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Monday, May 20, 2013

Obama gets personal at Morehouse

I have read or listened to several Obama commencement addresses over the years, and his address at Morehouse College yesterday struck me as something of a departure in several ways. While I may have missed or forgotten prior iterations of the parts that struck me, let me set down what I thought was singular.

First off: Morehouse is a men's school, and so Obama addressed men, which gave the talk a retro feel.  He talked about what it means to be a man, rather than simply a responsible adult, and what it means to be a black man in particular.

Addressing black men meant walking a fine line -- as Obama always does when he addresses African American audiences -- between the particular and the universal (in this case, particulars of gender as well as ethnicity).  Obama acknowledged as much in a rather meta moment:

But along with collective responsibilities, we have individual responsibilities.  There are some things, as black men, we can only do for ourselves.  There are some things, as Morehouse Men, that you are obliged to do for those still left behind.  As Morehouse Men, you now wield something even more powerful than the diploma you’re about to collect — and that’s the power of your example.

So what I ask of you today is the same thing I ask of every graduating class I address:  Use that power for something larger than yourself.  Live up to President Mays’s challenge.  Be “sensitive to the wrongs, the sufferings, and the injustices of society.”  And be “willing to accept responsibility for correcting [those] ills” (my emphasis). 
Obama's solution to this dual mandate -- address the graduates' responsibility to their own ethnic community, and to the larger world (leaving aside gender, which I'll get to later) -- to me echoed something I recall Alice Walker writing. To paraphrase from memory: if you're black, you have to be better. If you're a Jew, you have to be better -- ethically, morally. Here is Obama's version:
As Morehouse Men, many of you know what it’s like to be an outsider; know what it’s like to be marginalized; know what it’s like to feel the sting of discrimination.  And that’s an experience that a lot of Americans share.  Hispanic Americans know that feeling when somebody asks them where they come from or tell them to go back.  Gay and lesbian Americans feel it when a stranger passes judgment on their parenting skills or the love that they share.  Muslim Americans feel it when they’re stared at with suspicion because of their faith.  Any woman who knows the injustice of earning less pay for doing the same work — she knows what it’s like to be on the outside looking in.

So your experiences give you special insight that today’s leaders need.  If you tap into that experience, it should endow you with empathy — the understanding of what it’s like to walk in somebody else’s shoes, to see through their eyes, to know what it’s like when you’re not born on 3rd base, thinking you hit a triple.  It should give you the ability to connect.  It should give you a sense of compassion and what it means to overcome barriers.

And I will tell you, Class of 2013, 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.  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.  (Applause.)

So it’s up to you to widen your circle of concern — to care about justice for everybody, white, black and brown. Everybody.  Not just in your own community, but also across this country and around the world.  To make sure everyone has a voice, and everybody gets a seat at the table; that everybody, no matter what you look like or where you come from, what your last name is — it doesn’t matter, everybody gets a chance to walk through those doors of opportunity if they are willing to work hard enough.
Reading this was for me one of those moments, which occur from time to time, when I am stupefied afresh that a man who can speak, and think, and feel like that is president of the United States.

On the personal side, this was both a boast and an anti-boast. The president of the United States effectively claimed a mantle as our empath-in-chief.  

Obama also very pointedly addressed the Morehouse Men as men. He was able to do this in large part simply by being factual - he was addressing a class of men only:
It was here that professors encouraged [alum Martin Luther King] to look past the world as it was and fight for the world as it should be.  And it was here, at Morehouse, as Dr. King later wrote, where “I realized that nobody…was afraid.”

Not even of some bad weather.  I added on that part.  (Laughter.)  I know it’s wet out there.  But Dr. Wilson told me you all had a choice and decided to do it out here anyway.  (Applause.)  That’s a Morehouse Man talking.
That set a tone. Obama would not literally suggest that being unafraid is a male prerogative -- in fact, in the next paragraphs, he suggested that King in turn taught the whole nation to be unafraid.  But he was able to leverage the house term "Morehouse Man" to seize hold of his primary audience. At a later point, when he could have referenced some African American heroines, he kept it literally man to man:
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.  (Applause.)

You now hail from a lineage and legacy of immeasurably strong men — men who bore tremendous burdens and still laid the stones for the path on which we now walk.  You wear the mantle of Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington, and Ralph Bunche and Langston Hughes, and George Washington Carver and Ralph Abernathy and Thurgood Marshall, and, yes, Dr. Martin Luther King.
This call to courage, while not explicitly gendered, was gendered by omission, by the exclusion of female examples. Ironically, the charge that was more explicitly gendered was, in a way, to be more like women -- to live up to family responsibility. And here things got raw, and personal.  Earlier, Obama used himself as a negative example, of a young black man looking for excuses. Here, he used his father as a negative example -- and skated close to saying that he was determined to be a better man than his father. He didn't quite say that, but almost.

He set up the personal narrative as a riff on a dictum of  Benjamin Mays, president of Morehouse from 1940 to 1967: “Whatever you do, strive to do it so well that no man living and no man dead, and no man yet to be born can do it any better.”  Again, Obama turned this from its common context of worldly achievement, into the emotional and family realm:
And when I talk about pursuing excellence and setting an example, I’m not just talking about in your professional life [a Morehouse example follows]...

I was raised by a heroic single mom, wonderful grandparents — made incredible sacrifices for me.  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 — (applause) — 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.

It’s hard work that demands your constant attention and frequent sacrifice.  And I promise you, Michelle will tell you I’m not perfect.  She’s got a long list of my imperfections.  (Laughter.)  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. 

I know that when I am on my deathbed someday, I will not be thinking about any particular legislation I passed; I will not be thinking about a policy I promoted; I will not be thinking about the speech I gave, I will not be thinking the Nobel Prize I received.  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.
Literally, Obama's stated wish to be "a better father, a better husband, a better man" an be read as a quest of self-betterment. He does not delve into what led his father to effectively abandon (or drive away) at least three wives and several children.  But the implicit contrast is stark.

Obama has always extrapolated political precepts from his personal narrative. Most commonly, he uses himself as an example of what the nation's political structure and history have made possible. He has also often suggested that his experience as a community organizer helped shape his political perspective. Nor is his regret of his father's absence an unfamiliar not.I am not sure, however, that he's ever made quite this same set of connections between his personal experience and his political passions -- or his own mandate, and that of educated black men generally.

p.s. I read this speech on a phone on the road, then wrote the post quickly, without troubling myself to check out others' responses first, which I see now were plentiful. That's always a bit of a cop-out (though also, in a way, an avoidance of cop-out), and I will try to absorb the commentary today.

UPDATE: responding to this speech, Ta-Nehisi Coates takes Obama to task for hectoring African Americans in ways he would never unleash on other groups, subjecting them to "targeted scorn."  I don't know that "scorn" is the right word, but there's undoubtedly some truth to this. My response here.

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