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A message from Michelle

First lady’s attendance at Hadiya’s funeral necessary, vital

(MCT) — Michelle Obama is not only first lady of the United States. She’s also a mother of two young daughters. And she’s coming home to the funeral of a girl who was killed in a park about a mile from the Obamas’ Kenwood home.

You’ve heard about Hadiya Pendleton, the 15-year-old innocent gunned down last week, another victim of the city’s seemingly ceaseless violence.

So it’s a good thing that Mrs. Obama is graciously coming back to Chicago for the funeral.

Actually, it is a great thing, a visit necessary and vital.

And I’m glad Mrs. Obama is coming home, to the South Side where she was raised.

Coming home is often a hassle for the Obamas. Chicago carries political connotations that are at odds with the image crafted by the president’s myth-shapers. And lately, the relationship between the Obamas and the city has become ambivalent.

Besides, Mrs. Obama’s daughters, like all kids, have planned weekend activities close to their home in Washington. And she’s acknowledged the complaints about traffic tie-ups and the general hassle when the first family returns here.

“Does it make sense to get on the plane (and) shut down Lake Shore Drive to spend Sunday in Chicago?” she once asked.

Perhaps not every weekend. But it makes perfect sense this weekend. Because this weekend, Chicago needs her here.

Some of you may say that I shouldn’t dare touch this subject because I’m a critic of her husband’s policies. Yes, I’m a critic. I believe his policies are wrong. But this column isn’t about that.

This is about Mrs. Obama and Hadiya and Chicago.

So let’s stipulate: The first lady’s return is an important healing act, for the city and for the people who live and work here.

We read about the death toll in the news. We see the gangbangers on TV, those boys with the flat brims and the angry eyes. We wonder when it will stop.

So Michelle Obama could do no less than attend Hadiya Pendleton’s funeral. The Obamas have been publicly urged to do so, particularly by African-American critics who’ve hinted that the Obamas abandoned black people in the cities.

The president has tried to present himself as president of the country, not president of African-Americans, and this has caused strain. But it’s also given an opening for other African-American pundits and politicos whose lights were dimmed when Obama ascended to the presidency.

Now, even though Michelle is doing exactly what was asked of her, some will invariably whine about it. I could have been one of them.

But the other day I attended another funeral. It wasn’t the funeral of an innocent victim like Hadiya. There were no politicians hanging around.

The man in the coffin was a gangster. His name was Mone Stokes, shot dead in a dice game. Chicago detectives questioned several men who were with him. As is almost always the case, no one saw a thing.

It is easy to turn away from victims like Mone Stokes, or some skinny boy wearing black and gold in the coffin, the colors of the Latin Kings. These are the dead typical of Chicago. They are the result of the pathology that drives the gangs and the guns and the blood.

We isolate them. We keep them in a news ghetto. Their passing is formally noted. Then they’re formally dismissed, as if dismissing them completely shields us from what happens out there.

To her family and friends and to most of us, Hadiya is a girl killed for no reason by some barbarian. She had a life coming to her. She was a person.

But to some politicians, she has become something else as well, a symbol, the perfect victim, the honor student and high school band majorette who participated in Obama inauguration ceremonies last month. All this makes her politically useful in the gun control debate, whether her family wants that or not.

It is the way of politics, and if you’ve lived long enough, you’ve seen other children so transformed, the dead resurrected as symbols.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Gov. Pat Quinn will also attend the funeral, and in all likelihood the Rev. Jesse Jackson. The jockeying for media face time will run right up to the service.

Mrs. Obama, who is not expected to make a speech, knows what’s coming. She also knows that if her husband attended the funeral, the message would be that the mayor had lost control of the streets.

Presidents are no longer seen as the fathers of the country. The fathers died long ago. Modern presidents, regardless of party, are viewed cynically, as men of compromise and legalisms, of word tricks and power.

But the first lady is another matter. Traditionally, the first lady has been placed above politics. She’s seen as the mother of the country. That’s always been the role.

It’s been Michelle Obama’s role for years.

And the fact that she’s coming home, to a city she and her family might not return to after her husband’s term is over, is significant.

It’s also good. And right.

She’ll do what is expected of her. She’ll comfort the Pendleton family, and she’ll comfort Chicago. If you’re a parent, you know that during the service, she’ll also think of her own daughters.

And she’ll mourn.

Because that’s what all mothers do at funerals of innocent children.

They mourn.


John Kass is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. Readers may send him email at

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