Speaking to the newly minted graduates of Atlanta’s historically black and all-male Morehouse College May 19, 2013, President Obama urged them to use the power and advantage of their diplomas “for something larger than yourself.”
“It betrays a poverty of ambition,” he said to his rain-soaked but rapt audience, “if all you think about is what goods you can buy instead of what good you can do. … just as Morehouse has taught you to expect more of yourselves, inspire those who look up to you to expect more of themselves.”
“Pull them up, expose them, support their dreams. Don’t put them down … do these things … not just for yourself … [widen] your circle of concern … to care about justice for everybody.”
The president did say that his “job, as president, is to advocate for policies that generate more opportunity for everybody … and it is important for all of us … to advocate for an America where everybody has got a fair shot in life. Not just some. Not just a few.”
However, the speech provoked a rush of criticism from some commentators— not for those words but for the president declaring that blacks should no longer use racism as an “excuse” for their own or the group’s flaws.
Confessing that “growing up … Sometimes I wrote off my own failings as just another example of the world trying to keep a black man down,” he went on to say that, “We’ve got no time for excuses. Not because the bitter legacy of slavery and segregation has vanished entirely; [it] has not. Not because racism and discrimination no longer exist; we know those are still out there. It’s just that in today’s hyper-connected, hyper-competitive world … nobody is going to give you anything that you have not earned.”
He urged the Morehouse men to recall both the tragedy and the heroism of black Americans’ past, and “to remember that whatever you’ve gone through, it pales in comparison to the hardships previous generations endured— and they overcame them. … You can overcome them, too.”
Such ideas and commands have always had particular appeal at historically black college and university commencements.
In fact, Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., president of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, made the same point little more than a week earlier to graduates of North Carolina Central University. “Some will discriminate against you,” he told them. “Discrimination exists, just as gravity exists. But in spite of gravity, planes take off and trees grow. Gravity is omnipresent, but it is not omnipotent.”
That the president’s words drew so much attention is, of course, because almost everything this first black president of the United States does has, either overtly or implicitly, a racialized cast to it.
But, in fact, the president’s critics misread his use of the charged words and phrases.
In one sense, that was understandable, because they were reacting to the old, tawdry American tradition of demanding that black Americans accept their second-class status. That was the cry of the Southern segregationists and their Northern fellow travelers during the years Morehouse’s most famous alumnus, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., became the central figure in the movement that would dismantle Jim Crow.
The “no excuses” meme used in that way really means: shut up and submit.
In sharp contrast, that exhortation, coming from those who have black Americans’ best interests at heart, as the president and first Lady do, actually means what those who have criticized Obama in this instance— support.
That meaning has long been alternately expressed as well by the old folk saying common among blacks: “You’ve got to be twice as good to get half as much.”
Those words were not said as a sigh of woe, but as a command to never submit, no matter how fierce the gales of racism blew.
Indeed, Obama urged his audience to remember that “Every one of you has a grandma or an uncle or a parent who’s told you that at some point in life, as an African American, you have to work twice as hard as anyone else if you want to get by. … And I promise you … that spirit of [pursuing] excellence, and hard work, and dedication, and no excuses is needed now more than ever.
In other words, the president’s “no excuses” command is a warning that the centuries-long struggle of black Americans to gain their full, deserved share of opportunity in their native land continues. That has been, and remains, each generation’s legacy— and heroic responsibility.
Lee A. Daniels is a longtime journalist based in New York City. His latest book is Last Chance: The Political Threat to Black America.