Over the weekend, the first Black president of the United States landed in, arguably, the capital of Black America to speak at the commencement of the nation’s only institution of higher learning dedicated to educating Black men and producing world leaders. The occasion was a unique opportunity to address issues facing Black males in America and was indeed a rousing call to action.
I was a little nervous when President Obama was announced as Morehouse College’s commencement speaker this year. The college has long wanted the first Black president to grace the campus—providing some connection between his legacy and the school’s mission of producing servant-leaders—but, as an alumnus, my excitement for his visit was mixed with trepidation.
The truth is: Obama doesn’t always get it right when speaking to Black audiences. In fact, the president has made it a habit of missing the mark whenever he stands in front of mostly Black crowds, so I held my breath waiting for what I just knew would be a sermon on personal responsibility and little else. It’s been B.O.’s M.O. for a few years now. It was there when he lectured Black men on fatherhood, addressed the NAACP in 2008 and again in 2009. Without follow-up speeches to the NAACP over the past two years, my biggest fear was that this moment would be his tour de force—a message to the White electorate through Black Americans.
As expected, President Obama launched into his Black minister voice (the one he reserves for NAACP conventions and campaign stops at Baptist churches,) but what he offered, while neither perfect nor comprehensive, was decidedly different than past speeches and worth highlighting.
With the references to my alma mater aside, the speech felt personal. Perhaps it was the thunder and rain punctuating the moment. Maybe the ministerial tone was finally getting to me, but I believed him. For a little over 30 minutes, Obama spoke on something meaningful and worth that special commencement moment—the weight of being a Black man in America. He encouraged the new graduates to “stay hungry” and “keep hustling” with the sincerity of someone that we know has had to do both.
And it was a different message than the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” nonsense usually spouted at Black men, words that would have amounted to singing to the choir at one of the nation’s best liberal arts colleges. Instead, Obama’s words were the kind shared between brothers across this country every day. He acknowledged the challenges ahead while encouraging those young men to hold steadfast to the will and connectedness that got them to the commencement stage in the first place—all the while pulling from shining examples among the graduates.
As a journalist, it’s clear to me that the media have had a really hard time processing Obama’s speech in the days since. All that Black male achievement in one place is hard to reconcile into the usual narrative of pathology. So instead of making sense of and connection between the miracles that are Morehouse College and President Barack Obama, news outlets focused on what felt familiar: the speech’s “no excuses” line and his pep talk on family values. Those themes were certainly there, but the most salient and novel one was that the graduates are obligated to transform the broken society they’re entering, not despite expectations, but because as educated Black men they’re uniquely qualified to do so.
To be clear, as Obama might say, the most phenomenal part of the commencement speech was the president’s televised affirmation of Black male excellence—that it exists, can be multiplied and is necessary to the future of this nation.
“Your experiences give you special insight that today’s leaders need,” Obama said. “If you tap into that experience, it should endow you with empathy — the understanding of what it’s like to walk in somebody else’s shoes, to see through their eyes, to know what it’s like when you’re not born on 3rd base, thinking you hit a triple. It should give you the ability to connect. It should give you a sense of compassion and what it means to overcome barriers.”
Finally, what gave Obama’s address to the 2013 graduating class of Morehouse College special resonance was its earnest encouragement. There were moments of connection that I don’t remember being present in his previous speeches to Black audiences. For once, his testimony made his message tangible.
He said, “I will tell you, Class of 2013, whatever success I have achieved, whatever positions of leadership I have held have depended less on Ivy League degrees or SAT scores or GPAs, and have instead been due to that sense of connection and empathy — the special obligation I felt, as a Black man like you, to help those who need it most, people who didn’t have the opportunities that I had — because there but for the grace of God, go I — I might have been in their shoes. I might have been in prison. I might have been unemployed. I might not have been able to support a family. And that motivates me.”
It motivates me too, and, from the thunderous applause the president received, my guess is that the Morehouse College class of 2013 is fired up and ready to go.
The full transcript of Obama’s speech can be found here.