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Interestingly enough, both the president’s detractors and his supporters will seize on the same soundbite from his address to the 2013 graduating class at Morehouse College.
In the speech, he basically makes two requests of the Morehouse graduating seniors – 1) In the Morehouse tradition, continue to expect more of yourself and 2) “inspire those who look up to you to expect more of themselves.”
Fair enough. The soundbite that supporters and detractors of Obama have and will zero in on is: “We know that too many young men in our community continue to make bad choices. Growing up, I made a few myself. And I have to confess, sometimes I wrote off my own failings as just another example of the world trying to keep a black man down.”
I am fairly convinced now that President Obama can not speak to an all or mostly black audience without generating some variation of diametrically opposed reactions.
Some have said that this is Obama appeasing his (not present) white audience by once again chastising black men for not being boot-strappy enough; others will say that he is too willing to excuse structural and institutional racism and inequality even as he claims that “we’ve got no time for excuses.”
Supporters will claim that this is one of the most personal speeches that the president has ever given and they will laud his truth-telling and willingness to state the tough-love realities for black men.
I suspect the 2013 graduates of Morehouse College were mostly happy to have the POTUS as their commencement speaker – even if some of them align themselves with his critics.
The president’s recitation of “excuses” seems to resonate beyond this particular speech and may be more aptly indicative of how some of Obama’s critics (on the left) now see his presidency – emptied of its promise and too often excused by black folks and many in the media for under-performing on politics and policy issues dear to progressives. As a part of his rhetorical strategy to situate himself as an insider (with respect to the Morehouse community), President Obama recited the following:
“Excuses are tools of the incompetent, used to build bridges to nowhere and monuments of nothingness.”
There are multiple variations of this “creed” that has become a staple in membership processes for many black fraternities and sororities, but Obama’s recitation of it was not levied at his audience in order to haze or chastise them.
He was in fact making the point that he (himself) had relied upon the excuse that “the world [tries] to keep a black man down,” and he was marking this occasion as one where his fellow Morehouse men had learned this lesson about the pitfalls of making excuses in life.
The overlooked language
We won’t hear this much in the reporting on the speech, but the president also acknowledges the facts that “the bitter legacies of slavery and segregation” still exist and that “racism and discrimination” is “still out there.”
We know these truths to be self-evident, but for many, these mentions do not amount to the kind of critical discourse required to unpack the challenges that Morehouse men have and will continue to face.
Maybe a commencement address is not the best place to hash out political inadequacies or the nuances of intra-racial relations between and amongst black folk and the first black president.
And to be fair, the president’s speech spends plenty of time (and words) commemorating the glorious tradition of Morehouse College graduates. But more and more black folk are growing weary of the excuses made by and for this administration in the face of diminished resources, high unemployment, and limited access to economic opportunity in the black community.
Whether you love them or hate them, Mr. and Mrs. Obama’s speeches at HBCU’s this year certainly suggest that a longer, more sustained dialogue between the Obamas and black America is a few years overdue.
James Braxton Peterson is the Director of Africana Studies and Associate Professor of English at Lehigh University. He is also the founder of Hip Hop Scholars LLC, an association of hip-hop generation scholars dedicated to researching and developing the cultural and educational potential of hip-hop, urban and youth cultures. You can follow him on Twitter @DrJamesPeterson