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Michelle Obama’s forceful speech on race at Tuskegee University

The first lady talked about race, her critics, motherhood and more during a May 9 commencement address at Tuskegee University in Alabama. (Video: Tuskegee University)
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With her commencement address at Tuskegee University, first lady Michelle Obama showed that her husband isn’t the only one in the White House with a facility for searing and soaring speeches. In word and tone, Obama gave voice to the frustrations and hopes of African Americans in this country. Her words were powerful and forcefully delivered without apology. Coming after what we have witnessed in Ferguson and Baltimore, Obama’s speech at the historically black institution has added resonance.

Of course, Obama’s truth-telling was met with the usual and predictable harangues from the reactionary right. Laura Ingraham called the first lady’s commencement address “a litany of victimization.” Rush Limbaugh accused her of “playing the race card.” Sean Hannity said Obama displayed a “bitterness” and a “lack of appreciation for the opportunities” afforded her and the president. And Mark Levin said the two of them have “done more damage to race relations in this country since George Wallace, there I said it and I mean it.” When balled up together, all of these acerbic comments just proved the point Obama made as she ran through some of the name-calling she and her husband have endured.

…[Y]ou might remember the on-stage celebratory fist bump between me and my husband after a primary win that was referred to as a “terrorist fist jab.”  And over the years, folks have used plenty of interesting words to describe me.  One said I exhibited “a little bit of uppity-ism.“  Another noted that I was one of my husband’s “cronies of color.”  Cable news once charmingly referred to me as “Obama’s Baby Mama.”
And of course, Barack has endured his fair share of insults and slights.  Even today, there are still folks questioning his citizenship.

In her remarks, the first lady lauded the lineage of the Tuskegee’s famous graduates. Those hardworking and persevering pioneers who achieved great things despite the state-sanctioned obstacles in their way. But Obama also recognized that despite the hard work of today’s graduates, there were different, equally persistent barriers to their success. The power of her words enhanced by sharing the experiences of herself and her husband.

The world won’t always see you in those caps and gowns.  They won’t know how hard you worked and how much you sacrificed to make it to this day — the countless hours you spent studying to get this diploma, the multiple jobs you worked to pay for school, the times you had to drive home and take care of your grandma, the evenings you gave up to volunteer at a food bank or organize a campus fundraiser.  They don’t know that part of you.
Instead they will make assumptions about who they think you are based on their limited notion of the world.  And my husband and I know how frustrating that experience can be. We’ve both felt the sting of those daily slights throughout our entire lives — the folks who crossed the street in fear of their safety; the clerks who kept a close eye on us in all those department stores; the people at formal events who assumed we were the “help” — and those who have questioned our intelligence, our honesty, even our love of this country.
And I know that these little indignities are obviously nothing compared to what folks across the country are dealing with every single day — those nagging worries that you’re going to get stopped or pulled over for absolutely no reason; the fear that your job application will be overlooked because of the way your name sounds; the agony of sending your kids to schools that may no longer be separate, but are far from equal; the realization that no matter how far you rise in life, how hard you work to be a good person, a good parent, a good citizen — for some folks, it will never be enough.

Obama’s conservative carpers see fit to ignore this reality lived by African Americans. And in doing so, far-right critics also failed to hear Obama’s admonition against frustration, isolation and despair. They failed to hear her overarching, no-excuses message to the graduates.

I want to be very clear that those feelings are not an excuse to just throw up our hands and give up. Not an excuse. They are not an excuse to lose hope. To succumb to feelings of despair and anger only means that in the end, we lose.

In her remarks, Obama paid tribute to Charles DeBow. One of the famed Tuskegee airmen, she noted that he said takeoff is “a never-failing miracle” where all “the bumps would smooth off… [you’re] in the air… out of this world… free.” By staying true to themselves, their values and their own moral compass, the first lady assured the graduates that they would get through the bumps of life to fly “through the air, out of this world — free.”

In the end, Obama delivered a universal message specifically tailored to African American graduates who will go on to do great things for this nation. If that’s “playing the race card,” then we should get the entire deck.

Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @Capehartj