Barack, Michelle, and Literary Styles


Inauguration day 2009 exceeded all of my dreams heretofore. I still can’t believe BO is our president.

A few things came to mind as I watched the festivities:

1. I wished that my mom could have witnessed this day. My solution? I held a photo of my mother on my lap so she could “watch” the C-Span coverage. I swear I could hear mom making remarks about GW Bush and possibly about Aretha Franklin although Aretha, covered up in a conservative gray coat, looked very nice today.

2. I thought about this photo of my son, Amir, taken in front of the White House in 2005. It had one meaning for me before the inauguration but it takes on a different meaning during Obama’s presidency.

3. I thought about how today seemed like the real start of the New Year. I don’t know about you but I cleaned my house all weekend in anticipation. I mean real cleaning where you use Clorox in the laundry and you wipe off doorknobs and light switches. Even though I work from home on Tuesday, on this inaugural Tuesday, I wore a skirt and dangling earrings all day. It just seemed appropriate.

4. I thought about the literary voices of Barack and Michelle.

Much has been made about the literary talents of our president. It’s been said that he once thought about pursuing a writing career and we all know that his two books are bestsellers. If you listen to his speeches it’s clear that President Obama is enthralled by language and literature.

They say that a good writer borrows from other writers and I’ve noticed a few passages in our president’s speeches that seem familiar. What immediately comes to mind is his speech on election night when he said, “We may not get there in one year or even one term, but America...we will get there.” There’s also a quote by him that was used by The McLaughlin Group last week where he describes Michelle when she's asleep and he talks about how you never fully know a person. The wording of that quote (was it from Ebony? Essence? I'll post it when The McLaughlin Group makes the podcast available) seemed familiar although I could not remember where I may have read it before.

Anyway, our president probably internalizes beautiful phrases and those phrases, slightly tweaked, sometimes peek out of his own prose. That’s a common phenomenon with writers: you unconsciously pay homage to language that you love. It’s also clear that Obama reads a lot because he writes in a soaring poetic style that is only found in literature. He likes to say things like, “They said this day would never come,” which is the first line of his Iowa speech. Also from that speech: “and sometimes, just sometimes there are nights like this” and “the belief that destiny has not been written for us but by us.” His race speech contained high rhetoric as well.

And while I love his grandiloquence and use of poetic devices, I must say that I prefer Michelle’s “literary voice” over his.

Before she was forced to play the traditional First Lady role, Michelle’s speeches displayed the hallmarks of any good postmodern writer. Her speeches were full of self-deprecation, self-awareness, and irony. She laughed at herself and the situations of the modern woman. Check out her campaign speech at a state fair where she says that she’s there to get “stuff on a stick” and that oh yeah, her husband’s running for president, too. Or her Delaware campaign speech which begins like a comedy routine.

And who were the stiffs who couldn’t see the humor in her description of her husband as stinky and snore-y in the morning? Her response to those critics was perfect. She said that people have ideas about what her role should be but her model is a little different.

Michelle’s literary voice, if developed, could be like Lorrie Moore or Gayl Jones, Toni Cade Bambara, Flannery O’Connor. The woman is funny, smart and macabre. Obama may be our rockstar poet who inspires us to reach for our higher selves but it’s his postmodern plainspoken wife who describes the absurdity of now.

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