President Obama on Sunday summoned the graduates of historically black Morehouse College to “transform the way we think about manhood,” urging the young men to avoid the temptation to make excuses and to take responsibility for their families and their communities.
Delivering a commencement address at the all-male private liberal arts college in Atlanta, Obama spoke in deeply personal terms about the “special obligation” he feels as a black man to help those left behind.
“There but for the grace of God, I might be in their shoes,” Obama said. “I might have been in prison. I might have been unemployed. I might not have been able to support a family — and that motivates me.”
The president also reflected on the absence of his father growing up, noting that he was raised by a “heroic single mother,” and urged the young graduates not to shrink from their family responsibilities.
“My whole life, I’ve tried to be for Michelle and my girls what my father wasn’t for my mother and me,” Obama said. “I want to break that cycle — where a father’s not at home, where a father’s not helping to raise that son and daughter. I want to be a better father, a better husband, a better man.”
In his 32-minute address, Obama was far more personal and reflective than he traditionally has been, especially on matters of racial discrimination. Obama delivered a similar speech three years ago when he addressed the graduates of Hampton University in Virginia, another historically black college.
He paid tribute to Martin Luther King Jr., a Morehouse graduate, noting that King’s education there “helped to forge the intellect, the discipline, the compassion, the soul force that would transform America.”
Obama added: “Laws and hearts and minds have been changed to the point where someone who looks just like you can somehow come to serve as president of these United States.”
Yet Obama acknowledged that “the bitter legacies of slavery and segregation” have not vanished, that discrimination still exists.
“As Morehouse men, many of you know what it’s like to be an outsider, to be marginalized, to feel the sting of discrimination. That’s an experience that a lot of Americans share,” Obama said.
Hispanic Americans, Obama lamented, are told to “go back” home while strangers pass judgment on the parenting skills of gay men and lesbians or stare at Muslim Americans with suspicion.
Obama said that too many young black men make “bad choices.”
“Growing up, I made quite a few myself,” Obama said. “Sometimes I wrote off my own failings as just another example of the world trying to keep a black man down. I had a tendency to make excuses for me not doing the right thing.”
But, the president implored, “we’ve got no time for excuses.”
“In today’s hyper-connected, hyper-competitive world, with millions of young people from China and India and Brazil, many of whom started with a whole lot less than all of you did, all of them entering the global workforce alongside you, nobody is going to give you anything you haven’t earned,” he said. “Nobody cares how tough your upbringing was. Nobody cares if you suffered some discrimination.”
“Moreover,” Obama continued, “you have to remember that whatever you’ve gone through, it pales in comparison to the hardships previous generations endured — and if they overcame them, you can overcome them, too.”
Obama told the graduates that they needed to be role models for others in their communities and not just chase after high-paying jobs and fancy cars. If they get a law degree, he told the graduates, they shouldn’t defend only the powerful, but also the powerless. If they get an MBA and start a business, Obama said, they shouldn’t merely try to make money, but also consider the broader purpose their business might serve.
“No one expects you to take a vow of poverty,” Obama said. “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.”
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