The creation in 1865 of the small school that eventually became Bowie State University was an “eloquent act of defiance,” she told the 600 graduates and several thousand of their supporters at the Comcast Center in College Park.
Obama challenged the students to keep a hunger to learn; she quoted abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who said education “means the uplifting of the soul of man into the glorious light of truth, the light by which men can only be made free.”
She received thunderous applause from the intensely friendly and excited crowd, which issued shouts of congratulations to individual graduates along with calls of “Go ’head, ’Chelle! We love you!” and a standing ovation that began before the first lady spoke a word.
In the second of three commencement addresses Obama will give this month, she also called on the graduates to push other African Americans to pursue higher education.
Unlike their ancestors, she said, young African Americans too often “can’t be bothered.”
“Instead of walking miles every day to school, they’re sitting on couches for hours playing video games, watching TV. Instead of dreaming of being a teacher or a lawyer or a business leader, they’re fantasizing about being a baller or a rapper,” she said.
“Please reject the slander that says a black child with a book is trying to act white,” Obama said. “In short, be an example of excellence for the next generation.”
Obama’s 21-minute address did not mention the political or policy issues that are at the forefront of her husband’s administration. She stuck to the historical arc of African Americans in the nation and the need to increase the number who graduate from high school and college. She included a clear challenge to black Americans on issues of personal responsibility, carrying through on a theme that the Obamas have often returned to before black audiences — identifying with the challenges of the community while calling on families and communities to step up and hearkening back to the gains of the civil rights era.
She layered that tough-love cultural commentary — which has sometimes proved controversial for her husband — with statistics, saying that one in three African American students drop out of high school and that only one in five African Americans between the ages of 25 and 29 have a college degree. Most minorities are lagging, according to a
study released Friday
by the American Council on Education, which found that three out of four students who completed a bachelor’s degree in 2007-08 were white.