One year later: (My Head Is) Spinning

On the radio the other day, a newscaster said, “President Obama has been in office for a year now …”  Excuse me, what?

She was leading into another point she wanted to make about how little movement there has been in certain areas in this first year of the Obama presidency.  And, while I can agree that there are areas in which I had hoped to see more movement (or any real movememt), her throw-away line about him being in office for a year stopped me.  A yearReally?  Is she high?  Ah, no, excuse me.  This is just the current spin.

When Obama was awarded the Nobel Prize last month (something my brain has still not quite processed), the outcry was that he’d barely been in office eight months.  Now, three weeks later, he’s suddenly in office for a year?  That kind of math makes my head hurt.  And this kind of casual slanting of information, “innocently” scattering these “truthy facts” pisses me off.  In the moment, saying the president has been in office for a year fits better with the angle this reporter wants for her story.  But does that make bending the actual fact ok? 

Here’s an actual fact: a year ago today, I joined millions of other Americans and elected Barack Hussein Obama to the presidency of these United States.  (N.B. Elected one year ago, not in office one year ago.  Just saying.)  That was a pretty excellent day.  I was so giddy, I photographed my vote:

VOTE! Yes, because I was that excited, that dorky.  Certainly I wasn’t alone in my excited dorkiness, and that made it feel a little less silly.

And now it’s a year later, nine months into Mr. My New President’s term, and … ?  Well, it’s not all brilliant.  I haven’t changed my mind.  My goodness, no.  I’m still quite happy to have BHO as my president, much happier than I would have been to have the McCain/Palin machine smiling malevolently over me and mine.  Still.  There’s more I’m wishing for.

I want the Defense of Marriage Act repealed.  I want to see the end of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.  I want to see a little more aggressively progressive movement and a little less waiting for bi-partisanship that isn’t coming.  I want a true public option.  I want … well, you know, all those things I heard about during the campaign.

(And, too, I want to hear more from Michelle.  I get that she has children to raise, and I love that she’s doing that.  But she’s a smart, well-spoken woman, and I want to hear more about her than gardening and wardrobe.  Also, I want her to be photographed with people of normal height so that she can stop being shown as a giantess.  Seriously.  Who knew there were so many 5-foot tall people who could line up for photo ops with the first lady?)

Nine months in, am I disappointed with my president?  On DADT, yes.  Compared to everything else on his plate, that is surely the the easiest promise to keep.  We’ve been hearing since January how he’s going to end DADT … well, it’s many months later and he’s still making speeches about how he’s going to end DADT.  Well, when?  And DOMA disappoints me, too.  I know he doesn’t support gay marriage.  But why not?  Why not?  But am I disappointed overall?  Hardly.  I’m extremely happy about the Hate Crimes Act that Obama signed last week (as a nation, we’re eleven years late on this one — thirteen if we go back past Matthew Shepard’s murder to James Byrd’s).  So, no, I’m not disappointed overall.  I just want him to be more like the president I elected.  And more quickly.  The spinning will continue — in all possible directions — but I want to see BHO stay the course he set out during the campaign.  He’s got that Nobel to live up to, after all.

Attention white folks …

… some of your ancestors may have raped some of mine.  Oh, I’m sorry.  Is this is the first you’re hearing of it?

The New York Times ‘broke’ a story today: they’ve discovered the white ancestor in Michelle Obama’s family tree. SHOCKER!!  She’s not as black as we thought, not as black as she wants us all to believe.  She’s got a white relative.  Five generations ago a slave owner raped her adolescent great-great-great grandmother.

I’m sorry.  Help me understand the film-at-eleven significance here.  This is a story that is true for just about every African American.  So … how is this news? 

On The Takeaway this morning, the story was introduced with teasers about shaking up Michelle Obama’s family tree and Michelle Obama’s family tree being controversial.  Really?  I’m sorry, but I just don’t understand for whom this discovery is supposed to be a big surprise.  How can it be?  And why is anyone this interested in finding Michelle’s white ancestor?  What does this prove other than things we already know: Michelle Obama is African American, and blacks in this country have suffered abuse at the hands of whites.  Where’s the shake-up?  Where’s the controversy?

Rachel Swarns, who wrote the story with Jodi Kantor, noted that the White House had declined to comment because this was a personal matter.  Yes.  Exactly.  And about what would Swarns have wanted the White House to comment?  About the fact that she and Kantor had researched the history of a person who hadn’t asked for the favor?  Because for me that’s the only news here.

The ‘white ancestor’ story has been around for centuries, has been told in every black American household.  It isn’t usually papered over in bullshit like the Jefferson-Hemings story, but it has been told again and again.

When questioned about whether this ‘news’ was any of The Times‘ business, about whether anyone should be putting Michelle Obama’s business in the street, Swarns said this was our business because it’s ‘an American story’ that speaks to ‘this older racial intermingling.’  That sounds a bit too much like a lean toward choice, toward the Hemings whitewash.  Megan Smolenyak, the genealogist who worked on the research with Swarns says that African Americans need to decide whether or not we want to confront our history and that doing genealogical research is a choice that each individual has to make.

Right.  I mean, I guess that’s right … unless you’re Michelle Obama and someone decides to make the choice for you and publish it in The New York Times for the rest of us to pick over.

When Celeste Headlee, Takeaway co-host, talked about her own family line including a white overseer who raped her great-great grandmother, Smolenyak is quick to point out (in what to my ear was a somewhat teacher-y, almost-condescending voice) that ‘those white overseers are also your ancestors.’

Oh.  Really?  Can Smolenyak really think she has something to teach Headlee here?  Can she really think Headlee doesn’t know this, hasn’t already come to terms with it?  Does anyone truly believe any of this is news for any black person?  Look at us.  Look at all the shades and hair textures of us.  We would have to be insane to not have known and long ago accepted the existence of our ‘white ancestors.’  Please.

To whom is this news, then?  To white Americans?  Is it?  Really?  Is it whites who need to confront their histories and acknowledge that the children their great-great-great grandfather sold to other plantations are their relatives?  Is it whites who need to acknowledge that great-great-great grandpa was a rapist?  Is that the history that needs confronting?  Is that the family tree that’s controversial?

I’m offended by this story.  I know Michelle Obama is a public figure.  I just don’t see why anyone felt they had any right to go digging into Obama’s history.  For what?  Has anyone researched the geneology of our former first ladies?  Did it make the news?  Yes, Michelle Obama is a history-making first lady.  Do you know how little that excuses in terms of a story like this?  While I applaud John Hockenberry for asking why Swarns thought this story was anyone’s business, for asking why The Times felt the need to run the story, he loses points with me for insisting on talking about the story as if it’s real news, as if there’s a shocking controversy in this utterly commonplace fact.

What’s the real agenda of this story?  Are we now supposed to think Michelle Obama isn’t quite ‘authentically black’ enough?  (See, she’s been hiding her white family all this time!)  Or is this an effort to quiet the crazies who paint her as a black nationalist militant?  (See, she can’t be all bad: she has white blood!)  Or are we now supposed to see the Obamas as ‘more American,’ because we now have definitive proof that the first lady’s family came up from slavery.  (See, it’s ok that the president is half-foreign: Michelle’s ancestors were slaves!)  I’m still looking for a little clarity on what it is we’re supposed to be taking away from this (… and wondering how long it will be before descendants of that rapist slave owner show up at the front door in DC looking to cozy up to their long-lost cousin).

Choking on a wishbone.

I’ve been reading over at Margaret and Helen off and on since Fox introduced me to them months ago.  They pretty much never disappoint.  And yesterday Helen wrote about Gates Gate and the big wind that has blown up around what happened at 17 W____ Street¹ at 12:44 in the afternoon on July 16th.

There are so many things about what happened to Professor Gates that make me angry, and just as many things about what has happened in the aftermath of his arrest that make me even angrier. 

Helen’s post made me smile, and I’m right with her … mostly.  It’s just that I have such a bad taste in my mouth over this.  Yes, the president’s answer at the press conference and the ensuing Beer Summit was definitely a distraction from the healthcare discussion, but what happened to Professor Gates wasn’t a small thing that we shouldn’t have been paying attention to.  I actually think the craziness surrounding the Brew-ha-ha was an attempt to distract us from what happened to Professor Gates, to distract us from actually having to get (back) into that conversation none of us wants to have … the one about race, about white privilege, about how things went badly for Gates and how much more badly they might have gone if he hadn’t had some ID to produce quickly and easily, about whether or not Officer Crowley would have found an elderly, cranky, white man with a marked limp and a cane ‘tumultuous’ enough to require arrest. 

I agree with Helen that we should continue the work on healthcare reform.  And on about ten thousand other pressing matters that need our government’s attention.  But our president’s a fairly intelligent guy, and he’s already shown that he can do more than one thing at a time.  Yes, go back to the healthcare debate, but that doesn’t mean we should try to push the Gates affair under the rug, make like nothing much happened and fuss over who chose what brand of beer.

I know we aren’t going to have this conversation.  Not yet, anyway.  It’s stuck in our throats, however.  We’ve been gagging on it almost 400 years, and it’s high time for us to either swallow it or cough it up.


¹  It drives me crazy that on the 911 tapes we hear Professor Gates’ address over and over and over.  Just in case the people who’ve been making those death threats weren’t sure where to find him …

Stealing Lesson Plans from the President

Thanks to President Obama’s executive order on stem cell research, I have found myself with too much lesson and not enough time to teach it in. When I wrote about my nervousness teaching science, I wouldn’t have imagined that I’d be teaching this, and certainly wouldn’t have dreamed of the veritable abandon with which I’ve been throwing myself into it.  I’d like to think my aunt would be pleased and proud to hear me in class these days, talking about cell division and Krabbe’s Leukodystrophy and cryogenics cell banks and peripheral blood systems and such like. 

I’ve had to do a lot of homework, but it’s been fun and interesting.  This is a topic I’ve wanted to know more about, but haven’t given myself the time to study.  And I now know so much more about stem cells than I ever did before … which has led to me having many more questions than I had before.  The same has been true for my students.  We’ve been having wonderfully dynamic discussions and wandering off on interesting tangents.

My favorite tangents so far: talking about brain function (quick! I run to my office during break to do a rapid-fire search for images of the brain and some basic written info), talking about the fertility industry (quick! I run to my office and look up some stats), talking about genetics (quick! I run to my office and open the doc I created for the genetics lesson I was going to work on later in the unit and grab a few key ideas to share), talking about cloning.

This last  has been very interesting.  I wouldn’t have guessed how completely people associate cloning with stem cell research.  Now that I’ve had four or five different cloning conversations, I can see the ways they are connected in people’s minds, I just wasn’t on that page before.  The conversations I’ve had in both classes have eventually turned to cloning and people’s fantasies/worries/fears about all that it could mean.  (Yes, there really is always someone in the group who thinks it would be a great idea to have a clone farm somewhere … in the middle of nowhere … where we could be growing clones to kill off for organ donation!  I cannot say how much this troubles me.  Apparently it was a Jessica Alba movie.)

I owe a little thank you to my president.  I was feeling nearly frozen about starting the science unit, and — although stem cells were never more than a mention as part of that unit — his decision to renew research funding threw me into the work without me having time to fret over it and worry myself into an inability to teach.  We’ve had such animated discussions, and all of us walk away with more questions.  When I said at the end of this morning’s conversation that we were pretty much done with stem cells, there was actually a moan of disappointment!

Oh yes, we’re having some fun now!

How now, Juan?

So what’s the story with Juan Williams, a news analyst I’ve listened to and respected for years? He talks intelligently on NPR week after week, has become a leading go-to guy on politics and race.

I don’t have television (I have a television, but it gets no reception, so it really just functions as my Netflix viewer).  So, without regular access to TV, I had no idea that Juan had a non-NPR job over at Fox news.  Apparently he’s been hanging out at Fox News Sunday and on O’Reilly, being another kind of go-to guy, one who can be counted on to say unfavorable things about black folks … how is that possible, exactly?  Or maybe the question is, how can NPR still be working with him when he’s being this other guy on Fox?

Please don’t misunderstand.  I’m not saying Juan has to be left-leaning, that he must always espouse the same views I hold.  In fact, I shouldn’t have any idea what views he holds.  He’s supposed to be impartial, objective.  I mean, isn’t he?  He’s not reading editorials on NPR.  He’s supposed to be telling me what’s going on in the world, giving me the facts and breaking them down so that I can make some informed decisions of my own.  This is what I keep talking to my students about, the objectivity of the press.  (Yes, because I live in some alternate-universe Shangri-La that looks a lot like Brooklyn.)

So maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that Williams shares some of his personal views.  But I am surprised that he’s sharing such ugly views about my new First Lady.  Yes, because that’s where I’ve been headed all along, didn’t know you?  Williams would seem to have a problem with this strong, confident black woman who has landed the role of love interest in our new political drama.

Here he is on O’Reilly:

Yes, there he was.  What do you think that was about?  Is it just Juan exhaling?  He bites his tongue when he’s on NPR and then lets it all hang out on Fox?  Is it just naked ambition?  He knows he can get plenty of air time if he says things like this?  Does he just really dislike strong black women?  He’s offended that this powerful woman is getting such positive air-play?  Is he suffering from Barack-envy?  Obama not only gets to be president, but he’s got a really amazing wife, too?

NPR is sufficiently miffed by this last round of bile-spewing that they’ve asked Fox to stop referring to Williams as an NPR political analyst.  I have to say I’d be a bit happier to see Williams get the boot all together.

Oh, wait.  He’s apologized.  For what he calls a ‘faux controversy.’  Yeah, that apology sounds so very sincere.  Thanks, Juan.  I feel so much better now. Feh.