Obama Gets All in His Blackness at Howard

Leah Donnella, NPR, May 10, 2016

“Be confident in your heritage. Be confident in your blackness,” President Barack Obama told graduates and their families at Howard University’s 2016 Commencement Ceremony. It was one of many moments in a speech that honored the achievements of black folks–many Howard alumni–and called on graduates to get and stay politically active. His speech was met with laughter, generous applause, and largely positive reviews. Paul Holston, editor-in-chief of Howard’s student newspaper The Hilltopwrote that Obama’s address was “strong, eloquent, and inspirational,” and would “go down as one of the most significant moments in Howard University’s history.”

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The tone surprised some African-Americans who had been critical of what they see as the president’s habit of talking down to primarily black crowds. The last time Obama spoke at an HBCU’s commencement was at Morehouse College in 2013, where he was criticized for promoting a finger-wagging brand of respectability politics with remarks like these:

“Just as Morehouse has taught you to expect more of yourselves, inspire those who look up to you to expect more of themselves. We know that too many young men in our community continue to make bad choices. And I have to say, growing up, I made quite a few myself. 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. But one of the things that all of you have learned over the last four years is there’s no longer any room for excuses.”

Ta-Nehisi Coates responded to that speech by calling out what he saw as the double standard Obama used in addressing African-Americans. In a piece called “How the Obama Administration Talks to Black America,” Coates wrote that the president acts like someone “who sees holding African Americans to a standard of individual responsibility as part of his job. This is not a role Barack Obama undertakes with other communities.”

Some observers who were worried that the president might affect the same scolding posture at Howard were pleased, if not entirely won over. Michael P. Jeffries, over at The Boston Globesaid that the Howard speech was more earnest in its depiction of structural inequality

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Still, Jeffries observes “how much further [Obama] has to go” to fairly depict race in America. In his speech, Obama praises Black Lives Matter activist Brittany Packnett as someone who broke with the orthodoxy of her movement to enact change. But, according to Jeffries:

“What Obama left out is that Packnett is not an anomaly among Black Lives Matter leadership. Protesters have interrupted campaign events for Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Donald Trump, but activist DeRay McKesson certainly believes in voting: He ran for mayor of Baltimore. The Chicago-based Black Youth Project has protested mayor Rahm Emanuel and held rallies in the name of Rekia Boyd and other victims of police violence. The organization has also published research reports, and its directors have worked with several well established and likeminded groups, including the NAACP.

So, in many respects, Black Lives Matter is already living out the charge put forth by the president.”

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BLM activists themselves had some things to say about Obama’s speech. DeRay McKesson tweeted his approval of the president’s remarks, but also warned about oversimplifying the message:

“Obama’s commencement speech at HowardU today was important, as we both reflected on the past in blackness and our future. Obama’s speech was complicated, as he noted the role of compromise in the work of progress, while maintains a commitment to one’s values. Obama also rightly noted that awareness is not the win, but is the initial work that creates space for later wins. [He] also noted the work of activists like [Brittany Packnett], noting that we will have to be intentional in how we change systems/structures. In many ways, this speech echoed themes he offered when [she and I] met with him a month ago. He is becoming more explicit re: discussing blackness.”

McKesson continued:

“We protest to change the world, not to continue protesting until the end of time. Awareness must lead to work focused on concrete solutions. Obama’s focus on voting was not an indictment of the movement, of protest, or of organizing. Don’t reduce his speech to this stale reading.”

Still, others weren’t blown away by the speech. Maya Rhodan at Time magazine described Obama’s Howard speech as another replica from the “mold he often leans on in remarks to black audiences.” She offered up the president’s time-tested speech recipe: “a nod to our nation’s racial history, a pit-stop on his presidency, and a call to pay it forward.”

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