Yesterday, President Obama delivered what could prove to be a seminal speech at Morehouse College’s 2013 commencement ceremony. During the speech, which was considerably less “safe” than what I expected and what Mr. Obama has shown at other commencements, he touched on issues at the core of Black male identity and made some very personal appeals to Morehouse graduates. This was one of a very small handful of speeches that Obama has made that directly and deeply address Black racial identity, and, save maybe his speech on race during the 2008 primaries, this was probably the most daring. I didn’t know he had it in him. Check out a transcript here, or look at the video below:
And it’s on the cover of the New York Times!
The soaring speech touched on a bit of everything, from personal touches for Morehouse students (I wish I had a President on hand to allow some Crown Forum Forgiveness–I’ll accept student loan forgiveness as recompense, though) to Black social responsibility and differing views on Black masculinity. My own sentimentality to my alma mater and President aside (although the image of a Black President singing “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and wearing maroon robes will never leave me), I think the parts of the speech that held me the most were his implicit repudiation of the Talented Tenth philosophy, one that Morehouse has espoused to varying degrees in its history, and his strong (if brief) exploration of standards of Black masculinity.
He preached for this generation of Black leaders to develop a true global sense of community and engage in uplifting all, including our own. This is the true sense of what I think our most famous alumni advocated, and it matches with President Obama’s view of himself and his own goals. It’s an ideal that I personally believe in more closely than the Talented Tenth theory, which I think allows for ossifying of Black social strata and often, “betrays a poverty of ambition.” Mr Obama also risked controversy as he gently chided the audience to consider non-heteronormative standards of Black masculinity with the portion of his speech encouraging being good partners or boyfriends to same-sex spouses as being part of the ideal as well. Any of you who know Morehouse know that such a statement carries some risk of controversy.
But imagine my surprise yesterday evening and this morning when NONE of the major outlets covering such an important and unusual speech discussed these things. Check this out:
No Excuses, indeed
Talk about forcing the narrative. According to the media (liberal, conservative, and in between), it seems like the entire speech was Obama preaching at young Black men to be more responsible and to no longer make excuses. And, absent context, that’s exactly what those few paragraphs of text all those outlets are quoting say. The intent here seems to be either (a) the ultra-liberal view reinforcing the notion of an out-of-touch and unaware Obama “preaching” to young Black men to be better in spite of reality or (b) the conservative view that Obama is acquiescing to race no longer being an obstacle and stressing personal responsibility as the sole indicator of success. Neither of these is true, and each of these is irresponsible.
The reality is exactly what was in the actual speech. This speech took a long road, and the segment about personal responsibility was immediately preceded by Obama’s talk about community responsibility and racism through a historical lens. These were portions of the speech almost universally ignored by news outlets. With several nods to Morehouse’s history and to the older generation in attendance, Obama referenced the struggles overcome by the generations involved in Civil Rights battles and implored Morehouse Men and educated Black men everywhere to use those as templates. He acknowledged the racism that exists today, and from the template (and he included some personal experiences in there), he echoed the same refrain that Morehouse teaches us: the only way to remove the obstacles is to succeed in spite of them, and use that success to break them down for our children. There is a different context between the intra-racial dialog on “excuses” and the cross-racial one, and media outlets would do well to note that context and the history of the institution at which he spoke. Nuance is key. But then again, asking news outlets to be responsible and consider nuance in the era of today’s news cycle is tantamount to asking pigs to grow wings and fly.
The fact is, Obama’s take on race is complicated, and his racial identity is complicated and sometimes contradictory in philosophy. Sounds like most Black folks. In fact, that you can take so many things from what was sometimes a meandering speech is the ultimate testament to the fact that Blackness is no monolith. Morehouse is an institution built on that very concept of diversity within Blackness, and Obama spoke on the basic principles that all HBCUs espouse: that we must succeed, even if the world goes to hell and Jim Crow comes back a hundred times over. Education is an avenue for success, and Obama’s charge to those newly lettered men is simply a reflection of what we’ve always told our young graduates. So, in a few words, knock it off.