Today, President Barack Obama delivered his second inaugural address. To commemorate the event, Agate would like to take you back four years to the President’s historic first inauguration. The following essay, Ava DuVernay’s “Monica, Katrina, & Michelle: The Journey to Obama,” is taken from Family Affair: What It Means to Be African American Today (Agate Bolden, 2009), a collection of essays edited by veteran journalist Gil L. Robertson, IV. In this essay, DuVernay looks at three of the most recognizable and in some ways representative “women” of the past three presidencies.
On a day that celebrates the memory and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as well as the election of Barack Obama to a second term, this essay is especially pertinent. It serves as a powerful reminder of how American and African-American cultures have changed over the last two decades and how they have been so hugely influenced by three names. Beyond that, it serves as a valuable reminder of the way many people viewed President Obama as he entered his first term, illuminating how our perceptions have changed and grown four years later.
Family Affair is available as a free Kindle download today only on Amazon. Click here to download.
Monica, Katrina, & Michelle: The Journey to Obama
By Ava DuVernay
The truth is incontrovertible.
Malice may attack it.
Ignorance may deride it.
But in the end, there it is.
The last two decades of American life can be boiled down to three words: Monica. Katrina. Michelle.
Every American knows the names. We know what they represent. Within this triptych of monikers, lies the legacies—both past and present—of presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama. Each woman’s name represents another battle in the war to win the hearts and minds of Americans—Americans who have increasingly shifted toward a new collective morality and a history-busting mandate to put a black man in the White House.
Our moral compass began to shift en masse in the midst of a scandal so scandalous one could hardly believe it was true. The leader of the free world cheated on the First Lady in the revered Oval Office with a White House intern and then denied the liaison until physical proof was produced—in the form of that pitiful blue dress.
America, Meet Monica
One would think Monica would have been a source of national embarrassment, as she sauntered around our water coolers in all her voluptuous glory, shapely with spectacle and buxom with gall. But President Clinton’s job approval ratings didn’t budge. In fact, they rose! His smugness thickened, and it’s still lathered on his every word to this day.
At the height of Monica’s powers, the country’s self-appointed moral watchdogs saw her as their way of bringing liberalism down. Wiretap after subpoena after hearing quickly followed—all designed by Republican conservatives to whip up America’s outrage and tip the scales. But despite their undeniable prowess in getting elected, Republicans have repeatedly failed to keep America locked inside an old episode of Ozzie & Harriet. Rather than the revulsion they hoped to generate, they instead created a monster called Political Entertainment—a new-school version of political theater with less back room intrigue and more general consumer salaciousness.
Yep, in the 1990s, it was becoming quite clear that counterculture was the new mainstream. Things that were once hidden away in the closet became a national pastime, à la Jerry Springer and the National Enquirer. The trust we once placed in our president was beginning to dissipate, and we barely noticed as it started to disappear, for more deeply rooted than our thirst for spectacle was a clear identification with Clinton’s shortcomings. I mean, we all have our own Monica lurking somewhere, right? Some past example of bad judgment just waiting to emerge with a blue dress? In short, America empathized.
Polls conducted during 1998 and early 1999 showed that only around one-third of Americans wanted Clinton impeached or convicted. Completely out of touch with the will of the people, Republicans pressed on in their witch hunt. Clinton was impeached in December 1998 on charges of perjury, obstruction of justice, and abuse of power. Votes fell strictly along party lines, with not one vote for conviction coming from fellow Democrats. He was acquitted two months later by the Senate and remained in office until 2001.
It has been said that the sexual politics around Monica played into America’s “isms”—notions of uncontrollable sexuality levied against African Americans, labels of perversion aimed at the gay community, and accusations of promiscuity toward women who follow their passions. All of these groups are labeled as outsiders by conservatism, and they took advantage of the opportunity to rally together as part of a new-jack morality that became integral to the American ideology of the late nineties. Monica brought in a new political dawn, one colored by a great grappling with our own issues of personal responsibility. At least for a while, we shunned blame and repression.
But somewhere within Monica’s saga and Clinton’s mastery of this new touchy-feely America, the new morality crystallized even further. It took a couple of years for us to connect the dots and gain an understanding that moral open-mindedness need not be anchored to acts of frivolity and ego. We could be forward thinking and resolve our own inner Monicas without lying and cheating to do so, as Clinton had. We could be free and high-minded, liberal and responsible.
So, just one year after Monica, the majority of Americans changed their tune and declared that they supported the impeachment and disapproved of the acquittal that allowed Clinton to serve out his term. We decided we were all for personal liberation, but not at the expense of our new morality. Monica taught us that, and in doing so, she left the door open for another woman to walk through.
In the wake of the Clinton scandal, the 2000 presidential election understandably centered more squarely on issues of “moral character” and “honesty.” Postelection data found that the most significant reason people voted for George W. Bush was for—try not to laugh too hard here—his high moral standards. After the unspeakable horror of 9/11, Bush had the sympathy of the world and the full support of the American people. He cashed in his cultural currency, betting on WMDs and launching two wars in the name of our new grand morality. A bitter, bruised America went along with it. It would take a complete and total breakdown of Bush’s so-called morals to shake us from our slumber and cement the public’s indictment. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.
America, Meet Katrina
If Monica made us face our personal inadequacies, Katrina made us own up to our collective limitations. She blew into our lives with the forces of race and class at her back. She pulled aside the curtain on the illusion that society can reward the wealthy with disproportionate tax cuts while skimping on basic public safeguards, and that all the treasures trickle down. News alert: It doesn’t quite work that way.
The collapse of this key tenet of Bush’s beliefs was broadcast live and in living color for the world to see. Suddenly, America angrily called into question not only Bush’s handling of the hurricane, but his policies overall. More importantly, it called into question the trust we placed in him. Katrina laid bare any reasonable belief in Bush’s competence and revealed the hard fact that America had saddled itself with a leader more concerned with an ideological agenda than real-world choices to help real people.
Katrina demanded that we take a long, cold look at ourselves and our leadership. For whatever systemic racism and everyday prejudices “mainstream” Americans held about their darker brethren, white folks were horrified to see dead bodies of black people floating in the streets of New Orleans. They found it unacceptable that black grandmothers and grandchildren were left in the sweltering heat without food or aid. We all heard the national gasp of horror when thousands of displaced citizens were shuttled into the hellhole that was the Superdome.
In 2005, at the beginning of a new century, it was becoming quite clear that “mainstream” America was beginning to admit it had a race problem—and a president problem. As we all know, the first step in recovery is claiming your illness. Things once left in the closet were now the topic of serious discussions both in the press and around the kitchen table. The trust we once placed in our president was deteriorating rapidly, and this time, we noticed. More deeply rooted than our avoidance of real debate about race was a clear identification with those unfortunate souls in the Lower Ninth Ward. I mean, we all have a grandmother we’d give our left arm for, right? A loved one who we’d rather see dead than degraded in the streets, while our president vacationed and palled around with “Brownie,” who was doing a “heckuva job”? In short, America woke up.
Polls have steadily tracked Bush’s decline in favorability since 9/11. Americans endured eight years of inept leadership, including his war of choice in Iraq, his lies about WMDs, his endorsement of torture, his failure to capture bin Laden, and his piss-poor responses to Katrina and the financial disaster heard ’round the world. In 2008, his last year in office, he earned the worst Gallup quarterly approval rating of any president since 1945: a blistering 27 percent. Katrina became the impetus for this national about-face on Bush. She exposed a systemic effort to distort the will of the people—white, black and otherwise—in the interest of the powerful, privileged few. She allowed us to fully understand the abuse of power and betrayal of trust that we ignored with Monica.
Senator John Kerry, who was defeated by Bush in 2004 only through trickery, put it best:
Katrina is the background of a new picture we must paint of America. For five years, our nation’s leaders have painted a picture of America where ignoring the poor has no consequences, where every criticism is rendered unpatriotic. And if you say “War on Terror” enough times, Katrina never happens. Well, Katrina did happen, and it washed away that coat of paint and revealed the true canvas of America with all its imperfections. Now, we must stop this Administration from again whitewashing the true state of our challenges. We have to paint our own picture—an honest picture with all the optimism we deserve—one that gives people a vision where no one is excluded or ignored. Where leaders are honest about the challenges we face as a nation, and never reserve compassion only for disasters.
America did step up. In one fell swoop, Katrina exposed the contradictions and revealed Bush to be one of the most divisive presidents in our nation’s history. Our broken trust birthed a new appetite of rebuilding both New Orleans and the whole nation as well. The public made the concentrated choice it had failed to make with Monica by shifting from the personal invective of “every man for himself” to a belief in a shared endeavor. “What’s in it for me” became “What’s in it for us?”—at least for a while. Katrina sharpened the rallying call, bringing the wars, health care, energy dependence, national security, the environment, and education into focus through the prism of a newer, more inclusive morality. It allowed us to usher in what would become one of our greatest national moments.
America, Meet Michelle
Let’s get the scenario in order. A junior African-American senator captures the Democratic nomination after a long campaign against a former president’s wife. Next, he goes on to handily win three debates against a war hero and dominate all national polls before claiming a commanding victory to become the leader of the free world.
This story would be astonishing in its audacity and seeming implausibility if it weren’t true. As Winston Churchill once said, “The truth is incontrovertible. Malice may attack it, and ignorance may deride it, but in the end, there it is.”
Despite the Clintons, McCain, Palin, Wright, Ayers—hell, even despite Joe the friggin’ Plumber and all the malice and ignorance, the truth is incontrovertible. Barack Obama is the 44th president of the United States of America. There it is.
In an interview with 60 Minutes days after his historic win, President-elect Obama offered this nugget to America: “I want to make sure that I can recreate a bond of trust between the presidency and the public that, I think, has been lost.” With his eye-popping approval rating, Obama seems poised to do just that.
On November 10, 2008, the most famous dress to grace the White House was no longer Monica’s blue travesty, it was the deep red shift worn by Michelle as she toured her new home. Damn being demure! We bringin’ power to the people! The sight of Mr. Obama and his wife striding up the White House steps was a transformative image to behold. Even more than the unforgettable Grant Park moment when he declared victory to an adoring, blubbering throng of believers (including me), the first White House visit and the boldness of the future First Lady said it all. This stellar sister and her husband brought a breath of fresh air to the hallowed halls of the world’s most famous residence—and to the rusty old game of politics. In one visit, Michelle supplanted the cartoons of Monica, Katrina, and their representative presidencies, ripe with mishandled trust and low morals. In one photo op, she and Barack infused the image of the White House with pride, panache, and polish again. They are a pair to be admired, to be trusted, and, well, um, to be black! Let the church say Amen!
Yep, in 2008, the fact that our new favorite son is black makes perfect sense when you follow the path the American public has traveled, surviving both Monica and Katrina during the past sixteen years. I heard someone say that they’d never seen so many Americans crying together in happiness as they did on the night of Election Day 2008. In the past decade, Americans have huddled together in moments of demoralization and tragedy—9/11 and Katrina leap to mind. They were moments when we huddled together in our anguish, outrage, and pain. But on November 4, 2008, at 11:00 p.m. EST, when the networks announced “Obama elected president,” we huddled together in a collective wave of joy. It was a mighty first in the difficult and tragic union that is America. This first ushered in a 20/20 hindsight of our blunders and failings. Election Day was a new day and an even newer morality for America, one in which a collective enlightenment sprang forth from the ashes of untrustworthy leaders, ego-driven embarrassments, racial division, and an overall ambivalence about the American dream.
According to Gallup polls, liberals and moderates tipped the scales for Obama at 88 percent and 72 percent favorability after the election, respectively. These robust majorities proclaim that they have a positive outlook for Barack Obama’s presidency, as would be expected. However, close to half of political conservatives—45 percent—also say he will make a good president. That’s far greater than the 23 percent who voted for him in the election—radical information! The same folks who wanted to keep America in Leave It to Beaver-land, who resisted affirmative action and gay rights, and who tried to block the progression of our nation’s civil-rights legislation—these people are now leaning toward the most liberal president in United States history. Oh, and he’s black! Astonishing. We have Monica and Katrina to thank for it.
The fact that President Obama inherits a financial system near collapse, a federal deficit that boggles the mind, two wars, and a violent enemy who remains at large after more than seven years doesn’t change the fact that he is turning a page for the nation. This page must be turned. He is turning a page for the black community, too. Our story must be retooled and retold, this time, by us.
Luckily, our first black president is a black man who knows who he is and, more importantly, who knows who we are. Michelle is the magnificent symbol of his self-knowledge. Let’s not take for granted that we could have had a very different black man in this position. How would we have felt if Colin Powell or Clarence Thomas were the first black president? Just as proud? I don’t think so. If we wanted to be represented by anyone, it was and is by someone like Obama. If we wanted our story retooled and retold by anyone, it would be someone who knows who we are as a people.
Both FDR and Reagan came into office when America was in economic emergency mode. Each went on to reframe the nation in his own image. President Obama now has the rare opportunity, strengthened by a vocal public mandate, to do the same. Imagine that. America shaped in the image of a black man, with a black woman by his side. Michelle is the steady bow of the Obama ship, one that, it seems, all of America (and the world) hopes will steer us to the Promised Land. A ship that will restore our standing in the world and our self-image at home. It is breathtaking that the new leader of the free world, the most powerful man in the world, is a black man. That he goes home to a tight-knit, loving family headed by a black woman is soul-stirring.
Michelle’s “real black womanness” isn’t lost upon anyone, black, white, or otherwise. There are no blurred lines when it comes to her lips, hips, and hair. Her swagger is all sister, all the time. I don’t mean the nonsensical, fabricated cartoon of a black woman’s swagger: gum-popping, neck-twisting, and switching. No, I mean the real swagger of a black woman: solid, strategic, strong.
How will the world react, now that the myth of blackness is being transformed by a beautiful black family in the White House? What do we do, now that the trustworthiness of the president is being reestablished by a black man? How do we act, now that the myth of inferior black intellect is destroyed and the notion of nonexistent black discipline is obliterated?
Should we function as the same characters in a new story? We can’t. We must change. Whether it’s a revolution, an evolution, or just getting our house in order, when President Obama said in his victory speech, “Change has come to America,” he meant us, too. If he is remaking America, how are you remaking yourself? Your family? What will be your story? Our story? The story that walks out before us into this nation and around the world. Most importantly, it will be the story that is reflected back in our own mirrors.
We must add a new name to the litany of monikers that will represent this country. No more Monica. No more Katrina. Choose the name of a woman who has changed your life and changed your mind: a woman who represents the best of you. Let’s list her after Michelle and begin a new name game, one in which everyone wins.
We’re blessed to be living and breathing and loving and hoping in this time. These are glorious days. These are the days that will be immortalized in history books for hundreds of years to come. These are the greatest days of our collective life. We are alive to drink of the sweet nectar of these days. We are here!
The truth is incontrovertible, if we make it so. We are here! And there it is.
Ava DuVernay is president/founder of DVA Media + Marketing, the parent company to DVAPR, Urban Thought Collective, UrbanEye, and Urban Beauty Collective. Through DVA, DuVernay reaches millions of urban consumers each month on behalf of high-profile clients at Paramount, Warner Brothers, Fox, ABC, HBO, the CW, and Showtime, to name a few. She is also an award-winning filmmaker, having directed and produced the feature documentary This Is the Life and Showtime’s Saturday Night Life under her Forward Movement banner. Her second feature film, Middle of Nowhere, won the 2012 Sundance Film Festival prize for Best Director.