President Obama's commencement speech to Howard University has many facets. It was both inspirational and sobering. It was incisive and divisive. He managed to effectively touch the students and motivate them, which is precisely what a commencement speech should do, and he is to be commended for that.
In fact, it was a great speech, maybe one of the best of his Presidency. I say that because I think he made many very important points. He was congenial, humorous and easy to listen to. His message was tailored to the audience, but in many ways spoke to all of America.
Having said that, I also relate to a number of Americans of all colors, who find his constant emphasis on race disconcerting. They worry that focusing on skin color is by default, divisive.
Obama is, by any measure, a truly great speaker. I believe he is the best orator we have seen in the Oval Office since Reagan and JFK. And I also believe he is extremely effective at capturing the angst most young black students and social activists feel about the state of affairs in America.
He said he wanted to point out a very salient point, that "if you are young, gifted and black" you are living in a very good period of American history. And that the reason for that is that many people had fought long and hard to create the climate of opportunity that exists in this country and the world today.
And he went on to challenge the students to be active, to vote, to be engaged. He mentioned that they do not have to face the adversity of their fathers and grandfathers to be heard, to vote. That those battles were fought for them. That they now have no excuse for apathy.
Then he angrily mentions one of his pet peeves, how too many successful people act self sufficient and arrogant, they don't recognize the community effort that paved the way for their success. And he suggested that anyone who is successful didn't do it by themselves. They had help. Noting that being a student at Howard University is just such an advantage, and that it has been doing good work for over two hundred years, and has spawned numerous black success stories, none of which would have happened without the help of Howard University.
What is so ironic to me is that every analogy the the president made about how much work it took for this generation to have the opportunities and freedom that they enjoy today, came from the sacrifices of earlier generations, but never mentions how they are all just as applicable to the larger American story.
The entire social construct that is America, for all of us, no matter what our heritage, our culture or our religious associations, all of our freedoms, our social milieu is unlike anything else on the planet, because generations of brave, unselfish dreamers gave of themselves and their families so all of us could enjoy the country we have today. They did that so we could benefit, we could live in a prosperous, secure and happy place. So we could jettison ancient hatreds, feuds and tribal anxieties.
And we could ignore race.
They had a dream, because up until that point in history, nothing like the United States of America, the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and the melting pot that is America today, had ever existed.
Those previous generations were idealistic and flawed. They too had their share of racists and bigots. But overall, they were made up of a wide variety of racial and culturally diverse men and women. They had a vision that was untested, idealistic and seemingly impossible.
They called it America.
Just as he noted, if you, as a black person, could choose when you were born and in what era you could live, this would be the best time. In my mind, that applies to all young people, white, black, red or brown.
And I wish he had said that is why we need to embrace our 'Americanism' more than ever! Not be ashamed of it, to wear it proudly!
So the one social construct, or ideal that I found missing from his otherwise excellent speech, was the recommendation that it takes some integration for the unique American Dream to be fulfilled. We should be proud of our cultural heritage, but we need to be most proud of, and unify behind our constantly threatened American heritage. Particularly now when our form of government and social fabric is under attack, and especially if we want to continue to forge new paths of social continuity, to bring our brand of Liberty and Justice for all to more people across the globe.
It is OK to recognize your roots, but being an American means subjugating those tribal tendencies to the values and ideals that make America so unique, and so precious and fragile.