President Obama Hails America’s, and African-Americans’, Progress at Howard University Graduation
Graduating seniors at Howard University in Washington, D.C., were paid a special visit by President Obama on Saturday, as he rose to the occasion to deliver the commencement speech at the historically black university.
And he did deliver, judging by the reaction on and around campus. Truthdig publisher Zuade Kaufman was on the scene and reported that the enthusiasm about Obama’s speech was palpable on and around campus, rippling out to register in nearby shops, at local restaurants and even on the streets as taxi drivers got in on the excitement. “Everyone who wasn’t there had watched it or will watch it online,” Kaufman said, describing the speech as “a rousing call to action” as well as an “overview of our times and the opportunities it holds, geared to young people.”
Obama kicked off his address by recognizing the history of the university and its impact on its students. “The ‘Howard hustle’ has strengthened your sense of purpose and ambition,” he said, adding:
That spirit of achievement and special responsibility has defined this campus ever since the Freedmen’s Bureau established Howard just four years after the Emancipation Proclamation. Just two years after the Civil War came to an end. They created this university with a vision: a vision of uplift, a vision for America where our fates would be determined not by our race, gender, religion or creed, but where we would be free in every sense to pursue our individual and collective dreams. It is that spirit that has made Howard a centerpiece of African-American intellectual life and a central part of our larger American story.
Other key moments from Obama’s speech included a call to action to get out the vote this fall, underscored by a timely bit of politicking about what might have been different during his tenure in office had everyone heeded that call over the last eight years. “Be confident in your blackness” was his advice as he painted a highly optimistic picture of social and economic progress in the U.S. in recent decades, even when it comes to the relentless and entrenched national scourge of racism.
Here’s how he backed that up:
In my inaugural address, I remarked that just 60 years earlier, my father might not have been served in a D.C. restaurant — at least not certain of them. There were no black CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. Very few black judges. Shoot, as Larry Wilmore pointed out last week, a lot of folks didn’t even think blacks had the tools to be a quarterback. Today, former Bull Michael Jordan isn’t just the greatest basketball player of all time — he owns the team. When I was graduating, the main black hero on TV was Mr. T. Rap and hip-hop were counterculture, underground. Now, Shonda Rhimes owns Thursday night, and Beyoncé runs the world. We’re no longer only entertainers, we’re producers, studio executives. No longer small business owners — we’re CEOs, we’re mayors, representatives, presidents of the United States.
I am not saying gaps do not persist. Obviously, they do. Racism persists. Inequality persists. Don’t worry — I’m going to get to that. But I wanted to start, Class of 2016, by opening your eyes to the moment that you are in. If you had to choose one moment in history in which you could be born, and you didn’t know ahead of time who you were going to be — what nationality, what gender, what race, whether you’d be rich or poor, gay or straight, what faith you’d be born into — you wouldn’t choose 100 years ago. You wouldn’t choose the ’50s, or the ’60s, or the ’70s. You’d choose right now. 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.
Clara Romeo, a newly minted 2016 Howard alumna and Truthdig editorial assistant, offered her response after hearing Obama speak and picking up her diploma. “I think everybody was absolutely ecstatic that he came to Howard University,” she said, particularly given that it was his last year in office.
Still, not all of the president’s comments were received according to plan. “There was definitely a mixed reaction from the crowd,” Romeo added, “especially at the point in the speech where he was talking about how you have to get into the head of a white 40-year-old man who has had some things taken away from him.”
Here’s the full quote:
But we must expand our moral imaginations to understand and empathize with all people who are struggling, not just black folks who are struggling — 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. You got to get in his head, too.
“One reaction that people from the audience would have had is that maybe [Obama] wasn’t radical enough,” Romeo said, adding that his discussion about racial politics jibed with her own experience. “It was very nice to hear him talking about black people and how everything you do is a black thing because you are black, as opposed to one monolithic stereotype,” she said. “I think that’s something Howard people at Howard struggle with.”
Romeo’s mother, Orange County educator and Truthdig contributor Sharon Scranage-Romeo, pointed to other aspects of Obama’s address that hit home with her because she shares the president’s generational perspective. “I was comforted in knowing that he was speaking to a nonapathetic group now,” she said. “For a while, there was a sort of lull, [but] I see that the students are more involved — it’s not like 10 years ago, 20 years ago. … It was a call to action, but he also understands the community. He understands what ails us, and he also understands what is our greatest asset.”
Scranage-Romeo added that she appreciated Obama’s emphasis on getting to the polls this election season. “For goodness’ sake, it’s really not that hard,” she said.
Watch Obama’s speech in full below (via the White House):
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