I’ll never forget my first day of graduate school at MIT some 5 years ago. We all sat in a lecture hall as the chair of the Department of Urban Studies and Planning addressed us. He said: “Welcome to MIT. It is no mistake that you are here. You are the best and the brightest.” That phrase that stayed in my mind over the next two years of brilliantly challenging and sometimes soul crushingly difficult work that culminated in my Masters degree. Along the way, whenever I doubted myself, I’d pull it together because I heard Professor Larry Vale whispering in my ear: “you’re supposed to be here, you are the best and the brightest.”
This experience inspired me to contextualize President Obama’s weekend commencement address at Morehouse College. Morehouse is one of the nation’s premier Historically Black Colleges (HBCU); I say with full confidence that the graduating class of 2013 is packed with the best and the brightest. But given the tenor of Obama’s speech – an admonishment on the woes of shirking personal responsibility – I have to ask: Why the obsession with tough love?
I’ve watched the speech and read the text, and am struck by his repeated references to excuses, responsibilities, sacrifice, bad choices, and striving to do better. I’ve read the regrettable Monday news headlines blaring: President tells Black men to shun excuses, set examples, be a man, help others.
So today, I’m confused. Do Morehouse grads have a particular record of offering excuses, shirking personal responsibility, being bad fathers and partners, or turning their backs on others? Does empirical data suggest that Morehouse grads don’t feel the weight of the struggles of their forbears, expect to “get over” in a bad economy because they have a Morehouse degree, or plan to otherwise go out, make a lot of money, and then keep it all for themselves, while turning their backs on those who are struggling? I didn’t think so, but if you listen to the President’s speech, these are the exact themes he touched on, which makes me wonder what, exactly, was the point of this speech. And why was everybody clapping?
Tougaloo graduates on May 19th, 2013. Photo credit: Hyatt Mohammed
Is the perception-to-reality ratio for adults on young adults so skewed that an invited speaker assumes, if his audience is full of young brown faces, that he should simply trot out the old tough love speech, a pejorative lecture on making excuses? Because I’ve taught at an HBCU in Mississippi for the last 3 years, and I’ve never once heard a student give an excuse outside of the realm of the typical, “dog ate my homework” variety employed by students of every color and economic background. I have yet to hear a student use race as an excuse for any of their shortcomings, academic or otherwise.
If you subscribe to the negative overtones of self pity and rampant materialism in Obama’s speech to Morehouse students, I suggest you get your head out of the sand. Black college kids are so much more evolved than what Obama just distilled them down to. They are participatory, they are global, they are informed. They don’t see barriers; they see only opportunities. They are the best and the brightest and it’s no mistake that they are here. Now if only someone would just tell them that.
Post by Cyd McKenna.