Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Michelle Obama's speech is another leg of long journey

By DeWayne Wickham

DENVER - As I listened to Michelle Obama's speech Monday night I heard the voices of other black women. Not the celebratory tones of those who were inside the Pepsi Center when she gave her keynote address. I'm not talking about them.

The voices I heard were from another time. They were the voices of black women who like Obama were forced to assert their own humanity, or defend that of black men. While they lived in different times and their lives took widely differing paths, they were all products of an "improbable journey" like the one that made Obama the most anticipated speaker on the opening night of this historic political gathering.

"I come here tonight as a sister blessed with a brother who is my mentor, my protector and my lifelong friend," she said. "I come here tonight as a wife who loves my husband and believes he will be an extraordinary president. I come here as a mom whose girls are the heart of my heart and the center of my world. They're the first thing I think about when I wake up in the morning and the last thing I think about when I go to bed at night. Their future and all of our children's future is my stake in this election."

Ringing in my ears as I heard this were the words of Sojourner Truth, the 19th century abolitionist and women's rights activist, who in an 1851 speech challenged a white man to think of her as a woman.

"I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother's grief, none but Jesus heard me," she said, and then followed with the question that is laced throughout this famous speech: "And ain't I a woman."

On Monday, Obama spoke proudly of the men in her life. Her husband. Her brother. And the doting father who died an early death. "My dad was our rock," she said. Her love of these men made me think of a time, 108 years earlier, when Ida B. Wells - the journalist and anti-lynching activist - risked her life to speak in defense of black men.

"If a colored man resented the imposition of a white man and the two came to blows, the colored man had to die, either at the hands of the white man then and there or later at the hands of a mob that speedily gathered. If he showed a spirit of courageous manhood he was hanged for his pains, and the lynching was justified by the declaration that he was a 'saucy nigger.' "

When Obama spoke of her love of country, I heard the voice of Mary McLeod Bethune.

Obama said she left a high-paying law firm job for a public service career because she wanted to give back to this country, which has given so much to her. In 1939, McLeod prophetically urged the nation to give blacks a much greater chance to serve it.

"We have helped to build America with our labor, strengthened it with our faith and enriched it with our song," she said on a radio broadcast. "We have given you Paul Laurence Dunbar, Booker T. Washington, Marion Anderson and George Washington Carver. But even these are only the first fruits of a rich harvest, which will be reaped when new and wider fields are opened to us."

And that was the underlying theme of Obama's momentous address. She wants Americans to give her husband the chance to add to this rich harvest when they go to the polls in November.

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