President Barack Obama delivered a rousing, but controversial, commencement address at Morehouse College Sunday. The prestigious historical black college for men of color welcomed the first African-American president to its campus by offering him an honorary doctorate as well as the stage.
More than 500 attendees, including the graduates and their families, sat in the rain to hear the sitting president speak. One of his most poignant remarks was:
I know some of you came to Morehouse from communities where life was about keeping your head down and looking out for yourself. Maybe you feel like you escaped, and you can take your degree, get a fancy job and never look back. And don’t get me wrong – with the heavy weight of student loans, with doors open to you that your parents and grandparents could scarcely imagine, no one expects you to take a vow of poverty. But I will say it betrays a poverty of ambition if all you think about is what goods you can buy instead of what good you can do. So yes, go get that law degree. But ask yourself if the only option is to defend the rich and powerful, or if you can also find time to defend the powerless. Yes, go get your MBA, or start that business. But ask yourself what broader purpose your business might serve, in putting people to work, or transforming a neighborhood. The most successful CEOs I know didn’t start out intent on making money – rather, they had a vision of how their product or service would change things, and the money followed.
However, his references to famed Morehouse alum Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. did little to quiet the rumblings of Black Twitter. Many tweeters were disappointed with Obama’s decision to use W.E.B. DuBois’ “talented tenth” rhetoric within his speech.
I want you to set your sights higher. At the turn of the last century, W.E.B. DuBois spoke about the “talented tenth” – a class of highly-educated, socially-conscious leaders in the black community.
But it is not just the African-American community that needs you. The country needs you. The world needs you. See, as Morehouse Men, many of you know what it’s like to be an outsider; to be marginalized; to feel the sting of discrimination. That’s an experience that so many other Americans share. Hispanic Americans know that feeling when someone asks where they come from or tells them to go back. Gay and lesbian Americans feel it when a stranger passes judgment on their parenting skills or the love 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 sure feels it.
Several tweeters viewed Obama’s remarks as elitist and an attempt to speak at the graduates rather than speaking to them.
Some were also disappointed with Obama’s “no excuses” mantra, noting the inequalities people of color with degrees face in the American job market.
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, Ralph Bunche and Langston Hughes, George Washington Carver and Ralph Abernathy, Thurgood Marshall and yes, Dr. King. These men were many things to many people. 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.
I’m sure every one of you has a grandma, an uncle, or a parent who’s told you at some point in life that, 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: “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.” I promise you, what was needed in Dr. Mays’ time, that spirit of excellence, and hard work, and dedication, is needed now more than ever. If you think you can get over in this economy, just because you have a Morehouse degree, you are in for a rude awakening. But if you stay hungry, keep hustling, keep on your grind and get other folks to do the same – nobody can stop you.
This isn’t the first time Obama has been criticized for sharing different messages with black and white audiences. Several dissenters also conveyed similar sentiments about his speech in Chicago.
Weigh in Clutchettes. How did you feel about Obama’s Morehouse commencement speech?