In his final year in office, President Barack Obama has been doing a lot of what people hadn’t expected him to do. From hosting the largest African dance symposium in the White House, to meeting with Black Lives Matter activists, to changing the face of the $20 Bill to a Black woman… Let’s be honest: there have been many “Black” things our first Black president has done in his final 365 days.
And his commencement speech to Howard University’s class of 2016, was no different. He address the historically Black university students with a message that addressed race and the future of this nation.
“Be confident in your heritage. Be confident in your blackness,” President Obama told a crowd of 15,000 gathered at Washington, D.C.’s Howard University, one of the nation’s leading historically black colleges.
Blackness, he said, had “no litmus test for authenticity,” pointing to his own conflicting critics that have questioned whether he was “too black” or “not black enough.”
“Create your own style, set your own standard of beauty, embrace your own sexuality,” he added. “Because you’re a black person — doing whatever it is that you’re doing — that makes it a black thing!”
“Or,” the president continued, “as my daughters tell me all the time: ‘You be you, Daddy.’”
The President went on to give kudos to the incredible university. “Howard is the home to many firsts,” said Mr. President. “Including the first Black Nobel Peace Prize and the first Black Supreme Court Judge. But it was at Howard that they made sure that those ‘firsts’ wouldn’t be the last.”
“We’re CEOs,” he said. “We’re mayors, representatives. President of the United States.” Still, he acknowledged “racism persists” and ”inequality persists” with the achievement gap in schools and the “justice gap” in jails.
“You have to go through life with more than just a passion for change — you have to have strategy,” The President said, pushing “not just awareness but action, not just hashtags but votes.”
“Change,” he added, “requires more than righteous anger.”
President Obama wound down his speech by quoting a phrase from award-winning author James Baldwin, “James Baldwin once said ‘Nothing everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can change unless it is faced.’”
Then he gave a charge to the graduates.
“Graduates, each of us is here only because someone else faced down the challenges for us. We’re only who we are because someone struggled and sacrificed for us. So when you journey seems to hard or when you run into a chorus of cynics who say you can’t do something, that you should stop believing or you should just settle…Then you may find useful a little phrase that I found handy these last eight years: YES. WE. CAN.”