The president is invited to give the commencement speech to college all across the country. As far as speakers go, President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama are considered major “gets.”
However, his speech last week at Morehouse College got on the nerves of some of his critics.
“We know that too many young men in our community continue to make bad choices. Growing up, I made a few myself. And I have to confess, sometimes I wrote off my own failings as just another example of the world trying to keep a black man down. But one of the things you’ve learned over the last four years is that there’s no longer any room for excuses. I understand that there’s a common fraternity creed here at Morehouse: ‘excuses are tools of the incompetent, used to build bridges to nowhere and monuments of nothingness.’ We’ve got no time for excuses – not because the bitter legacies of slavery and segregation have vanished entirely; they haven’t.
Not because racism and discrimination no longer exist; that’s still out there. It’s just that in today’s hyperconnected, hypercompetitive world, with a billion young people from China and India and Brazil entering the global workforce alongside you, nobody is going to give you anything you haven’t earned. And whatever hardships you may experience because of your race, they pale in comparison to the hardships previous generations endured – and overcame.
“You now hail from a lineage and legacy of immeasurably strong men – men who bore tremendous burdens and still laid the stones for the path on which we now walk. You wear the mantle of Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington, Ralph Bunche and Langston Hughes, George Washington Carver and Ralph Abernathy, Thurgood Marshall and yes, Dr. King. These men were many things to many people. They knew full well the role that racism played in their lives. But when it came to their own accomplishments and sense of purpose, they had no time for excuses.”
“I was raised by a heroic single mother and wonderful grandparents who made incredible sacrifices for me. And I know there are moms and grandparents here today who did the same thing for all of you. But I still wish I had a father who was not only present, but involved. And so my whole life, I’ve tried to be for Michelle and my girls what my father wasn’t for my mother and me. I’ve tried to be a better husband, a better father, and a better man.
“It’s hard work that demands your constant attention, and frequent sacrifice. And Michelle will be the first to tell you that I’m not perfect. Even now, I’m still learning how to be the best husband and father I can be. Because success in everything else is unfulfilling if we fail at family. I know that when I’m on my deathbed someday, I won’t be thinking about any particular legislation I passed, or policy I promoted; I won’t be thinking about the speech I gave, or the Nobel Prize I received. I’ll be thinking about a walk I took with my daughters. A lazy afternoon with my wife. Whether I did right by all of them.
“Be a good role model and set a good example for that young brother coming up. If you know someone who isn’t on point, go back and bring that brother along. The brothers who have been left behind – who haven’t had the same opportunities we have – they need to hear from us. We’ve got to be in the barbershops with them, at church with them, spending time and energy and presence helping pull them up, exposing them to new opportunities, and supporting their dreams. We have to teach them what it means to be a man – to serve your city like Maynard Jackson; to shape the culture like Spike Lee. Chester Davenport was one of the first people to integrate the University of Georgia law school. When he got there, no one would sit next to him in class. But Chester didn’t mind. Later on, he said, ‘It was the thing for me to do. Someone needed to be the first.’ Today, Chester is here celebrating his 50th reunion. If you’ve had role models, fathers, brothers like that – thank them today. If you haven’t, commit yourself to being that man for someone else.”
This was a pretty standard Obama riff: be responsible. Be a man. Take care of your responsibilities. Don’t blame others for your lot in life. We’ve heard variations of this uplift-the-race speech from Obama since 2008. This is not new.
What is news is how some Black commentators have had enough and don’t want to hear it anymore. They want President Obama to talk to them the way he talks to predominantly White audiences.
Ta-Neshi Coates: Taking the full measure of the Obama presidency thus far, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that this White House has one way of addressing the social ills that afflict black people — and particularly black youth — and another way of addressing everyone else. I would have a hard time imagining the president telling the women of Barnard that “there’s no longer room for any excuses” — as though they were in the business of making them. Barack Obama is, indeed, the president of “all America,” but he also is singularly the scold of “black America.”
Courtland Milloy: There is something vaguely contemptuous about the president’s style of criticism when addressing black audiences. Invariably, his rosy rhetoric comes with insensitive scolding — his mesmerizing visage leaving them oblivious to the blood he has drawn.
“The blood he has drawn?” Come on, Courtland. You can make your point without resorting to heavy-handed and silly exaggerations. Coates has also written much better columns than this and he, as well as nearly every Black columnist I’ve ever read have all scolded Black Americans over one thing or another. Sitting back and pointing out where others have come up short is practically what the job description for a columnist.
What the President said was not drastically different from what others from Bill Cosby to Minister Farrakhan have previously said. I, like many others here have “called out” my own people for our failings. Leadership is not always telling us what we want to hear, but what we need to hear. Why should this be more of an irritant coming from Obama than anyone else?
And to my Super Soul Sister Tonyaa Weathersbee , who took the president to task on Facebook, I must take issue with your observation that “Obama’s speech on black male responsibility is wasted on an audience of Morehouse graduates who get it. They’ve already been responsible enough to pursue a degree, so why drive home what they already know?”
How do we KNOW the president is telling these grads “what they already know?” Who’s to say the social conscience of a Morehouse man is more highly attuned than the working class brutha holdin’ down a 9 to 5? You don’t have to accept W.E.B. DuBois “Talented Tenth” concept to know more than a few Blacks who graduate from institutions of higher learning, have no intentions of doing anything to uplift the race and are going to run as far and as fast from those who haven’t been as blessed as they are. Their top priority is finding a high-paying gig with a Fortune 500 company because baby needs a new pair of shoes and to pay off those student loans too!
If Obama’s tone to the grads at Morehouse is different from that of The Ohio State University, perhaps he realizes the odds differ for their success and the stakes are higher. A graduate of OSU that blows it once they live school may have alternative paths to success. A Morehouse man may only get one shot to make it and if they fall short, that failure reflects on not just them and their family, but the collective hopes of the Black community.
If the educates classes of Blacks don’t want to hear any more “tut-tut-tutting” from the President and the working class masses aren’t paying attention, who’s left?
Instead of saying, “I’m tired of hearing Obama telling me what I already know” a better way of looking at it is, “Is he saying anything that isn’t still a problem?” Maybe we should pull ourselves away from Kerry Washington’s imaginary love affair with the fictional White Republican Chief Executive long enough to look at the unresolved real world issues the Black Democratic one is bringing to our seemingly unwanted attention.
Those bitching about the president’s speech are probably the same ones who bitch about how Obama ignores the concerns of Blacks. Now when he mentions them and suggests its up to Black grads to address some of the outstanding issues that have plagued the race for decades, if not centuries, he’s lecturing Black audiences in a way he doesn’t do White audiences. Well, duh. Black folks don’t have the same problems as White, gay, Latino and female audiences do.
Don’t kill the messenger because you don’t dig the message. If we truly want Obama to be the Black president, don’t complain when he speaks to problems peculiar to Black people. It’s unfortunate Obama’s speech fell on so many deaf ears among the Black illuminati. Instead of telling the president he has no business talking about the problems Black folks have, they should be writing columns proposing solutions to them.
Next year when Obama doesn’t speak at any Black colleges and says, “Who needs that drama,” he’ll catch hell for only speaking to White graduates. You can see this train coming long before it gets here.