Wednesday, June 25, 2008


Words associated with Michelle Obama during her husband's campaign for president have included ingrate, ingratitude, ungrateful, and spoiled.

This disturbs me.

I gather that these comments come from people who believe that Michelle Obama owes the United States gratitude because this black woman is an Ivy League graduate with an enviable standard of living.

And since I am, like Michelle Obama, a black American woman from a relatively modest background who is using higher education to attain professional and economic success, I am taking these words personally. I will not argue that the United States is not a place where there are many opportunities. But I submit that the opportunities that are available to me as a citizen of this nation are mine by inalienable right and not by charitable grant.

To the extent that I have had any help in becoming a viable and productive citizen of this country, besides my Lord there are many, many people and organizations that I can thank. Among them are my parents, teachers, scholarship sponsors, educational institutions, clergy members, civil rights agitators, black and female professional pioneers - I could go on and on. Yet this gratitude has nothing to do with whether or not I love my country or whether or not I am patriotic or whether or not I am now, or have ever been, proud of my country.

When I hear people accuse Michelle Obama (and me) of being ungrateful, it reminds me of a sentiment I have encountered too often in America. Black people should be grateful that of all the things that could have happened to our ancestors, ours were privileged to have been taken from Africa and brought to the states. We should be grateful that slavery was abolished, Jim Crow repealed, integration ordered, and Affirmative Action enacted. In the name of gratitude, we should be happy and uber-patriotic Americans. We should not criticize our country's policies or conditions. We should reach for material possessions and feel satiated on having reaped the promise of the American Dream. We should get over the history of how blacks were treated in this country and the fighting that our forebears had to do to make our citizenship meaningful. We should turn our backs on the reality of how many blacks are still not reaping the full benefits of that citizenship in this country today, blame them and their ungrateful excuses for their plight, and turn away from the unpatriotic idea that we have any solidarity with these, our countrymen, for fear that we will be seen as militant and ungrateful. To be good (but never authentic) Americans, this is what upwardly mobile blacks in America must do to show our gratitude. Any action to the contrary would insult everything that this country stands for and the good (benevolent white) Americans within it.

The problem with people like Michelle Obama is that they exercise their rights as American citizens to have and express their own opinions. Unfortunately for some, such a wholeheartedly American independent streak is bound to conflict with the above litany-of-all-things-grateful. How terribly inconvenient it must be for some that this highly educated woman fully understands and exercises her right to do what any American has the right to do - question authority. It is an entirely American right to question whether or not you should be proud of your country, warts and all. It is an entirely American right to reserve your pride for those things which you feel are pride-worthy. A truer measure of gratitude for America is to preserve its ideals by keeping them alive through such exercises - freedom of thought, freedom of choice, freedom of speech - freedoms which Americans, in particular black Americans, hold dear.

Calling Michelle Obama ungrateful is more telling regarding the deficiencies of the speaker than it is a fitting indictment of Mrs. Obama herself. The connection being made between the level of her pride in this country and the level of her gratefulness for her successes isn't even logical. Shame on those who subscribe to the litany-of-all-things-grateful (and patriotic). Such thinking endangers our country, being more reminiscent of the groupthink of Orwell's 1984 than of the spirit of independence that birthed this nation.

Women as accomplished as Mrs. Obama didn't make it through all of those years of education just to smile demurely all the time and then kiss folks' posteriors whenever given a chance to speak. That's not how this works. Get over yourselves.