“Education is Emancipation” – POTUS and FLOTUS Give Commencement Speeches

“Education is Emancipation” – POTUS and FLOTUS Give Commencement Speeches


There is nothing like commencement day at a university for a graduating college senior. It is a highly charged emotional environment, in which parents, family, friends, administrators and alumni all gather to witness the granting of degree ceremonies. The commencement speech itself is usually an anti-climatic moment for students amidst all of the graduation parties and the receptions put on by the institution. The students at Hampton University and the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff were likely to be the exceptions this week, as Barack Obama and Michelle Obama, the president and the first lady of the United States, delivered their speeches.

“The founders of these institutions knew, of course, that inequality would persist long into the future. They were not naïve. They recognized that barriers in our laws, and in our hearts, wouldn’t vanish overnight. But they also recognized the larger truth; a distinctly American truth. They recognized, Class of 2010, that the right education might allow those barriers to be overcome; might allow our God-given potential to be fulfilled. They recognized, as Frederick Douglass once put it, that “education…means emancipation.” They recognized that education is how America and its people might fulfill our promise. That recognition, that truth –- that an education can fortify us to rise above any barrier, to meet any test –- is reflected, again and again, throughout our history.”

Commencement address at Hampton University
President Barack Obama

The one sour note in his address, his by now standard admonishment of African American students who consistently lag behind other ethnic groups in academic achievement, seemed more suited for a Bill Cosby rant than the celebratory atmosphere surrounding a college graduation.

“You’re in a strong position to outcompete workers around the world. But I don’t have to tell you that too many folks back home aren’t as well prepared. Too many young people, just like you, are not as well prepared. By any number of different yardsticks, African Americans are being outperformed by their white classmates, as are Hispanic Americans. Students in well-off areas are outperforming students in poorer rural or urban communities, no matter what skin color. Globally, it’s not even close. In 8th grade science and math, for example, American students are ranked about 10th overall compared to top-performing countries. But African Americans are ranked behind more than 20 nations, lower than nearly every other developed country.”

Commencement address at Hampton University President Barack Obama

“Don’t make the perfect the enemy of the good” is one of the president’s most recognizable phrases. It is a phrase he should remind his speechwriter to use as a guide when he is putting together an inspirational speech for groups of African American students who are obviously headed in the right direction.

First Lady Michelle Obama, unencumbered by the weight placed on her husband’s every word, but fully aware of the importance her own public statements carry, seemed to be energized by all the young faces before her. She empathized with the trials students often faced, and challenged them to raise their personal bar of achievement higher in order to have an opportunity to get what they wanted out of life. She illustrated this with several anecdotes, none more moving than the story of Quiana Childress.

“I want you to tell yourself that if Quiana Childress can go from being homeless to graduating with the highest GPA not just in the biology department, but in the entire School of Arts and Sciences then surely, you can overcome whatever adversity you face in your own life.”

Commencement address at Hampton University First Lady Michelle Obama

President Obama had to deliver the kind of speech a president has to give whenever there are cameras rolling, the kind that has to mix in a little policy and a little politics. Michelle Obama got to deliver the kind of speech a First Lady can get away with giving, the kind that can focus solely on the topic at hand. Two different speakers, two different speeches, one common theme – educational excellence and academic success has to be an integral part of any plan for African Americans to erase racial inequity in America.