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By Eddie Glaude, Lester Spence, Imani Perry, Josie Pickens, David Leonard, and Kiese Laymon
We come together to share our various thoughts and reactions to the recent speeches from President Obama and the First Lady. Each of us were disappointed and frustrated in the rhetoric delivered this past week, not only because of what was said but because of the impact of such words on day-to-day lives.
I know a lot has been said about President Obama’s commencement address at Morehouse. Ta-Nehisi Coates has penned an insightful response to it and many on Facebook have voiced their support or criticism. As a graduate of Morehouse, I was proud to witness the class of 2013 graduate with such fanfare. The optics of the President of the United States speaking at my Alma mater were simply powerful. But my heart broke as I listened to the message. Why?
President Obama marshals the power of the black freedom struggle in ways that contain its radical impulse. That struggle, in his hands, fortifies and (in some ways) justifies his presence and significance for the country and for African Americans. What gets lost in this, however, are the facts: that, since 2008, much of Black America lies in ruins.
His commencement address stands as a wonderful example of what can be called a black (neo)liberal narrative of our struggle. He tells the story of our sojourn, the obstacles faced, and the context out of which Morehouse and its unique vision was born. That history (one he shares) gives us hope. He then pivots. The future, he claims, should give us hope. As he states:
“You’re graduating into an improving job market. You’re living in a time when advances in technology and communication put the world at your fingertips. Your generation is uniquely poised for success unlike any generation of African Americans that came before it.” (I guess he hasn’t read Cathy Cohen’s Democracy Remixed about the significant challenges facing black youth).
And it is on the heels of this optimistic formulation that he gestures at the structural realities that affect the life chances of these graduates. Only two paragraphs, but even here the frame hints at the real stakes.
“In troubled neighborhoods all across this country–many of them heavily African American — too few of our citizens have role models to guide them. Communities just a couple of miles from my house in Chicago, communities just a couple of miles from here — they’re places where jobs are still too scarce and wages are still to low; where schools are underfunded and violence is pervasive; where too many of our men spend their youth not behind a desk in a classroom, but hanging out on the street or brooding behind a jail cell.”
Before he mentions the fact of unemployment and wage stagnation, the fact that schools are underfunded (he doesn’t mention that more schools have been closed on his watch than any President in history as efforts to privatize public education moves at an alarming pace), or the fact that we have become a carceral state, he invokes the importance of “role models.” This one sentence foreshadows what is to come in the speech.
– Eddie Glaude
I’m all for education. Got a lot of it myself. Maybe the FLOTUS and her husband should get some education, too. And learn that maybe black graduates don’t need to be told education is important. And while you’re at it, learn that governments aren’t the same as families – governments don’t need to “tighten their belts” like struggling families do. But then again, this presumes they have a knowledge/education problem. Their statements don’t reflect a lack of knowledge. They reflect a lack of politics.
– Lester Spence
Both The President and Michelle Obama’s graduation speeches were inaccurate (according to research), and offensively peddled in stereotypes in a number of places. Maybe instead of some problematic discussion of Black people’s “failures”, we should ask them to focus on all the wealth lost in the Black and Latino communities during his first term, and his failure to introduce any policies to address the directed economic exploitation of his most loyal constituents, or the manner in which his policy on public education privatization is leading to many thousands of African American children losing schools to attend and mass teacher firings which are highly disproportionately affecting Black teachers. Or maybe he should focus on the tens of thousands of HBCU students who had to leave school as a result of THIS administration making it harder to get Pell grants. Maybe we should talk about the attack on Assata, and the circle of pundits ostensibly representing African American perspectives who refuse to provide any analysis that will be critical of this administration even when they know better. If we want to talk about what is going on in Black America let’s talk about it HONESTLY and in a manner based on EVIDENCE, not stereotype. Moreover it is unacceptable for the executive of the government to direct discussion of accountability to one sector of the population, one that abundant research shows is one of the most vulnerable to all kinds of discrimination, and yet only feel himself accountable as a representative to other constituencies. Tip of iceberg because I haven’t even gotten to all the other mess (NDAA, immigration policy, surveillance, etc.) This is the second term that was supposed to be better?! I understand many of you adore The President and First Lady, and this isn’t a personal attack on any of you notwithstanding our deep political disagreement. I just get a stomach ache every time I think about those speeches that so many are lauding.
Imani Perry (In Facebook Status)
I am a child of Hip Hop. One who distinctly and joyfully remembers listening to Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message” on the radio for the first time, kind of in awe, realizing that my life and the world would change forever after. I felt a shift, an introduction to a new but achingly familiar narrative, I imagine, the same way my ancestors did as they danced and drummed in Congo Square to what we’d later baptize as jazz. I was an awkward, quirky, “uncultured” Black girl who stole Latifah’s flow and banter on respect and queendom when I wrote my first rhymes. I wanted to be an emcee, much like the children Michelle Obama addressed in her recent commencement speech at Bowie State. Those rhymes became poems, that went on to become essays, which eventually earned me scholarships for college. Those scholarships afforded me, the granddaughter of sharecroppers and a first generation college graduate, an opportunity to earn an advanced degree in literature.
In a recent departmental meeting with our president, faculty members were asked why we chose to teach at our HBCU, which caters to underserved Black youth that may not otherwise have access to a college education. I replied, tearfully, that I saw so much of myself in those students I instinctively wanted to not only wrap my arms around them with hope and love, but also show them that their beginnings do not dictate their destinies. I’m living proof. Many of us are.
Everyday I teach the young Black men that FLOTUS believes “[fantasize] about being a baller or a rapper,” and that POTUS deems necessary to remind there is “no longer any room for excuses.” Yes, many of them have aspirations, like I did, to be rappers and ball players. Actually, some of their journeys may find them becoming those sorts of artists and athletes, but many more will become businessmen, pharmacists, and educators like myself. One thing is certain however, the last thing any of them need is another someone, especially someone that represents the pinnacle of Black excellence, to chastise them on how they are failing, even as they stand at the summit of success.
I don’t find it fair or admirable that FLOTUS and POTUS one day appear teary eyed while sitting next to mothers who have lost children to gun violence in Chicago–offering sympathy and hope–then months later admonishing those same youth. I find those two aims contradictory and crowded in a privileged elitism I’d hoped we’d put to bed as we document, over and over, how it is us who are failing our youth and not them failing us.
I’ve been fortunate to learn that regardless of how lazy and self indulgent I, in moments of frustration, feel ALL our children are, I have a choice to either be a part of the problem or a part of the solution.
This semester I taught a composition course that was 90% young Black men–athletes, emcees, ex hustlers, technology buffs, and poets. Their pass rate was the highest of all my classes. One of my students who struggled significantly during the semester because he had no desire to read or write what was required, wrote a final research paper that covered Post Modernism, Alice Walker, Hip Hop, and Saul Williams.
I became a better teacher, and hopefully a better human being, when I realized that I had to admire my students for who they are and not who I wish they could be. It’s a lesson I’d gladly pass along to our well-intentioned president and first lady.
– Josie Pickens
Dear First Lady and President,
I have given one commencement speech in my life, so I know it ain’t easy, but I am really disappointed in your recent speeches at Bowie State and Morehouse. Mrs. Obama, you seem to think there is something wrong with wanting to be a rapper or a baller or that it is leading black youth to focus on the wrong things. I wanted to be Dusty Baker, Michael Cooper, Bo Jackson, and Lyle Alzado; I also wanted to be Pat Riley. For some time, when I was growing up, I wanted to teach nursery school, become a food TV host; I also wanted to work with Shamu at Sea World, play drums like Phil Collins, join the Coast Guard, and work as a social worker. None of these dreams, and the short-lived focus on achieving them (yes I practiced on a drum machine and took a marine biology class) determined my future. As a middle-class white male, these dreams were encouraged and celebrated, praised and cited as evidence of my passions. No wonder this speech wasn’t delivered at the many historically white universities. Last I checked, dreaming of becoming a rapper or a baller doesn’t preclude other dreams, nor does it derail success. And President Obama, I made a lot of bad choices as well without consequences. I, like white America, didn’t have to make excuses, because accountability remains a nightmare deferred. Bailouts preclude excuses; being able to pop Adderall or sell marijuana without consequences means that whites are never required or obligated to provide explanations as to “why.” I could go on, but you said in the 2008 election that America needed to have an honest conversation about race, yet instead we have gotten more of the same: an update on politics of respectability meets Moynihan meets Cosby meets Newt. At the beginning of your presidency, Eric Holder said that we are a nation of cowards when it comes to talking about race. These speeches don’t chart a new course but push further into a state of denial. Yours was yet another reminder that when it comes to race, when it comes to issues of inequality and injustice, your administration continues to say “No we can’t.” I had hope, I was a believer but this weekend was the day that hope was extinguished.
Dear First Lady and President,
I respect you. I wanted to be a rapper. I wanted to be a ball-player. Today, like most black men under 40, I am neither. You do the Dougie when convenient. You brush your shoulder off when convenient. You admonish black folks for not being you when convenient. We worry about your safety in spite of this. We wish you would talk to them about race and responsibility sometimes. Please complicate your analysis. Today, I teach and write. And rap to myself. I am an above average writer and teacher. I am working on being better at being human. I am not a father, nor husband. The most mediocre white man at my bougie job has 16x the wealth I have. My grandmother has the beginnings of dementia, and she is still way smarter than me. She was only allowed to work the line at a chicken plant. She has no wealth, but lots of love for both of you. She prays for your safety. Please complicate your analysis. Working class white security guards have entered my office 3x times asking to see my ID. Every time, I tell them, “Fuck you. Show me yours.” I desperately cling to intellectual superiority over them. They powerfully claim whiteness and relative wealth. This has nothing to do with my wanting to be a rapper and baller. I respect you. We respect you. Please complicate your analysis. Imani Perry writes books you should buy. Please tell the truth.
With profound respect,