President Obama’s Sunday commencement speech to graduates of Morehouse College, a prestigious all male historic black university (HBCU), with themes that centered around civic duty and personal responsibility, elicited the ire of the usual critics.
During the address, the president talked about his own father’s absence and spoke of the importance of being responsible for self, shedding excuses for greatness and of fathers being present in their children’s lives. He brought up and praised a couple of graduating men as examples of persistence despite the odds.
A couple of critical essays stand out. Author and educator Tim Wise who wrote on Sunday:
[quote]Barack Obama knows how demanding a school Morehouse is. So to preach hard work to these men, as if they had never heard of it — as if they now intended to kick back and wait for things to be handed to them — is to not only insult their intelligence, but also to feed every vicious stereotype already held by too many white Americans about black males, no matter how educated….Barack Obama sometimes seems to think he still needs to go out of his way to please white people is maddening…Barack Obama will never tell white people at a traditionally white college or university to stop blaming affirmative action for every job we didn’t get, or every law school we didn’t get into.[/quote]
So that his take away? He has nothing to say about the man saying don’t rest on your Morehouse degree but rather keep on your grind, Oh, and by the way, don’t forget to give back even as you reap the benefits of your hard-earned credentials?
The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote yesterday that he felt Obama’s speech was tantamount to a finger-wagging at Blacks in a way he doesn’t do when he speaks to whites. It is the same criticism we heard from some when Obama spoke at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation 2011 dinner, and some said he talked down to the audience by telling them to quit whining.
Coates also took issue with Michelle Obama’s Friday address to graduating Bowie State University students, during which she talked about young people playing video games rather than exercising and dreaming of becoming ballers and rappers instead of teachers, lawyers or business leaders.
“ There’s nothing any more wrong with aspiring to be a rapper than there is with aspiring to be a painter, or an actor, or a sculptor.” Coates complained in reply to Michelle Obama’s remarks.” Hip-hop has produced some of the most penetrating art of our time, and inspired much more.”
Um, except when the odds of becoming a successful rapper are substantially less than of becoming a successful school teacher, and when perhaps then it is better to focus kids on the more attainable.
“What is specific to black kids is that their dreams often don’t extend past entertainment and athletics,” he responded. “That is a direct result of the kind of limited cultural exposure you find in impoverished, segregated neighborhoods.”
It didn’t seem Michelle Obama was denying all of the multi layered reasons for children’s limited aspirations but rather calling on the community of educated African Americans including the graduates that day to do their part to inspire those from their communities and change that reality. But if we want to play blame game, sure.
Shame both Coates and Wise missed the point.
Both ostensibly read more into a speech than was there and seemingly interjected their own biases and perceptions of tangentially related subjects in their criticism. To say they were reaching would be an understatement.
Coates even brings in theories of Eugenics in his piece. “Are [South Side Chicago men] genetically inferior?” he asked at one point. Stretch?
And while rounding out his point about Obama’s disparate themes when he addresses majority black versus majority white audiences, Coates also appeared frustrated that Obama didn’t talk of spree killer Adam Lanza being the product of divorce when he addressed a Newtown vigil yet dared link absentee fathers to young black urban kids’ involvement in gangs.
Hello! What is the issue here, really?
While Lanza’s absent father may have had a role to play in some issues he had, perhaps in his killing 20 kids and 6 adults at Sandy Hook elementary school last December, available evidence shows Lanza’s heinous act most likely had to do with a psychological defect. Further, there is substantial research and social community studies that do in fact suggest that absentee fathers in urban homes contribute to black boys’ delinquency. The dots line up. No need to delve into conjecture.
Meanwhile, Wise’s piece brings in Affirmative Action which was not suggested or brought up in Obama’s speech. Wise believes by preaching hard work and ethic, Obama is feeding into vicious stereotypes and stoking racist fires. Really? A bit dramatic. It really wasn’t and isn’t that deep. But if Wise wants to mind-read into the thoughts of racist whites, who most likely were not paying that much attention to this speech, so be it.
Their obscure and disconnected references may illuminate their point, but they also reveal telling signs of their own preconceptions and positions on complex topics not even brought up or suggested in Obama’s address.
First, consider that both chose to focus on one element of the remarks while ignoring the greater message which to me was more of a rallying cry to community service.
There was also a generous discussion of the history of Morehouse and of the great men that institution has produced. Obama also offered some insights into his own personal feelings about growing up without a “present and involved” father, something he rarely does . There was plenty substance there that had nothing to do with finger pointing.
Oh and did Coates and Wise’s television sets go out during the critical “each one, teach one” message?
[quote]So be a good role model, set a good example for that young brother coming up. If you know somebody who’s not on point, go back and bring that brother along — those who’ve been left behind, who haven’t had the same opportunities we have — they need to hear from you. You’ve got to be engaged on the barbershops, on the basketball court, at church, spend time and energy and presence to give people opportunities and a chance. Pull them up, expose them, support their dreams. Don’t put them down.[/quote]
Coates and Wise respond as if the audience to the speech was mainly White America or only the people sitting in the commencement hall.
Rather than a mea cupla to Whites who believe blacks are lazy and don’t pull their own weight or another example of Obama lecturing to their own, Obama’s address appeared targeted to the larger collective. He seemed to be speaking beyond the seats in front of him and to the masses beyond TV and computer screens and over radio signals listening in.
The remarks were directed at greater audiences, black, white and in between who more likely than not may have been paying attention to this particular address than the half or dozen others he had made last week.
And beyond brothers and sisters, the message was received, applauded by non-African-Americans who agreed that they too ought to be raising their children to be self-sufficient and cognizant of others less fortunate.
It is agreed, as Coates points out, that a demographic that votes over 96% Democrats and about at that same rate for the president should be demanding more than it does from Obama and his party. It is a fair concern considering the disparities in unemployment, home foreclosure rates and other areas.
Those issues need to be raised, but separately they also do not negate the value of Sunday’s message to the larger collective imploring all to strive for the best, and bring along someone struggling, if possible.
Those who want to dig deeper in the crates and extrapolate more than the call to duty are just revealing how weighted those chips on their shoulders are.