In his speech to the graduating class at Howard University on Saturday, President Obama gave a lecture on unapologetic Blackness, while also providing a mix of statements on change and political participation. While not controversial within Black America, the president’s poignant remarks on Blackness — a testament to the sense of liberation that must come at the end of an administration — surely has irked some in white America. And it comes at a time when students from Howard to Harvard and from Mizzou to West Point are grappling with Blackness, with social protest and how to respond to the racial injustice before them.
“If you had to choose one moment in history in which you could be born,” without knowing your circumstances ahead of time, “you wouldn’t choose 100 years ago. You wouldn’t choose the ’50s or the ’60s or the ’70s. You’d choose right now,” the president said to applause, striking a balance between acknowledging progress and calling out racism.
“If you had to choose a time to be, in the words of Lorraine Hansberry, ‘young, gifted, and Black’ in America, you would choose right now,” he added.
“First of all — and this should not be a problem for this group — be confident in your heritage,” Obama told the graduates. “Be confident in your Blackness. One of the great changes that’s occurred in our country since I was your age is the realization there’s no one way to be Black,” Obama said. “Take it from somebody who’s seen both sides of debate about whether I’m Black enough. In the past couple months, I’ve had lunch with the Queen of England and hosted Kendrick Lamar in the Oval Office. There’s no straitjacket, there’s no constraints, there’s no litmus test for authenticity.”
In the twilight days of the Obama presidency, now is a perfect time to reflect on what it means to be Black. While some observers proclaimed eight years ago, however prematurely, that the dawn of the age of Obama would signal a post-racial America, we have witnessed exactly the opposite. The first African-American president has engendered a most virulent form of white backlash, exposing not only white society’s visceral fear of the slave insurrection, but the sense of white fragility and outrage that is a direct response to bouts of unapologetic Blackness. Meanwhile, any moves to right the wrongs of the past and present, or any semblance of leveling the playing field, are met with cries of reverse racism and unfairness to white folks.
During the president’s time in office, the Black Lives Matter movement was born, which makes his comments both appropriate and necessary. The upsurge in Black protest in the past few years reflects a refusal to deal with systems of oppression as they are and have been for so long, and a decision to not cooperate with institutions that take Black lives or otherwise harm us, throw us away along with the key, and treat us with systemic injustice. It is that refusal to continue to wear the badge of slavery that leads to change within, and a desire to create change without.
A prime example of the negative white respons to the president’s remarks was that of conservative commentator Tucker Carlson. In his role as host on “Fox and Friends Sunday” — where it is typical for a cast of all-white talking heads to bemoan Black people — Carlson took issue with Obama’s “Blackness” comment.
“Why are you encouraging people to think in terms of their race? Isn’t that inherently divisive? Shouldn’t people think in terms of their American-ness, in terms of the qualities that unite us all?” Carlson said, wondering what would have happened if a President Mitt Romney had told a graduating class at Brigham Young University to “Be confident in your whiteness.”
“You also wonder how many other people in that crowd that are white or of a different background said, ‘Well what about me?’ ” added commentator Abby Huntsman.
The problem with the line of reasoning offered by Carlson is that there is no moral equivalency between the first African-American president reaffirming Blackness in a nation built on white supremacy, and a white president reaffirming whiteness in a society where whiteness already is the gold standard. Rather, those who are uncomfortable with any talk of racism believe the problems go away when the discussions of race — or Blackness, or Black people — cease. Never mind the actual inequities that exist; it is the mere mentioning of those inequities that they fear. When the problems of racial injustice are invisible, and the people facing those struggles are invisible, then the status quo of white skin privilege remains intact. “Out of sight, out of mind,” as they say. And any effort by the oppressed to declare their pride in the face of that system of privilege is condemned as stirring things up and threatening the order of things.
President Obama also touched on the issue of change, urging the Howard grads to compromise, while also offering that “how you meet these challenges, how you bring about change will ultimately be up to you.” He also noted that his generation, “like all generations, is too confined by our own experience, too invested in our own biases, too stuck in our ways to provide much of the new thinking that will be required.”
“But us old-heads have learned a few things that might be useful in your journey,” the president argued, offering suggestions on how the younger generation “can fulfill your destiny and shape our collective future — bend it in the direction of justice and equality and freedom.”
Change, the president said “requires more than righteous anger. It requires a program, and it requires organizing.” Awareness is not enough to create change he said, but rather we need changes in the law and in custom. He said speaking out is not enough, but listening is also required. And President Obama also told the newly minted graduates they must vote.
Obama told the students to stand up for those Black people who were not so lucky, and not to sleepwalk through life, insisting, “We can’t walk by a homeless man without asking why a society as wealthy as ours allows that state of affairs to occur. We can’t just lock up a low-level dealer without asking why this boy, barely out of childhood, felt he had no other options.”
But seeming to temper if not counter his “Blackness” comment, the president also asked the crowd to expand their “moral imaginations” and empathize with all of those who are struggling, not just Black people, including “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. You got to get in his head, too,” Obama said.