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We need the Obamas to keep reminding us that America was built by slaves

AP Photo/Paul Sancya
The Obamas understand the importance of continuing to talk about slavery.
  • Jake Flanagin
By Jake Flanagin


Published This article is more than 2 years old.

Some of the most poignant lines from Michelle Obama’s Democratic National Convention speech (delivered July 26) was more of a history lesson in brief:

“The story of generations of people who felt the lash of bondage, the shame of servitude, the sting of segregation but who kept on striving and hoping and doing what needed to be done, so that today I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves. And I watch my daughters, two beautiful intelligent black young women, playing with their dogs on the White House lawn.”

It was easily one of the most moving moments of the convention thus far, playing and replaying on various broadcasters throughout the following day. It also inspired some rather predictable blowback from the right, with Rush Limbaugh demanding the First Lady “get over” America’s slaving past, and Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly delivering perhaps the most egregious “but-actually” with a screed on how not all the laborers who built the White House were slaves, and that those who were were “well fed.”

Her husband, president Barack Obama, was obviously unconcerned by such objections, adding his own acknowledgement of the legacy of slavery in his own DNC speech, delivered Wednesday (July 28). Speaking to the values of “hard work, kindness, courtesy, humility, responsibility, helping each other out,” he noted, “My grandparents knew these values weren’t reserved for one race. They could be passed down to a half-Kenyan grandson, or a half-Asian granddaughter. In fact, they were the same values Michelle’s parents, the descendants of slaves, taught their own kids, living in a bungalow on the South Side of Chicago.”

This hasn’t been the first time, nor will it likely be the last, that the Obamas have made a point of speaking frankly about slavery. Could we really expect anything less from the nation’s first black president and first lady?

In 2015, president Obama delivered a speech at the US Capitol honoring the 150th anniversary of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery nationally. It was a breathtaking moment—a black president speaking in another building built by slaves, offering arguably the most clear-eyed assessment of the institution’s painful legacy of any American head of state. “We would do a disservice to those warriors of justice—Tubman, and Douglass, and Lincoln, and King—were we to deny that the scars of our nation’s original sin are still with us today,” he said.

And perhaps therein lies the essential nature of this kind of talk. There are those for whom the acknowledgement of systemic, historically-entrenched inequality is a surrender, an admission that this country may not be as picture-perfect as the Texas school-board edited textbooks would have us believe. The Obamas, beyond their own (profound) personal relation to the integrality of slavery to America’s history, infrastructure, and economy, understand the wider importance of continuing to bring it up.

For “we condemn ourselves to shackles once more if we fail to answer those who wonder if they’re truly equals in their communities, or in their justice systems, or in a job interview,” Obama said in 2015. “We betray the efforts of the past if we fail to push back against bigotry in all its forms.”

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