Saturday, June 20, 2009

Michelle Obama and Me

I had hoped to meet Michelle Obama—for the second time-- at the Radio & Television Correspondents Annual dinner Friday, June 19th—but it wasn’t too be.

My friend Linda Kenyon, a long time radio journalist whose beat is the United States Senate invited me to attend the event which included the opportunity to schmooze at the VIP reception where the President and First Lady were hoped to be in attendance. At the VIP reception, there would be also be an opportunity to take pictures. After various fits and starts in coordinating and getting ready for the event (including several dresses purchased and returned, and my mistaking the date and almost going downtown to the Washington Convention Center a full week early!) I learned that, unfortunately, the President wouldn’t be attending the VIP reception… and the First Lady wouldn’t be attending at all.

While meeting the President would be a once in a lifetime opportunity and I was disappointed, I had really looked forward to seeing Michelle again. I wondered, would she remember me? And if she did… would she remember what I remembered about the time we met before, on the campus of Harvard Law School over 20 years ago?

If my memory serves, it would have been the fall of 1986, at the first and only meeting of the Black Law Students Association that I ever attended.  I was a first year student, and the event was billed as a mixer.  I was excited: I hadn’t assimilated well with other black students at Mercer University, my undergraduate institution.  I was perceived as too “assimilated” because I had white friends, got straight As, decided not to pledge a sorority and didn’t perceive every action the administration took as racist. I bought my fellow students’ assessment of me and had inwardly resigned myself to “OREO” status.

But I had hopes for Harvard Law School. Surely there would be black students’ like me there: black students who had had white friends in undergrad, black students who could be fluent in a culture outside of their own. Black students who had been ridiculed for not being '”black enough” for some, but who knew fully well that they were African Americans?

But if there were black students like me, they kept awfully quiet about it.  Indeed, at that first BLSA event I realized that though I’d traveled from central Georgia to Cambridge--- there was NO difference. I still didn’t fit within the prevailing definitions of blackness—and everything I said and thought was pretty much wrong in fellow black students’ eyes.

Michelle Robinson—that was her name then, of course—was black enough for the crowd and happy to be among its most accepted and vocal leaders. I remember her for two reasons: she’s very tall (and I’m very NOT) and as a second year law student at Harvard (a class ahead of me) she was very sure of her place in the black-o-sphere.  As a light skinned, middle class black woman who wasn’t mad at white people for everything, I felt her dismissal of me… and that’s why I remember her.

I would like to tell you that we were friends at Harvard: we were not.  We came to the school with different purposes, and different agendas—and while not exactly in conflict, I would say that our differences point to just how wide the  gaps between people can be, even among a relative small and select group as “black women at Harvard Law in 1986".  Though Michelle and I were both black young women at one of the most select institutions in the nation, that was all we had in common.  There was little else to connect us in terms of common experience, and we never connected intimately enough to call each other “friend” or “enemy.”

That was almost 25 years ago and I’m certain we both have changed.  I know I’ve had many experiences now that have validated my ideas and given me a confidence in my own brand of blackness.  I don’t feel apologetic about my experiences anymore, but proud of them. And I wonder if, now that Michelle has left the all black environments that formed her youth, she has come a little closer to understanding the world that I grew up in—one that included multiple cultural perspectives from my earliest memories.  I have to think that the woman who married Barack—a man who is biracial, who has admitted his own struggles with race and identity in his book Dreams From My Father-- must have had some moments of awakening and acceptance-- much as my own experiences living in a poor, all-black community for a couple of years changed my own perceptions.  Our life experiences over these decades have changed us. I wonder if she might have remembered me and how different we seemed then… and perhaps how much more similar we might seem now.

Unfortunately, she missed the  RTCA dinner and I missed my chance to meet her again and remind her that we have met before.  Everyone who knows me knows: my style isn’t confrontational. But for those who only know me through the blog-o-sphere, I can tell you with an open heart that, though we are very different women, who have had very different life experiences, I am nothing but proud and happy for Michelle—and nothing I would ever say to her or about her would approach rudeness.

I firmly believe that everything in life happens so for a reason—sometimes we’ll understand it later and sometimes, it’s not for us to know.  It’s taken me years to appreciate the racial confusion I felt when I was in my 20s, but now that I do, I understand fully its role in the work I do now, in the things that I write about, in the importance my experiences have in working with others to throw off limiting definitions of identity and exploring a truly multi-cultural experiences.

It’s all good, as they say. And it truly is.

And, because I live in Washington,D.C and Harvard Law’s alumni are active here, I’m optimistic I’ll have another change to meet Michelle for the second time-- and Barack for the first—and point to our slice of common ground.

While the Obamas were not among them, I DID get to meet some other political luminaries… but that’s another post. More later, friends.