This year, I celebrated the 35th anniversary of graduation from Morehouse College. Coincidentally, President Barack Obama spoke at the 129th Commencement celebration of my beloved alma mater. (Given my consistent criticism of Bro. Prez’s policies, God obviously has a sense of humor.)
As a member of a class “in reunion,” I was one of the hundreds of Morehouse alumni who were there front and center. I could see, hear, and ‘feel’ the live interchange between Bro. Prez and the listening audience. I also watched the speech again online prior to writing this analysis.
Speech development: A
His speech had almost everything: off-the cuff observations; sharp details that were highly relevant to the primary listening audience; touches and flourishes that a primarily Black audience could understand. There was also enough ‘general’ content and references to America and other racial groups as befitting the man who, as we are told so nauseatingly often, is “the president of the United States, not the president of Black America.”
Bro. Prez paid homage to Morehouse’s history and acknowledged the new graduates’ immediate desire to make money, but still challenged them in relevant ways.
As is now traditional, he personalized his main points by pointing out three success stories of Morehouse Men in the graduating class: one who was a father of three who graduated on his third try; one who grew up in a foster home, then became an outstanding scholar who will attend an Ivy League law school; and one who helped desegregate the University of Georgia and was returning for his 50-year class reunion.
Obama turned personal, and reflected on what was most important in his life; not fame, but family. And he took his time, speaking for more than 30 minutes.
Thematically and stylistically, it was a very good address – other than the glaring lack of specific relevant policies outlined below.
Policy content: D
Bro. Prez blew a major opportunity. And because he’s the U.S. president, policy content is weighted higher than all the other evaluation factors.
There is no place on earth that is more historically and progressively Black, male, and righteous than Morehouse College – the home of Dr. Benjamin E. Mays, Dr. Howard Thurman, MLK, and too many Black male pioneers and barrier-breakers to count. The president was at the epicenter, the “Mecca” of assertive and principled Black manhood on this planet.
If this wasn’t the place to lay down a ‘doctrine’ concerning the issues causing disproportionate pain in Black America, especially among men and boys – unemployment, massive incarceration, dysfunctional education, etc. – what was? If not at Morehouse, where?
If not to “Morehouse Men” – the closest thing Bro. Prez will have to a highly accomplished “band of brothers” who completely understand the hell he’ll catch over eight years – to whom? (Remember when he advocated his “justifiable war” doctrine in 2009 when he received the Nobel Peach Prize?)
His speech was heavy on personal responsibility – ironic, given the personal and professional achievements of generations of the Morehouse Men Bro. Prez highlighted in the speech – including some who were in the rain-soaked audience. He preached to the proverbial choir.
But the speech was light on governmental policy and proposed actions. And the government still does have responsibility to even the economic playing field in an America in which these newly-minted Morehouse graduates will earn about 76 cents for every dollar a White male graduate with equivalent education and experience will earn.
Here’s a key passage:
“My job, as president, is to advocate for policies that generate more opportunity for everybody – policies that strengthen the middle class and give more people the chance to climb their way into the middle class. Policies that create more good jobs and reduce poverty, and educate more children, and give more families the security of health care, and protect more of our children from the horrors of gun violence. That’s my job. Those are matters of public policy, and it is important for all of us Black, White and Brown – to advocate for an America where everybody has got a fair shot in life.”
It is not enough for a president to advocate (definition: “to recommend publicly”). A president must LEAD (definition: “to influence, induce or cause”). And on so many issues that are critically important to Black America, Obama has “advocated” and not “led.” His speech confirmed to me that he doesn’t believe that “leadership” is his primary function as president. Really?
General preparation: A
Obama is a speaking machine, and rarely flubs speeches in public. He used only one Teleprompter, to his left, instead of the two he typically uses. I couldn’t tell if this was the first or second time he had gone over the speech, or if he had practiced it for days before he actually delivered it. And that’s one of qualities of a well-prepared speaker.
Effectiveness and value: B-
He loses a full letter grade and more for the policy-free content of the speech. Still, the speech has symbolic value to counter the narrative of the violent, savage Black American male that is prevalent around the world, even in Africa. This wasn’t the 1995 Million Man March. But the image of mostly Black, all-male graduates on one side, and older, accomplished alumni wearing white Panama hats on the other, was still powerful.
Situational awareness: B
Bro. Prez gave the entire speech during a driving thunderstorm, including loud, rumbling thunder and lightning strikes. He used the inclement weather in the speech, humorously acknowledging the audience’s discomfort and blaming it on the notorious stubbornness of the Morehouse Men who decided that the event would be outside, come hell or literally high water.
(Floridians live in the lightning capital of the world; we know the danger. I know someone who was killed by a lightning strike. Here, the event would’ve been immediately stopped. Obama could have asked that the event be cancelled for public safety, a decision I would have fully supported.)
Eye contact, gestures, facial expression: A
He kept effective contact with the audience. His gestures were appropriate and his facial expressions were more relaxed than usual, given the general friendliness of the audience. (Some people started lining up at 3 a.m. for a speech that was scheduled to start at approximately 11:45 a.m.)
He had a good time. He chuckled during impromptu remarks, and put his head back and laughed a few times at the reaction of the audience to some the things he said.
Audience response: B
The most enthusiastic response was from the graduates and their families, not older Morehouse alumni.
Historically, Morehouse students have been notoriously tough on speakers, much like the traditional Apollo Theater audience is tough on performers. At least one-third of the alumni present had Dr. Benjamin E. Mays, one of the greatest speakers in history, as their president during their Morehouse College tenures. Mays spoke often to students during his presidential era.
Given the world-class quality of speakers, including teachers, administrators, ministers, and guest lecturers who regularly appear at Morehouse, Obama had big shoes to fill. He did well enough.
Details, nuances, language: A+
Obama used buzzwords, jargon, and cultural references that were very familiar to the Morehouse audienc
e, the largely, Black audience at the event, and to the extended Black American audience watching online or on television.
“You can tell a Morehouse man, but you can’t tell him much;” a “trifling roommate;” the “Morehouse Mystique;” the reference to “our brothers” who don’t have similar opportunities; “keep hustling, keep on your grind;” and he congratulated the all-male graduates for not getting distracted by all-female Spelman College. All of these were instantly familiar to everyone there.
He spoke about Black women “getting their hair messed up” in the rain and said First Lady Michelle Obama “told him about hair” – an allusion to Black women’s general aversion to getting their perms drowned by a few drops of water. It was a wink and a nod to Black culture without being overtly racial. (Expect right wingnut criticism anyway.)
In the beginning of his speech, he devolved into the fake Black Southern preacher style complete with a “moan” and a drawl (“…the Morehouse fam-leh,” and “it’s a Sun-deh” instead of “it’s a Sunday”). That’s something he has done before in front of predominately Black audiences. He told the old “summa cum laude, magna cum laude, thank you laude” graduation joke. (Many of us laughed at the fact that he actually said it.)
I criticized him when he got “preacherly” when he delivered his MLK Memorial dedication speech in Washington, D.C. in 2011. However, perhaps due to situational awareness, he corrected himself about two minutes into the speech and finished it in his normal cadence and accent. He does get credit for catching himself.
Next week: “In the bosom of the brotherhood”