The Grandma Behind Obama

The Boston Globe has a lovely piece this week about Michelle Obama’s mother—the Grandma who’s making Obama’s historic race possible.

A steely 70-year-old matriarch with a raspy voice and seen-it-all laugh, Robinson manages the family while Obama and his wife, Michelle, venture to the far reaches of the campaign trail. Amid the daily chaos of the marathon primary campaign, it often falls to Michelle’s mother to keep the Obamas’ two daughters—Malia, 9, and Sasha, 6—grounded, not to mention fed, bathed, and in bed by 8:30 p.m.

“The whole time I’m raising [son] Craig and Michelle, I am telling them that, ‘Look, you see, I am raising my kids, so don’t you all have any kids that you expect me to help you raise,’ ” Robinson said with a laugh last week, in her first extended interview of the campaign. “And look at what I’m doing!”

Grandma Robinson comes off as the delectable, quintessential matriarch, blithely criticizing her daughter in the media and chuckling about ignoring all her jack-booted instructions.

Limited TV watching (An hour? “That’s just not enough time”), rigid bed times (8:30? “That’s ridiculous!”), and organo-eating (“…fried chicken, for instance. Her secrets: using crumbled Ritz crackers in the batter…adding salt liberally, and using “lots of oil.” “If you’re going to have fried chicken,” she said, “have fried chicken.”)

Granny is a hoot! I want to reach through the pixels and hug her. Reminds me of the Bill Cosby routine about how his own iron-pantied Mother became a hippie with her grandkids. “That’s not the same woman who raised me,” he noted, bewildered. Ditto my own belt-wielding Mom. With her grandkids—Captain Kangeroo. With her own six? Hitler. If we dared to act up in school, she’d show up with that belt and use it front of the whole class. She is single handedly responsible for the invention of Child Protective Services. But there’s a serious point here.

Note the comment Grammy made about warning her kids not to expect her to help raise her grandkids. I doubt this is a warning affluent parents lay on their kids, though it’s one heard in the ‘hood (where Michelle grew up) everyday. There is a sad and all-too-invisible sword of Damacles hanging over the heads of inner city grandmas. Basically, far too many live lives of drudgery and toil only to reach old age incapable of retiring because they’re stuck with their grandkids. Absent fathers, the early deaths of black granddads, and epidemic levels of black marriage failure all combine to leave black grandmas sick, tired, old, impoverished and stuck with a house full of troubled adolescents. The most unlucky also end up with drug-addled kids showing up to leech off them and steal from them whilst ignoring their progeny. It’s a horror of which few are aware. That’s where urban sociologists like Harvard’s Katherine Newman come in.

A few years back, she published one of the saddest books, A Different Shade of Gray, I’ve ever read; it’s about the lives of inner city Hispanic and black women, how they’re abandoned alone with their grandkids and few social services or health care, to work themselves into the grave. I couldn’t help thinking about that as I read of Mrs. Robinson. Her words operate on two levels for me; in an alternate reality, she’d be raising her grandkids in a tenement while her daughter languished in jail or on street corners. Weird that she’ll end up doing it in a mansion:

Even the prospect of a family move to the White House has forced Marian Robinson, a Chicagoan through and through, to ponder the bittersweet thought of relocating to Washington.

“I will do whatever she needs me to do,” she said of her daughter. “I’ll be mad, but I’ll do it.”

This grandma seems tickled pink by the strange turns her life has taken. But let’s spend a moment thinking about all the nameless ones too sick to keep pushing those brooms but who have to with a house full of needy kids who should be caring for her.

If Obama ever had a ready made issue, if ever a politician was perfect for a minority problem, this is it. Obviously, they rolled Granny out as a counterpoint to Wright. OK. Now close the loop. Help all the grannies of color who weren’t able to guide their kids out of the hood.


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