President Obama tells Howard grads: ‘Be confident in your Blackness’ in unusually candid speech

Last updated on July 21st, 2016 at 05:37 pm

President Obama, flanked by Howard University President Wayne A. I. Frederick (r) and Howard trustee Vernon Jordan (l).

President Obama, flanked by Howard University President Wayne A. I. Frederick (r) and Howard trustee Vernon Jordan (l) (photo: Howard University).

President Barack Obama, in his final seven months as America’s first Black president, has advised Howard University graduates on how to excel and impact change as Black people in America.

“First of all, and this should not be a problem for this group, be confident in your heritage. Be confident in your Blackness,” the President told the audience of graduates and others who responded with rousing applause May 7. “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.”

President Obama’s speech to Howard had been a long time coming—at the end of his tenure. He hinted that this culmination was intentional and appropriate. The historic Black university, often called ‘the Mecca’ because of its history and reputation as a bastion of Black intellectualism, has, of itself produced leaders that changed the nation.

“It is that spirit that’s made Howard a centerpiece of African American intellectual life and a central part of our larger American story,” Obama said. “This institution has been the home of many firsts: The first Black Nobel Peace Prize winner; the first Black Supreme Court justice. But its mission has been to ensure those firsts were not the last. Countless scholars, professionals, artists, and leaders from every field received their training here. The generations of men and women who walked through this yard helped reform our government, cure disease, grow a Black middle class, advance civil rights, shape our culture. The seeds of change, for all Americans, were sown here.”

The speech (which focused largely on how to build on the racial progress indicated by his elections) wowed the enthusiastic crowd and even impressed some of his strongest critics. After more than seven years in office, the president appeared to have turned a corner, becoming remarkably more candid and relaxed on the issues of race and racism.

Howard University Class of 2016 responds to President Obama's greeting, "HU." photos: Howard University

Howard University Class of 2016 responds to President Obama’s greeting, “HU.” (photo: Howard University)

“He was conscious of the historical backdrop against which he offered his oration. He was unapologetically rooted in his own racial and ethnic identity,” said Michael Eric Dyson as he left the graduation. “In fact he encouraged the students and graduates and others to be proud of their ethnic heritage without being narrow and limited, but to embrace the broad variety of Blacknesses that were marshaled under our own struggle.”

Dyson, author of The Black Presidency: Barack Obama and the Politics of Race in America, specifically pointed out that President Obama’s style was not scolding as it has occasionally been in the past as he spoke to Black audiences. Obama’s 2013 speech to Morehouse graduates was heavily scrutinized by some who thought his talk about work ethics and social responsibility was condescending. Some also criticized the 2011 speech in which he told the Congressional Black Caucus: “Take off your bedroom slippers, put on your marching shoes. Shake it off. Stop complaining, stop grumbling, stop crying.”

At Howard, Dyson observed: “He wasn’t damning as he has been in the past. In the past he has been condescending and tone deaf to African American culture and people.

But this speech was resilient, was ebullient and edifying in a way that it should be and was a beautiful, beautiful send off.”
Morehouse graduate Perry Clemons agreed. “He was giving good advice,” said Clemons, a New York elementary school teacher, who especially appreciated Obama’s encouragement to embrace Blackness. “I feel like he’s coming out and he saying all these things. I don’t think he would have said any of that stuff in his first term.

And he’s not saying that to the country. He’s saying it to Black people. He’s never talked directly like that.”

Obama also encouraged the crowd to listen to others with whom they may disagree and to vote as a part of their plan to lead.

“It is absolutely true that 50 years after the Voting Rights Act, there are still too many barriers in this country to vote,” he said. “Even if we dismantled every barrier to voting, that alone would not change the fact that America has some of the lowest voting rates in the free world.”
While he was clear on the racism that remains, Obama encouraged the class to also realize the importance of the strides that have been made.

“I am not saying gaps do not persist. Obviously, they do. Racism persists. Inequality persists,” he said. “ [but] 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.”

Obama pointed to the youth movement, ‘Black Lives Matter’ as being among those who comprehend the need to go beyond awareness to actions similar to those taken by activists in the 1960s.

“I’m so proud of the new guard of Black civil rights leaders who understand this. It’s thanks in large part to the activism of young people like many of you, from Black Twitter to Black Lives Matter, that America’s eyes have been opened (White, Black, Democrat, Republican) to the real problems, for example, in our criminal justice system.”

Listing the many racial and civil rights accomplishments since the 1960s and even since his 1973 college graduation, Obama concluded: “I tell you this not to lull you into complacency, but to spur you into action because there’s still so much more work to do, so many more miles to travel. And America needs you to gladly, happily take up that work. You all have some work to do. So enjoy the party, because you’re going to be busy.”

The crowd remained exuberant throughout the speech, going from chants of “Obama! Obama!” to laughter, applause and a rousing ovation at the end.
“Everything that he said was very relevant,” said Shaquille Vaughn of Philadelphia, graduating with a Master of Business Administration. “You can tell. He wasn’t holding anything back. He was being very direct and straight forward on not just the country as a whole, but on how to make African Americans progress.”