Understanding Too Well

Richard Cohen did a good yesterday about Sarah Palin, Michelle Obama, and race:

It is Sarah Palin who brings back these memories. In her new book, she reportedly takes Michelle Obama to task for her supposedly infamous remark from the 2008 campaign: “For the first time in my adult life, I am proud of my country because it feels like hope is finally making a comeback.” […]

It’s appalling that Palin and too many others fail to understand that fact — indeed so many facts of American history. They don’t offer the slightest hint that they can appreciate the history of the Obama family and that in Michelle’s case, her ancestors were slaves — Jim Robinson of South Carolina, her paternal great-great grandfather, being one. Even after they were freed they were consigned to peonage, second-class citizens, forbidden to vote in much of the South, dissuaded from doing so in some of the North, relegated to separate schools, restaurants, churches, hotels, waiting rooms of train stations, the back of the bus, the other side of the tracks, the mortuary, the cemetery and, if whites could manage it, heaven itself.

It was the government that oppressed blacks, enforcing the laws that imprisoned them and hanged them for crimes grave and trivial, whipped them if they bolted for freedom and, in the Civil War, massacred them if they were captured fighting for the North. And yet if African Americans hesitate in embracing the mythical wonderfulness of America, they are accused of racism — of having the gall to know more about their own experience and history than Palin and others think they should.


The one twist I would give here is that I suspect Palin and her ilk actually understand this all too well. And that’s precisely the issue with all the various insinuations that the Obamas are somehow insufficiently American. This is a polite way of saying that they’re too black. White people understand perfectly well that black people’s understanding of America isn’t the same as white people’s understanding of it, but they prefer the white understanding. In general, Americans and foreigners alike prefer nationalist mythology to real history. They know the mythology is inaccurate, but they still like. And they worry about the idea of people whose ethnic background foregrounds the ugly truth.