If you see a black man smiling wider or poking out his chest more than usual this week, you can probably assume that his excitement was caused, at least in part, by the rousing address given by President Barack Obama at the Morehouse College commencement exercises on Sunday, May 19, 2013. Like most black men, I did not attend Morehouse, although I am connected to the college since my great grandfather Williams James attended its predecessor, Atlanta Baptist College. Yet, I was profoundly impacted by this occasion.
It wasn't so much seeing President Obama stand at the lectern, adorned in that richly colored robe, flanked by dignitaries that resonated with me. After all, outside of donning the doctoral robe, President Obama's presence at the helm of a podium is quite familiar. What leaped from the screen were images that conveyed a truly remarkable and deeply symbolic message. Here was our president, a leader affirmed by the majority of America and the world, delivering a message to an overwhelmingly black student body with the candor, insight and charisma that black men often use when speaking with each other. As I perched on my couch that Sunday morning, with coffee in hand, I leaned into the TV to "hear a word" from this brother and, surprisingly, tears arrived.
I began to reflect on what made this experience so emotional for me. I think my reaction had less to do with what President Obama shared and more so with what the event symbolized. Here was a black man, at a historically black college, standing in front of a stage with mostly black faces, delivering an address to young black men, at one of the most salient, yet frustratingly "out of reach" rituals for countless black men -- a college graduation ceremony. And this black man did so as president of the United States.
If President Obama's rise as the first black president of the United States of America signaled a racial and cultural milestone in 2009 and again in 2013, then his address to the class of 2013 at Morehouse represented another step in dismantling the rigid ideologies coiled so tightly in and through the meaning and worth placed on black men. I was so satisfied by seeing our Obama address those black men. While his life narrative represents quite a departure from the narratives of most black males, he has still sustained many of the blows dealt to black men everywhere, and despite these, he "made it." He made it without losing crucial elements of his "cool," and whether or not folks agree or disagree with his policies, as a symbol, Obama embodies much of the success to which these young graduates -- and young black men everywhere -- aspire.
Obama's presence on that stage interrupted so much of the negative publicity black men have garnered over a century. Because the audience was multi-generational, with the families of the young men making up the majority of those present, it is fair to think about how and why a black president addressing an audience of so many black men can be so emotionally satisfying. While some of those young men might have been second, third, fourth or even fifth generation college graduates, societal messages and the images that reinforce these messages falsely labeled those same young men as "gang bangers," "social threats," "in crisis" or "at risk." Their fathers were criminalized in the 1980s and 1990s, during the urban crack epidemic and called "endangered species," "dope slingers," "dead beat dads" or "public enemies." Their grandfathers were demonized in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s as "pimps," "players," and "drug pushers." And their great-grandfathers were viewed as "feeble-minded," "social delinquents," and "wayward."
These tragic images still pervade American discourse on black men. However, when the rain poured over that assembly, I believe it worked to wash away at least some of the stigma attached to generations of black males. Because on that day, the world witnessed what so few could possibly fathom. On that Sunday, a black president, stood in front of over 500 black college men, their families and the world, and affirmed, by his words, his position, and his mere presence that faulty assumptions, constricting the social imagination of black males were losing power, quickly.
Obama's words were powerful, and he utilized the sermonic patterns seen in great black rhetoricians everywhere in black churches on Sunday mornings. He let words linger and trail off reminiscent of the work of Dr. King. Folks knowingly applauded to both agree with Obama and fuel him to "preach on." He had build-ups and dramatic pauses, and he leaned into the microphone to talk over the clapping like black preachers do during the "shout" sections of their sermons. He connected with that audience and drew from a well of historical, racial and cultural know-how to deliver a powerfully resounding message to that body and subsequently, the world.
There is no doubt that Barack Obama is a skilled speaker. He has mastered the tone and bearing needed to be equally successful speaking at venues as varied as political rallies in the deep south, to banquets for international dignitaries at the White House, to the hallowed halls of Congress while giving the State of the Union address. However, rarely do we see a black male, with this much power, influence, and prestige addressing other black males, in a manner that is so familiar to black males, so deeply personal, and in so public a forum.
This is crucial to consider because black males are often characterized and pigeonholed and subsequently viewed in the public eye, inaccurately. The voices of black males that reflect them as authentic individuals with their own voices and lived experiences are often silenced or diluted in public discourses or exploited for the gains of others. We so often hear their voices on the radio as DJs, on corporatized commercials, and in hasty post-game reports on ESPN, but rarely do black men get an authentic voice within public forums.
Though he did speak with the grandiose politically-tinged language one would expect any president to utilize during a commencement address, his tone and depth of reflection on his own personal narrative conveyed what I'd expect from any successful black male collegian talking to aspiring young brothers. But what was unique was that this talk wasn't done over a dinner table, nor was it shared to black community from the pulpit of a black church. But rather, it was offered in a public forum and broadcasted across the world.
The president's talk was wide reaching. It signaled to the rest of the U.S. and the world that current understandings about black males, their worth, and their potential, need dismantling and that we need to champion a new era of ideologies around black males that are more accurate, empowering and nuanced. He urged those black males to become better fathers to their children, husbands to their wives, and boyfriends to their partners, subsequently affirming the identity of countless gay men in the span of a single phrase. And he did so on a campus that has historically struggled to balance adequately including, recognizing and incorporating the voices, experiences, and perspectives of openly gay students with an unyielding devotion to upholding what a traditional Morehouse man looks, sounds, dresses and acts like. This phrase and the speech within which it was situated, represented a transformative historical moment in the narrative of the black male in America.
It rained and poured upon those young men, their professors and their families that day, but this speech represented such a bright and shiny spot for black men worldwide. Regardless of whether we agree with all of his assertions -- and I certainly did not -- watching President Obama poised over that podium addressing all of those black and brown faces was truly awe-inspiring. The need for us to re-think and transform the rigid ways in which we think of black males is upon us now. And I like, most black men, could surely stand the rain and soak that message in all day.