I have to be honest: as much as I adore President Obama, I tend to watch his speeches in front of African Americans with baited breath, waiting for the moment when the beautiful words I expect him to use to uplift end up bashing us upside the head. Such was the case when I tuned in this weekend for President Obama’s Morehouse College commencement address.
Don’t front: you know there’s precedence for my thinking. Remember that infamous 2008 Father’s Day speech then-candidate Obama gave at a Chicago church, when he accused black fathers of “acting like boys, not men,” advancing the stereotype of African American fathers as lazy, no-count children who abandon the kids they helped create? Or when he told a predominately black audience at the annual Congressional Black Caucus Foundation awards dinner to take off their “bedroom slippers” and “stop complaining, stop grumbling, stop crying” about the ills facing black America—like no one in the room that night is truly dedicated and working hard to advance our people?
I’m all for accountability: make a baby, raise a baby. Work hard, get results. Of the people, work for the people. All of that. But what I won’t ever co-sign is that “pull yourselves up by the bootstraps” mentality that goes out of its way to ignore reality: the American political, social and economic structure tends to be stacked against those with the least money, power and influence. At the bottom of that rung is black folk. Any suggestion that you can simply use your will to change the plight of the people is about as dubious as suggesting you can use your fist to stop high tide. That’s reality.
Which circles back to why I was holding my breath during President Obama’s address yesterday. Thankfully, he used his words in front of the prestigious all-male historically Black college in Atlanta not to excoriate but to encourage, not to browbeat but to inspire. He delivered a powerful and personal appeal directly to black men, telling them to set an example for what it means to be a man, to reject a single-minded focus on wealth accumulation and give back to the community by lifting up those who haven’t been as fortunate.
Using his own life and childhood as an example, the president told the 500 graduates and their families that he is motivated as a black man to “help those who need it most.”
“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,” he said, as the boisterous and excited crowd looked on in a drenching rain. “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.”
One of the president’s most poignant messages was about the importance of family—how he was trying to break the cycle of fatherlessness in his own family and how the graduates had an obligation to be leaders who could help “transform the way we think about manhood.”
“That’s what I’m asking all of you to do: Keep setting an example for what it means to be a man,” he said. “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.”
“I was raised by a heroic single mom, wonderful grandparents — made incredible sacrifices for me,” he continued. “And I know there are moms and grandparents here today who did the same thing for all of you. But I sure wish I had had a father who was not only present, but involved. Didn’t know my dad. And so my whole life, I’ve tried to be for Michelle and my girls what my father was not for my mother and me. I want to break that cycle where a father is not at home – where a father is not helping to raise that son or daughter. I want to be a better father, a better husband, a better man.”
He garnered laughter when he said that he’s not perfect—and that his wife Michelle had a long list of his imperfections—but he was still practicing and learning how to be a good father and husband.
“It’s hard work that demands your constant attention and frequent sacrifice.,” he said. “Even now, I’m still practicing, I’m still learning, still getting corrected in terms of how to be a fine husband and a good father. But I will tell you this: Everything else is unfulfilled if we fail at family, if we fail at that responsibility.” When he is on his deathbed, he added, it will not be a piece of legislation or the Nobel Prize that he’ll be thinking about. “I will be thinking about that walk I took with my daughters. I’ll be thinking about a lazy afternoon with my wife. I’ll be thinking about sitting around the dinner table and seeing them happy and healthy and knowing that they were loved. And I’ll be thinking about whether I did right by all of them,” he said.
Of course, in typical form, mainstream media completely igged most of President Obama’s words and zeroed in on—and mischaracterized—the part of his speech in which he implored his audience of mostly black men and their families not to write off their own failings as “just another example of the world trying to keep a black man down.” In no way did he suggest this was the modus operandi of the African American community, but that sure was the running narrative on almost every story I read and watched—from newspapers and websites to morning television.
Truth is, President Obama slayed at his Morehouse commencement address yesterday, inspiring not only the young graduates, but this intelligent, thoughtful, passionate black woman, mom and wife. I thank him for that.
To get a real, non-skewed read on President Obama’s Morehouse message, check out Nick Chiles’ story on AtlantaBlackStar.com. Also, you can watch the speech in its entirety below.
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Mom. NY Times bestselling author. Pop culture ninja. Unapologetic lover of shoes, bacon and babies. Nice with the verbs. Founder of the top black parenting website, MyBrownBaby.