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Attack on Michelle Obama shows Palin's ignorance of history

By Richard Cohen

Tuesday, November 23, 2010;

When I was 11, my father thought it was time to show my sister and me the nation's capital. I have only vague memories of that trip - the heat, the expanse of the White House's grounds, the Jefferson Memorial. I do remember we took Route 1 through Baltimore (no I-95 yet) and it was there that I saw my first sign with the word "colored" on it - a rooming house, I think. This was 1952, and the United States was an apartheid nation.

It is Sarah Palin who brings back these memories. In her new book, she reportedly takes Michelle Obama to task for her supposedly infamous remark from the 2008 campaign: "For the first time in my adult life, I am proud of my country because it feels like hope is finally making a comeback." Instantly, Republicans pounced. Among the first to do so was Cindy McCain, who said, "I have and always will be proud of my country." It was a cheap shot, but her husband's selection of Palin for the ticket and plenty of cheap shots from Palin ("death panels," etc.) were yet to come.

Michelle Obama quickly explained herself. She was proud of the turnout in the primaries - so many young people, etc. Evan Thomas, writing perceptively in Newsweek, thought - as I did - that she was saying something else. He dug into her senior thesis at Princeton - "Princeton-Educated Blacks and the Black Community" - to find a young woman who felt, or was made to feel, "more aware of my 'blackness' than ever before." This was not a statement of racism. This was a statement of fact.

It's appalling that Palin and too many others fail to understand that fact - indeed so many facts of American history. They don't offer the slightest hint that they can appreciate the history of the Obama family and that in Michelle's case, her ancestors were slaves - Jim Robinson of South Carolina, her paternal great-great grandfather, being one. Even after they were freed they were consigned to peonage, second-class citizens, forbidden to vote in much of the South, dissuaded from doing so in some of the North, relegated to separate schools, restaurants, churches, hotels, waiting rooms of train stations, the back of the bus, the other side of the tracks, the mortuary, the cemetery and, if whites could manage it, heaven itself.

It was the government that oppressed blacks, enforcing the laws that imprisoned them and hanged them for crimes grave and trivial, whipped them if they bolted for freedom and, in the Civil War, massacred them if they were captured fighting for the North. And yet if African Americans hesitate in embracing the mythical wonderfulness of America, they are accused of racism - of having the gall to know more about their own experience and history than Palin and others think they should.

Why do politicians such as Palin and commentators such as Glenn Beck insist that African Americans go blank on their own history - as blank as apparently Palin and Beck are themselves? Why must they insist that blacks join them in embracing a repellent history that once caused America to go to war with itself? Besides Princeton, Michelle Obama is a graduate of Harvard Law School. It's hardly possible that she is not knowledgeable about the history of African Americans - no Ellis Island for them, immigrants in their colorful native dress waving at the camera. Should she forget it all simply because she went to Ivy League schools - be thankful for what she had gotten and the hell with the rest? Why should she be more grateful than Cindy McCain?

Sarah Palin teases that she might run for president. But she is unqualified - not just in the (let me count the) usual ways, but because she does not know the country. She could not be the president of black America nor of Hispanic America. She knows more about grizzlies than she does about African Americans - and she clearly has more interest in the former than the latter. Did she once just pick up the phone and ask Michelle Obama what she meant by her remark? Did she ask about her background? What it was like at Princeton? What it was like for her parents or her grandparents? I can offer a hint. If they were driving to Washington, they slowed down and stopped where the sign said "colored" - and the irritated Palins of the time angrily hit the horn and went on their way.

cohenr@washpost.com

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