“I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves.”

I was at a work function tonight, and so couldn’t watch live as Michelle Obama drop the mic in a beautiful speech that will be long remembered for its deceptively simple construction and heartfelt delivery. You should watch the whole thing, but here are some snippets:

How we urged them to ignore those who question their father’s citizenship or faith. How we insist that the hateful language they hear from public figures on TV does not represent the true spirit of this country. How we explain that when someone is cruel or acts like a bully, you don’t stoop to their level. Our motto is, when they go low, we go high.

That is the story of this country. The story that has brought me to the stage tonight. The story of generations of people who felt the lash of bondage, the shame of servitude, the sting of segregation, 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 — play with the dog on the White House lawn.

Don’t let anyone ever tell you that this country is not great. That somehow we need to make it great again. Because this right now is the greatest country on Earth.

These words have special weight when one considers all the abuse the Obamas have taken these past eight years, not least from Donald Trump himself. Well done @FLOTUS. You are a class act.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect, tnr.com, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

19 thoughts on ““I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves.””

  1. I suppose, "I wake up every morning in a house that was originally built by slaves, then almost completely rebuilt in the 20th century by free men." just doesn't have the same resonance. But it's actually a pretty good metaphor for America, too.

    1. Assuming that you don't mean that free white workers came in and fixed the slaves' work, but rather that freed slaves helped rebuild the White House, the freed slaves were second-class citizens until the 1950's. Of course, they could have borne this with the grace with which Donald Trump bears indignities visited upon him, but some people just have to find something to complain about,. Couldn't they see how great America was? Why don't they want to recapture that greatness?

      1. The White house was gutted and completely rebuilt during the Truman administration, and while Jim Crow wasn't completely gone at that point, the work was NOT done by slave labor. At most the First Lady occasionally sees some legacy marble and wainscoting that were preserved, as she wakes in a house that was actually built during the 20th century.

        It does make a good metaphor for the US, in that the old US started out with some reliance on slave labor, but it's just ahistorical to think that today's US is the legacy of slave labor, because everything slave labor produced got destroyed, and then some, during the Civil war, and what we are today was built by free people.

        1. In this thread, Brett Bellmore has never heard of, e.g., Harvard University, which was decidedly not destroyed during the Civil War. Among a lot of other things in the North.

          Also "Jim Crow not being completely gone during the Truman administration" is the understatement of the year. Not only was it still vibrantly thriving and would for another decade and a half, but the trade unions that would have done the construction on the White House deliberately and systematically excluded black workers until well into the Ford administration.

          1. Well, unless those Truman administration trade unions were populated with white slaves, you've just confirmed that the White house Michelle wakes up in wasn't built by slaves.

            And I expect you're clever enough to understand that I didn't mean that the Civil war destroyed, literally, every individual artifact that had been built by slaves, but only did so on net, in terms of the cost to the economy. Clever enough to understand that point, but strongly motivated not to.

          2. Just so everyone is abundantly clear, you want people to read the sentence, "everything slave labor produced got destroyed, and then some, during the Civil war" LESS literally then you are reading "I wake up every morning in a house built by slaves?"

            What, precisely, have you done to earn such a generous reading of the words "everything and then some?"

          3. No, the same standard would be fine: Accuracy.

            She wakes up every morning in a house that was originally built with slave labor, then completely gutted and rebuilt by free people.

            We wake up every morning in a country that was originally founded with slave labor, then gutted and rebuilt by free people.

            I mean, really, if you're going to claim America's wealth is the product of slavery, you have to explain why the South is the poorest part of the country, rather than the richest.

          4. Because it committed treason against the United States, got its rear end handily kicked for same, and has spent the last century and a half spitefully sulking and letting itself be ruled by a series of lackwits whose citizens prefer to be dumb, poor and sick so long as they don't kowtow to the Yanks. Whereas the North fought for the side of right and all the wealth-generating machinery built by slaves continued to persist through the war and beyond.

            I know you know this, but your l'il old white supremacist self just can't take an argument that institutions that were either literally built on the backs of slaves, or figuratively so — through the sale of slaves on the market for cash — have persisted unbroken for 200 years. You're trying to use the broken postbellum South as a synecdoche for the entire country. Sorry, but it isn't so and you know it isn't so.

          5. And the process of rear end kicking destroyed all the wealth slavery had built up, and then some.

            Most of the wealth of the US came after WWII, as a product of developments that had nothing to do with slavery. Yes, there was slavery in the past of the US, but that's true of most nations on Earth. It's not where our wealth came from.

            If you're going to taint everything in the US on the basis of that, claim everything in the US is due to that original slavery, then you're logically committed to similarly contemning all human civilization.

          6. Always amusing, the habit of right-wingers picking arbitrary dates as to when history began so as to absolve themselves of dealing with implications of our past.

            But hey, if you'd like to have a conversation about that post-WWII wealth, and where it came from, and how it was distributed, and who was excluded, and why they were excluded, let's do that.

            By the way, who built the railroads? Did any of our wealth come from those? Seems like it did.

          7. The US GDP in 1870, today's dollars, was about $20 billion, not all of which by a long shot was the product of slavery. It's now at about 16.5 TRILLION. Close to a thousand times higher.

            Basically you're crediting a drop with being the source of the ocean.

        2. The greatest piece of wealth destroyed during the Civil War was slavery itself. At its peak, the capital value of slaves was worth more than all the industrial capital in the northern states.

  2. I understand that "this is the greatest country on earth" is intended to counter Trump's "make America great again." But it is still an obnoxious lie. The United States is the most backward developed country on earth, but for the opposite reasons that Trump claims. We are the most backward in health care, in working conditions such as vacations and maternity and paternity leave for workers, in treatment of farm animals, in invading and bombing other nations, in prison conditions and prison sentences, in torturing people, in imprisoning people without due process, and in the corruption of our democracy, to name a few things off the top of my head.

  3. The First Family has borne up under the pressure flawlessly. It makes me a little sad though that they have to be so perfect. I hope one of the girls at least dates someone inappropriate later on. She doesn't have to marry them for bleep's sake. I guess it is too late for them to become a Deadhead. Maybe just amass some parking tickets. We need to give them some space after this.

  4. Second night is tonight. Still waiting for the following:

    “Donald Trump could not negotiate with John Kasich, Mitt Romney, Marco Rubio, John McCain, or either President Bush to attend the convention, and he could not negotiate an endorsement from Ted Cruz. Raise your hand if you think he can negotiate great trade deals with China.”

    Will this be in Bill Clinton’s speech? Leave it to Hillary? Or to Tim Kaine?

    Someone has to do it.

    1. Hillary can negotiate great trade deals with China. They'll be great for China, and great for the bottom line of the Clinton foundation.

      They just won't be great for the rest of us.

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