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.Powerful stuff! It reminded me of this from Eric Wattree.
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.
Being Black in America gives one an education and perspective on life that you can't get anywhere else. That's not widely recognized, because public attention is often focused on the most dysfunctional in the Black community. But contrary to popular belief, that might not be an altogether bad thing, because it allows the excellence within the Black community time to incubate, untainted by the public eye. That's what allowed Barack Obama to explode upon the world stage as a fully developed powerhouse, and there are hordes of others just like him who are currently incubating in Black cocoons in suburbs and inner cities all over America...I know from my own experience that when I do my best to try to see the world through different eyes, it is often my experience as a woman in a patriarchal society that I draw on. Its what makes the task of overcoming privilege so very difficult for straight white men. I know they can tap into empathy because I've seen it happen, but it takes special effort.
So this is an exciting time for Black people, because we recognize that the world is about to discover what we already know - that there is nothing in the human experience more impressive than watching the development of a Black child, who's been dragged through the pits of Hell and the brutal experience of “American Exceptionalism,” then emerge on the other side as a well adjusted, uniquely eclectic, resolute, and learned product of his or her environment.
Those of you who read here regularly will know that I have a tremendous amount of respect for Tim Wise. More than any other straight white man, he has explored the depths of privilege and has an awful lot to teach us. But in my mind, he demonstrated the limits of that exploration in his reaction to President Obama's speech yesterday at Morehouse.
President Obama’s commencement address today at Morehouse College — one of the nation’s preeminent institutions of higher learning, and perhaps its most famous historically black college or university — during which, among plenty of rather standard commencement speech boilerplate, the president lectured this year’s graduates about the importance of taking personal responsibility for their lives, and not blaming racism for whatever obstacles they may face in the future...I know that there are many African Americans who also cringe when President Obama talks about this to black audiences. So its not simply Wise's privilege talking here. The valid point they are making is that this kind of talk does get used by white Americans to feed their stereotypes about irresponsible black men.
Barack Obama has for once and all revealed himself to be not nearly the deep and analytical thinker so many have long believed. After all, Morehouse men like the ones to whom the president delivered his commencement address today, are not the type to slack off, or make excuses for their shortcomings, or wait for others to do things for them. They earned admission to an amazing school, and have now graduated from said school, on the basis of their own merit and hard work. To hector them like supplicants looking for a handout is crass and beneath the dignity of a President of the United States, and especially one who shares the coloring of most, if not all of those graduates.
Barack Obama knows how demanding a school Morehouse is. So to preach hard work to these men, as if they had never heard of it — as if they now intended to kick back and wait for things to be handed to them — is to not only insult their intelligence, but also to feed every vicious stereotype already held by too many white Americans about black males, no matter how educated. It is to give us fuel for our already too-well-stoked racist fires, made ever hotter now by the ability to say, “See, even Obama knows the truth about black men! Even he knows they’re always making excuses for their failures.”
But my own experience as a woman and the time I've spent listening to strong young black people tells me that the challenges faced by these Morehouse graduates doesn't end with commencement from this historic institution. President Obama knows that both the individual and systemic racism these young men will face in their futures will be unrelenting and often insidious. And as hard as they worked to get into Morehouse and complete their degree, it will continue to come at them in ways that eat at their souls - if they let it. That is what it means to be black in America.
The danger President Obama was warning about is letting that kind of thing distract them - through anger or depression - from the commitment to excellence and the empathy the world so desperately needs from them.
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, Jr. These men were many things to many people. And they knew full well the role that racism played in their lives. But when it came to their own accomplishments and sense of purpose, they had no time for excuses.Wise suggests that in saying this, President Obama is perhaps the one "who has internalized the idea that black people, even highly educated ones, are would-be malingerers, just waiting for a reason to go soft and blame the world for trying to keep a black man down.” But that would be like suggesting that every grandma, uncle or parent who has said the same thing to a young black person has internalized all that as well. There is a reason these messages are so prominent in the black community. And it has more to do with how young black people are treated in our culture than any shortcoming on their part.
Every one of you have a grandma or an uncle or a parent who’s told you that at some point in life, as an African American, you have to work twice as hard as anyone else if you want to get by. I think President Mays put it even better: He said, “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."
And I promise you, what was needed in Dr. Mays’s time, that spirit of excellence, and hard work, and dedication, and no excuses is needed now more than ever. If you think you can just get over in this economy just because you have a Morehouse degree, you’re in for a rude awakening. But if you stay hungry, if you keep hustling, if you keep on your grind and get other folks to do the same -- nobody can stop you.
President Obama was calling these young graduates to something better. He knows how badly this world needs their leadership...and their empathy. He knows that they have a unique role to play in healing what divides us. Rather than getting mired in the rage that racism can engender, he was asking them to step up to that plate and carry on the legacy of Morehouse Men.