May 21, 2013


Not surprisingly, there was some criticism of President Obama's tone in his address to the graduating class of Morehouse College, this past Sunday.  Some viewed it as tough love, but were not appreciative of that idea.  Some viewed it as his disdain for black people.  One tweet said that once again the President showed white people that "he doesn't like us."  One writer said that he would not have spoken to other minority groups in the same fashion.  Specifically, the President would not have given a "pick yourself by the bootstraps" message to the women of Barnard College. (My response to that is while it may not have been in a direct address, those belonging to certain groups have similar "tough love" conversations.  Sheryl Sandberg got slammed by women after her book was released.  Granted she is not the president, but I think it is an accepted norm that you can say things to your own that you would not say to other groups, or you would deliver the same message differently).  At the time that I am writing this, this next article is yet to be published, but one opinion seems to think that the President endorses the Talented Tenth theory.

Between Sunday and Monday, I listened to the commencement speech twice and I am floored by the criticism.  I just do not see their points of view.  I think I am fairly intelligent.  Listening is actually a strength of mine.  I am a proud supporter of the Obamas but I am very much an independent thinking individual.  I am not a groupie.  My vision of the Obamas is not hazed by the halo effect.  They are not above reproach and criticism.  I will never say that no one can air their grievances with the President.  I will question, however, the validity of those grievances and to what extent airing them really helps the cause of forward movement versus what amounts to just a gripe session.  I have my criticisms of the President.  I rarely voice them because I do not view them as helpful nor as something that has not already been said.  I also tend to have a big picture mindset when it comes to his agenda and his administration.  What is his overall intention?  I do not get bogged down in the "play by play" and how every detail was not executed perfectly.  Also, I do not overestimate his authority nor do I underestimate the difficulty of his job and the environment he is in.  From the outside looking in, it is beyond ugly in our nation's capital.  Insiders say that it is indeed WORSE than it looks.  Many times after certain reports, all I can genuinely say/pray is "Lord help him."  He has vantage point that I cannot even fathom.  So no matter what my criticisms are, I usually resign myself to defer to him.

In any case, I listened to the speech twice. Finally I printed out the transcript, intently reading it trying very hard to comprehend the criticisms.  I grabbed my highlighter and made some notes.  I thought I would share them.

Your generation is uniquely poised for success unlike any generation of African Americans that came before it.  But that doesn't mean we don't have work--because if we're honest with ourselves, we know that too few of our brothers have the opportuntities that you've had here at Morehouse.  Is that not a fact?  Data clearly shows the low numbers of black males in college. 

...too few of our citizens have role models to guide them.  Communities just a couple miles from my house in Chicago...No one I know would argue that we are lacking in black male role models.  He gets it.  He is not talking from the lofty position of President.  This truth hits home for him as it does many of us.

There are some things, as black men, we can only do for ourselves.  There are some things, as Morehouse Men, that you are obliged for those still left behind.  I wish he would have elaborated on what those things are.  Was he referring to looking out for one another and building each other up? The idea of being "obliged" is actually questionable to me.  But reaching back and giving back is a common refrain in the black community.

So what I ask of you today is the same thing I ask of every graduating class I address...His overall message of being a part of something larger than ourselves is a very consistent message.  That message is delivered differently to different audiences, but still a consistent message.

I know some of you came to Morehouse from communities where life was about keeping your head down and looking out for yourself.  Maybe you feel like you escaped...no one expects you to take a vow of poverty.  Can anyone argue that there is a sense of relief when you do get out of certain environments?  Be relieved, get what you need and go after what you want, but still look back.  Many of us frown on those that do not look back.  Once again the President speaks a sentiment shared by many.

Sometimes I wrote off my own failings as just another example of the world trying to keep a black man down.  I had a tendency sometimes to make excuses for me not doing the right thing.  Is that not something we have heard (or even said ourselves)? Many times, but not always, those who say this are indeed offering it as an excuse; they usually are falling short and blame others for their own mistakes.  It happens all the time and we know it.  The race card is played inappropriately.  When the race card is appropriately played, no one understanding the situation balks at that.

I understand 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.' Well, we've got no time for excuses.  Who hasn't heard some variation of this statement?

It's just that in today's hyperconnected, hypercompetitive world, with millions of young people from China and India and Brazil--many of whom started with a whole lot less than all of you did--all of them entering the global workforce alongside you, nobody is going to give you anything that you have not earned.  Poor choice of words at the end.  I don't think that most of us have that expectation.  However, the global competition is fierce.  I'm not sure that recent graduates fully grasp this concept.  BILLIONS  of others around the world have overcome challenges and could very well outcompete us.

Nobody cares how tough your upbringing was. Nobody cares if you suffered some discrimination.  And moreover, you have to remember that whatever you've gone through.  It pales in comparison to the hardships previous generations endured--and they overcame them.  And if they overcame them, you can overcome them too.  Sad reality. 

Everyone of you have a grandma or an uncle or a parent who's told you that at some point in life, as an African American, you have to work twice as hard as anyone else if you want to get by.  This is the classic world as it is and not as it should be.  But who knows this better than the man himself?  He is the President of the United States for crying out loud!!  He shattered the glass ceiling for black men in this country.  And we all know he is not having an easy time.  It is an inherently difficult job. But it is beyond clear that absolutely nothing is being handed to him, even the things that have broad public support. Yet he is expected to perform.  No one is interested in why he couldn't get things done, even if there is a valid explantation for it. A frustrating and unfair reality, but a reality nonetheless.

...that spirit of excellence, and hard work, and dedication, and no excuses is needed now more than ever.  If you think you can just get over in this economy just because you have a Morehouse degree, you're in for a rude awakening.  A lot of college graduates, across all races, think that a college degree is their golden ticket.  It has been ingrained in them.  Underserved communities have been preached to for years that a college degree is their way out of poverty.  It is just an incomplete truth.  A college degree is an economic imperative but most people attribute their success to factors not taught in the classroom.

Keep setting an example for what it means to be a man.  Be the best husband to your wife, or your boyfriend, or your partner.  Be the best father you can be to your children.  Because nothing is more important.  SAY THAT AGAIN AND AGAIN!  It is a message that bears repeating. Didn't the black community just congregate around Oprah's Lifeclass about fatherless sons?  If the President never addressed this, he would be slammed for it as well.  No win situation.

But I sure wish I had had a father who was not only present, but involved...I want to break the cycle where a father is not at home.  I always thought this was the President's way of connecting to many of our young fatherless men; not his public "working out" of his father issues.

I'm still learning...Everything else is unfufilled if we fail at family.  You may not know how to be a family man, but you can learn.  You need to learn; nothing else matters.

So if you've had role models, fathers, brothers like that--thank them today.  And if you haven't, commit yourself to being that man to somebody else.  This is an age-old sentiment. Why is it tough love coming from the President?

W.E.B. Dubois spoke about the 'talented tenth'--a class of highly educated, socially conscious leaders in the black community.  But it's not just the African American community that needs you.  The country needs you.  The world needs you.  The operative phrase is "leaders in the black community." Expand your influence.  I see the mention of the "talented tenth" as a point of reference to help others familiar with the theory recall the statement.  I didn't see this as an endorsement of the theory.  Although our leaders are indeed a small percentage of the population and many are college educated.  It's just that college is not the only way to develop into that type of person.

That's what we've come to expect from you, Morehouse--a legacy of leaders--not just in our black community, but for the entire American community.  To recognize the burdens you carry with you, but to resist the temptation to use them as excuses...you are heirs to a great legacy.  You have the same courage and that same strength, the same resolve as the men who came before you.  He summed up his viewpoint pretty well here.  If anyone questioned his intent, to me he clarifies it very well in his concluding statements.

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