing only, it's about leaving something better for our kids," Obama said. "That's how we've always moved this country forward, by all of us coming together on behalf of our children, folks who volunteer to coach that team, to teach that Sunday school class, because they know it takes a village."

The left speaks of the future of the Supreme Court, of fascist ideals, of ideologues, in arguments against a potential Donald Trump presidency. They are not big concepts, so much as un-relatable ones for the average American. The First Lady's speech was aimed at the people wavering in the middle, those everyday Americans, the undecided who typically make or break elections. Like Hillary, she hopes to win them over, not through righteous fury, but through a rational examination of the other side.

What she was doing was inserting history into our present to light a flame beneath us.
 

Conservatism values stagnation, a look back, a return to a glorified past. Our misunderstanding of the past makes us think things were better then. And maybe they were for a few, but they were not for most. "Don't let anyone ever tell you that this country isn't great, that somehow we need to make it great again," Obama said in a clear attack on Trump. "Because this, right now, is the greatest country on earth!" In this election, we are standing on the precipice of the American future. Do we look forward or do we return to the worst of our collective history because it gives some abstract sense of power?

What we saw in Obama's speech was a level of real-world humanity thus far missing from the election. She argued for the value in that humanity. She argued for the sanctity of that humanity. What is at risk–what we know deep down but sometimes are afraid to acknowledge–is that humanity is always up for grabs.

Obama's speech was pitch-perfect and exactly what needed to be heard: that bickering and fighting and bullying, that blowhard tactics, that reactionary statements, don't make a leader, government, or a united country. They can't. They won't. Instead, the left must dig deep and fight for our literal and metaphorical future. Members of the left must come back to reality and pull their heads out of the idealistic clouds and the stubborn sand. That's the reality.

From: Esquire US.