It’s been a long time since I’ve posted original content on The Glossy Diaries. Hair, fashion, food, and design inspiration have had a mind all their own!
But President Obama’s commencement speech at Morehouse College - and the subsequent flutter of blog comments - has moved me to write.
First, I’m glad President Obama spoke at Morehouse. I would’ve expected it’d happened sooner.The state of the black man in this country is something that has required - and still does require - immediate attention.
His sweeping message of helping your fellow brother is at first glance a conversation that is absent in our community. From the pervasiveness of black male consumerism (perceived or otherwise), to the sprinkling of black men in coveted corporate roles - it seems the so-called “successful black man” just can’t get it right. He either succumbs to his own idolization for being one of the few in his position, or “makes it” and completely loses sight of any sense of responsibility to his community. Usually, it’s a mixture of both.
If you are reading this and wondering why black men should have any sense to reach back into their community you should probably stop reading here. That should be clear as day. But for the sake of illustrating a cohesive point - it’s because our experience as black people in this country (and around the world for that matter) is unique to any other racial group. From enslavement, to Jim Crow, we are the only racial group who without regard to ethnicity, have been intentionally denied opportunity for advancement in today’s modern world.
And though ‘Jim Crow’ is an outdated phrase - a former racial epithet not as loaded and piercing and the n-word; and a name which came to symbolize the unwritten Black Codes that African-Americans had to live by - its effects have left stains. Housing discrimination, voter suppression, and educational inferiority are still very existent. And yet - because the once famed sambo Jim Crow is no longer attached to these issues, they are somehow separate problems - and frankly, each individual community’s problem. There are no more national marches. Somehow it is no longer a national issue for us. So when someone does “make it” it’s their own individual success. And it’s up to the next “individual” to create that success for him or her self. Therein lies our first problem.
Getting back to President Obama. In his speech, the President says:
I know that some of you came to Morehouse from communities where life was about keeping your head down and looking out for yourself. Maybe you feel like you escaped, and now you can take your degree and get that fancy job and the nice house and the nice car — and never look back. And don’t get me wrong — with all those student loans you’ve had to take out, I know you’ve got to earn some money. With doors open to you that your parents and grandparents could not even imagine, no one expects you to take a vow of poverty. But I will say it betrays a poverty of ambition if all you think about is what goods you can buy instead of what good you can do. (Applause.)So, yes, go get that law degree. But if you do, ask yourself if the only option is to defend the rich and the powerful, or if you can also find some time to defend the powerless. Sure, go get your MBA, or start that business. We need black businesses out there. But ask yourselves what broader purpose your business might serve, in putting people to work, or transforming a neighborhood. The most successful CEOs I know didn’t start out intent just on making money — rather, they had a vision of how their product or service would change things, and the money followed.
Some blog commenters took issue with this point. Why does President Obama always feel the need to share a message of helping your fellow man, they wanted to know? What about manifesting a personal destiny? “There’s no room in Obama’s world for aspiring to be a Bill Gates, or a Steve Jobs, or a Warren Buffet,” another commenter says.
But perhaps what they don’t see is that Obama is coming from an experience of a black man in today’s society. A man who saw less people who looked like him the more successful he became. Every black person - male or female - in this country has had the same experience. So from that experience, it is painfully clear how pertinent it is to reach back and help the next one. And it’s not something that you should be patted on the back for. It’s something that should be required. Because while, to you, It may feel weird to be the only one in the room - to everyone else, a few is just what they’re used to.
Obama then goes on to say:
It’s hard work that demands your constant attention and frequent sacrifice. And I promise you, Michelle will tell you I’m not perfect. She’s got a long list of my imperfections. (Laughter.) Even now, I’m still practicing, I’m still learning, still getting corrected in terms of how to be a fine husband and a good father. But I will tell you this: Everything else is unfulfilled if we fail at family, if we fail at that responsibility.
It’s especially important to reach back in a community void of fathers. We are presented with a generation lacking the reason, confidence, respect for self and for women, that fathers provide. Forget community - at the most basic level we are lacking a sense of responsibility to our own families. No one, no matter the color or experience, should have a problem seeing the issue in that.
As my only brother matriculates into one of the nation’s top preparatory high schools in the fall, my mother makes a point to tell him to not get comfortable. Don’t get comfortable being the only one. Don’t get comfortable being singled out for your smarts in spite of your color. Instead, be uncomfortable. Be very uncomfortable. The fact that you are the only one that looks like you should make you cringe. The fact that you are the faced with a room full of eyes when some “black” issue is brought out should make you squirm. Not because of some egotistical “why do I have to represent every black person” reasoning - but because there should be ten or twelve of you in that classroom. And because our history in this country should be so well-known that the Irish, South Asian, or Latina person sitting next to you can answer that question just the same.
Regardless of race, service is a responsibility that the human race should fulfill. If we as a people set that example, maybe the world will see why Obama feels the need to share his message.
And by the way, silly commenter, Obama is not saying don’t be Bill Gates or Warren Buffet. By no means is he saying that you shouldn’t reach your potential and build your own dreams because of some communal obligation. He is saying to stay in tune with the consciousness that is necessary to pull others up into your same fate. Success is more likely when the infrastructure is around you to succeed. Success is more unlikely when the infrastructure is not. It’s a basic proportion that the people on top are very aware of.
So go out, change the world, and put yourself in the best possible position for success. But then go back and help the next person. Or the next few. Because chances are, they will be left behind if you don’t. They already are.