The eloquence of President Obama has only begun to shine more brightly in this last year of his presidency, serving the purpose of contrasting ever more clearly between a discourse that elevates and enlightens persons, and the gutter talk of Donald Trump.
Looking beyond the immediate, President Obama has chosen to lay the moral and philosophical groundwork for new generations of Americans to embody the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King and other great standard bearers of justice and equality who began their ennobling thoughts and words in the context of the American revolution and the crafting, ratifying and defending of the U.S. Constitution.
Obama did this last weekend delivering the commencement address to the graduating class of Howard University, an historically black university founded in the aftermath of the Civil War in the nation’s capital.
It was the then-fledgling First Congregational Church of Washington, D.C., many of whose parishioners had backed the Abolitionist cause, that founded Howard University, and last year the ongoing membership of that church in downtown Washington, D.C. celebrated its 150th anniversary.
Obama provided the language of hard-earned progress and change in his address last weekend, schooling the graduates on how things are made for the better and challenging them to take part in it.
In 1983, when he graduated from college, he said, “I was part of fewer than 10 percent of African-Americans who graduated with a bachelor’s degree. Today, you’re part of more than 20 percent who will. And more than half of blacks say we’re better off than our parents were at our age – and that our kids will be better off, too.”
He went on, “America is better. The world is better. And race relations are better since I graduated….I am not saying gaps do not persist. Obviously, they do. Racism persists. Inequality persists. But I wanted to start, Class of 2016, by opening your eyes to the moment in history in which you were born.”
He said, “It’s important to note progress. Because to deny how far we’ve come would do a disservice to the cause of justice, to the legions of foot soldiers; to not nly the incredibly accomplished individuals but your mothers and your dads, and grandparents and great grandparents who marched and toiled and suffered and overcame to make this day possible…and there’s still much more work to do.”
In an election year when highly idealistic rhetoric can so easily substitute for hard work and experience in the trenches fighting for progress, Obama’s words resonated particularly well during that sunny Saturday commencement. He offered three suggestions for “how young leaders like you can fulfill your destiny and shape our collective future, bend it in the direction of justice and equality and freedom.”
The first suggestion, he said, is “to be confident in your heritage, be confident in your blackness,” and there are a myriad of ways to express that, shattering stereotypes, citing Prince as an example: “He blew up categories. People didn’t know what Prince was doing, and folks loved him for it.” Many would consider this notion of “being confident in your blackness” as a radical concept. The same suggestion could be made to any number of other minorities.
The second suggestion is that “the tie that binds us as African-Americans is our particular awareness of injustice and unfairness and struggle (this also can apply to other minorities),” and Obama added, “We must expand our moral imaginations to understand and empathize with all people who are struggling.”
The third suggestion: Obama said, “You have to go through life wilth more than just a passion for change. You need a strategy…Change requires more than righteous anger, it requires a program, and its requires organizing…. To bring about structural change, lasting change, awareness is not enough. It requires changes in law, changes in custom…and your plan had better include voting, not just some of the time, but all of the time.”
The message got tougher when Obama said change “requires more than just speaking out – it requires listening, as well. In particular, to those with whom you disagree, and being prepared to compromise.”