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Obama Gets All In His Blackness At Howard

President Barack Obama gives his commencement address to the 2016 graduating class of Howard University.
Susan Walsh
President Barack Obama gives his commencement address to the 2016 graduating class of Howard University.

"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 Hilltop, wrote 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."

Howard students weren't the only ones cheering over the speech. Janell Ross at The Washington Post lauded Obama's call for "empathy and [an] expanded moral imagination" as one of the few surprising and thought-provoking messages that graduates will receive this season. On Twitter, Slate writer Jamelle Bouie called the speech "a great mediation on democracy AND a celebration of black life." Mathew Rodriguez at Mic described Obama's speech as "one of the best and blackest he's given."

Melissa Harris-Perry, editor-at-large of Elle, wrote that Obama's speech was remarkable in its treatment of gender as well as race, and proved "that he is our most black, feminist president to date" by highlighting the genius of black women like Lorraine Hansberry, Harriet Tubman, Fannie Lou Hamer and Zora Neale Hurston:

"Once again, [Obama] put black women at the very center of the stories he told and the lessons he imparted. As he warmed up, he jokingly referred to 'Shonda Rhimes owning Thursday night' and 'Beyonce running the world.' They were casual references, not central themes of his talk, but even here he deployed two boss black women as representatives of black excellence and achievement."

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 Globe, said that the Howard speech was more earnest in its depiction of structural inequality:

"...noting that a black woman is only paid 66 cents for every $1 earned by an equally qualified white man, and that mass incarceration has exploded since [Obama's] college days. In one striking passage, he reminded the audience: 'We have cousins and uncles and brothers and sisters who we remember were just as smart and just as talented as we were, but somehow got ground down by structures that are unfair and unjust.' Rather than individual failings, Obama shifted responsibility away from black families and toward the institutions that produce black suffering."

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."

Clarence B. Jones, at HuffPost Black Voices, wrote that "the content of what President Obama said, and the way in which he spoke it were engaging; at times, powerfully moving." But he agreed with Jeffries's sentiment that the president undersold the accomplishments of the BLM movement when he chastised young people for not turning out to vote in midterm elections:

"It is not enough to patronizingly lecture that 'the perfect' 'should not be the enemy of the good or the better.' He should have not just singled out Brittany Packnett, a leader in the Black Lives Matter Movement, for praise in meeting with him and other establishment political leaders. He should have said, flat out, like 'Straight Outta Compton,' that leaders of the Movement, like Dr. King earlier, had forced America's conscience to confront the reality of successive police shootings of black men, in several circumstances where the use of non-lethal force appeared to be an available option to effect an arrest.

In effect, President Obama should have acknowledged that he AND ALL America owe a debt of gratitude to the courage and leadership of the Black Lives Matter movement in highlighting the apparent systemic racism in our criminal justice system when applied to African-Americans in several or our communities, nationwide."

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."

Over at The Guardian, Steven W. Thrasher reflected that "part of Obama's genius as our first black president is that he can provoke so many responses...even in the course of a single speech." But that genius is complicated. Thrasher was inspired by Obama's address until "respectability politics started to creep in," and the president began urging the crowd to empathize with "the refugee, the immigrant, the rural poor, the transgender person and yes, the middle-aged white guy who you may think has all the advantages, but over the last several decades has seen his world upended by economic and cultural and technological change and feels powerless to stop it." Here's more from Thrasher:

"Why did the nation's first black president feel the need to equate the transgender person who can't use the bathroom in North Carolina, and the unfairly maligned immigrant with that 'middle-aged white guy'?

Who feels so threatened by the 'cultural' change of living under a black president and living under conditions a little more like those black Americans have endured for hundreds of years that he's likely voting for Donald Trump?

Who isn't losing all of his white privilege, because he still has a black president telling black grads to get in his head?

You can read Obama's full remarks here, or watch a video of the speech below:

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Leah Donnella is an editor on NPR's Code Switch team, where she helps produce and edit for the Code Switch podcast, blog, and newsletter. She created the "Ask Code Switch" series, where members of the team respond to listener questions about how race, identity, and culture come up in everyday life.