The Politics of Personal Responsibility in Black America

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by Evan Seymour

No excuses.

These two words from President Obama’s 30-minute commencement address at Morehouse College have gotten so much attention.

Many have praised the president’s speech, but there are critics on both sides of the ideological aisle who are up in arms about Obama’s message to the graduating class of Morehouse. The Atlanta school is one of America’s premier institutions of higher learning, and the only college in the country geared specifically towards the education of men of the African Diaspora.

Some of these same critics were also upset by First Lady Michelle Obama’s address earlier in the week in Baltimore at historically black Bowie State.

The general premise of the liberal criticism is this -- in their speeches to primarily black scholars, both the Obamas were chastising instead of congratulatory in their messages.

In addition to raising issue with Obama’s message, some of those critics accuse the president of pointing fingers at the black community despite the fact that his White House’s policy hasn’t, in their opinions, adequately addressed the disparities faced by black people in America.

For the moment, I’m going to put aside the policy-based argument of Obama’s black critics, though I will circle back to these issues later on in my writing.

I guess these critics did not hear the same speeches I heard. What these naysayers interpreted as scolding, I observed as celebration, steeped in a call to action, based upon the history of Black people in America.

I’ve watched and read transcripts of both Michelle and Barack Obamas’ addresses several times at this point, and in my opinion, this chatter is really a tip-toing around a much larger and more sensitive conversation – the role of personal responsibility in Black America, and additionally, the role of personal responsibility in the problems of Black America.

Is personal responsibility a problem in Black America? And why don’t some of us ever want to talk about it?

Obama’s History-Making Moment at Morehouse

President Obama became the first American president to give the commencement address at Morehouse College, the alma mater of civil rights activist, scholar and humanitarian Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It was a historical occasion that drew national attention from the MSM, and on social media sites. Black Twitter was captivated by the POTUS’s speech, making #MCGrad2013 one of the top trending Twitter topics of the day.

I am a proud graduate of Spelman College, an all-female historically black college (HBCU) across the street from Morehouse, so I was excited to take part in the celebration and conversation. I did the same thing I’ve done in years past – I tuned into the live stream of the commencement address, beaming with pride at the sea of black folks donned in academic regalia.

A Morehouse graduation ceremony is filled with pomp and circumstance. There are drums and dramatic organ music. Many scholars drape their black graduation gowns with kente cloth stoles. There is always a palpable sense of pride in the air. It really is something that must be witnessed in person to truly appreciate.

The legacy of Morehouse as an institution that cultivates strong black men was highlighted by the fact that graduates and observers sat in the rain for hours, without complaint, in order to hear Barack Obama speak.

For the most part, the commentary on the president’s speech, at least in the land of Black Twitter, was overwhelmingly favorable.

The conservative faction of mainstream media, on the other hand, immediately began its criticism and spin.

Many conservative commentators jumped at the opportunity to take segments of the president’s speech out of context in an effort to make their point – see, even the black president is saying his people need to get their ish together. The right had a field day running stories with headlines like Obama to Blacks: No More Excuses.

These inaccurate, often bigoted, critiques of the president’s speech are examples of propaganda irresponsibly marketed as journalism. They took completely out of context the “no excuses” portion of Obama’s address and made it seem as if he was attacking his own people.

Typical right wing media rhetoric towards President Barack Hussein Obama.

Black Media Backlash

At first, there wasn’t much negative criticism of the president’s speech by black journalists and in the world of black social media, but several recent articles have some of us pondering if President Obama’s message to the Men of Morehouse was appropriate. Tim Wise’s Bullying Pulpit: Racism, Barack Obama And the Selective Call for Personal Responsibility and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Atlantic piece How the Obama Administration Talks to Black America, are the two texts I will ponder, as they are some of the most widely read pieces on the matter so far.

While I respect the work and scholarship of both of these men, I see some glaring holes in each of their arguments. Simply for the sake of transparency, I will note that Wise, who frequently writes on anti-racism, is himself white. I include his piece in my commentary because he is a reputable scholar, and his article has received a lot of attention in the worlds of black media and social media. Roland Martin, for example, has Wise’s piece posted on his website.

For anyone who has yet to see the president’s speech, firstly, I highly recommend you check it out. I, however, am going to keep my quotation of Obama’s words to a minimum as I am focusing my attention on the criticism of his speech and the real reasons behind said criticism.

Here’s a tidbit of Wise’s commentary on the president’s speech:

It’s hard to know what’s more disturbing.

Either that President Obama thinks black grads at one of the nation’s best colleges really need to be lectured about such matters; or, alternately, that White America is so desirous of exculpation for the history of racial discrimination that we need him to say such things, and he knows it, thereby leading him to feed us the moral scolding of black men we so desperately desire, and which he must know will be transmitted to us by way of media coverage of his talk.

First of all, the president was not at all lecturing the graduates, any more than any commencement speech could be considered a lecture in the most structural definition of the word. Secondly, the assertion that President Obama was putting on a performance for White America, allowing them the chance to hear their criticism of Black America voiced out of the mouth of a Black man, is absurd and is a notion that comes from a position of privilege in and of itself.

President Obama ain’t gotta perform for nobody. And to critics of his use of black vernacular -- he can code switch if he wants to! It’s something educated black folks do all the time. Really, it’s something people do all the time. His message was appropriately and specifically crafted to his audience of Morehouse graduates. The rest of the world just happened to be listening in. He was having real talk with his people, and he probably waited until his second term to do so for just this reason. In the words of J, the main character from Awkward Black Girl, one of my absolutely favorite shows -- bishes be trippin!

In his speech, President Obama lauded the academic achievements of the Morehouse Men, including valedictorian Betsegaw Tadele and Leland Shelton, a former ward of the foster care system who graduated Phi Beta Kappa and is now on his way to Harvard University Law School, Barack Obama’s alma mater. He also spoke about Morehouse’s rich legacy of educating African Americans.

Yes, Obama did also mention the need for black men to be good fathers and husbands, but he was speaking the truth. And damn, the man is himself the product of a household headed by a single mother. Can he not speak his truth? He made a conscious decision to be a good father and husband, despite his own experiences, and he encouraged the graduates to do the same.

Obama didn’t say anything wrong here.

Airing Dirty Laundry?

Conversations about personal responsibility happen all the time on HBCU campuses. It is the desire to “break the cycle” within my own family that pushed me to pursue an education and avoid many of the pitfalls that are part of the reality of too many black adolescents. Mentioning the necessity of personal responsibility does not equal a denial of the role of systematic oppression and anti-inclusive, anti-poor governmental policies in the current position of Black America.

The real reason some folks are mad is the same reason they were mad about the statements made by Bill Cosby when he and Harvard Medical School professor of psychiatry Dr. Alvin Poussaint called Black America to the carpet in their co-authored 2007 book C’Mon People: On the Path from Victims to Victors. The president’s black intelligentsia critics are mad because they feel like Obama is putting the ‘dirty laundry’ of Black America on display, just as they assert Cosby and Poussaint did. Critics accused Cosby of being elitist. Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Eugene Robinson addresses Cosby situation in his book, Disintegration: The Splintering of Black America.

Not even the most foggy-headed or starry-eyed could deny that wrong choices play a huge role in the Abandoned (poor black people) mired in their plight – and that no policies or programs can possibly succeed unless individuals make better choices. This was the basic message of Come On, People, the book by Bill Cosby and Alvin Poussaint that stridently lectured poor African Americans on the need to change their ways.

Yet and still, some of us lump all conversations in which personal responsibilities and problematic trends within the African American community are mentioned into the category of airing our proverbial dirty laundry. These conversations are to happen only behind closed doors. The problem is when these conversations do happen behind closed doors, only a small segment of Black America is at the table.

I guarantee you, the same conversations ain’t happening nearly as often in the hood near you; that is, if there is a hood near you at all.

The focus of Robinson’s Disintegration is the deconstruction of a singular Black America, assuming one ever existed, into four sub-communities. It is the members of the Black American sub-communities Robinson names the Mainstream (middle class black people) and the Transcendents (wealthy black people) who engaged in the academic debate around Cosby’s 2007 book and the comedian’s controversial remarks in subsequent appearances.

It’s that same pocket of Black America – those in denial, a few idealistic, disconnected members of the Ivory Tower (an example of elitism in and of itself), and the members of the Black bourgeois -- who will criticize the Abandoned portion of our population in the privacy of their homes, but remain silent when such conversations are held publicly. These are the black folks who are jumping on the Bash Obama bandwagon.

How the Obama Administration Talks to Black America

And now I come to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ piece, How the Obama Administration Talks to Black America. There are so many things I could address in Coates’ rhetoric, but for the sake of brevity and coherency, I will stick to only a few points.

Coates opens his article with two excerpts from First Lady Michelle Obama’s commencement address at Bowie State, a historically black college in Maryland founded as a teacher’s college for African Americans. He includes commentary on both of the Obamas’ commencement speeches in his piece, as he sees both of them in the same vein in terms of general tone and message.

During her Bowie State address, Michelle Obama pointed to the legacy of the school, which opened in 1865, just three years after the official end of slavery with the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. The First Lady then said to graduates:

But today, more than 50 years after the end of “separate but equal,” when it comes to getting an education, too many of our young people just can’t be bothered…Instead of dreaming of being a teacher or a lawyer or a business leader, they’re fantasizing about being a baller or a rapper.

Coates views the inclusion of this message as problematic.

I see First Lady Obama’s words quite differently.

As a public middle school teacher in New Orleans, I completely agree with Michelle Obama’s observation. There are many students who really cannot be bothered with school. Now, there are many reasons for this, but I will spare you the laundry list of sociohistorical and cultural challenges faced by many of my students, and I will boil it down to this – many of them have lost hope. It is not their faults, but it is the sad truth.

And there are too many young people who want to go into the entertainment industry, or even worse, the dope game. This isn’t all of them, but too many of them. And it is our responsibility to go out into the schools and bring to these students the quality education they deserve, and to help them see the possibility of their futures. There is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to be a rapper or an athlete, but there is a problem when you see these as your only viable options to make it out of the hood.

Really, in the case of Obama’s address to Morehouse, and the First Lady’s speech at Bowie State, both of the Obamas were talking less about personal responsibility, and were instead focused on the importance of collective responsibility. Obviously, one would not preach to a crowd of college graduates about the importance of their own attainment of formal education. The students at Bowie State and Morehouse College have already crossed that threshold.

According to Coates, Obama feeds into what he calls, “the time-honored pattern of looking at the rather normal behaviors of black children and pathologizing them.”

Obama does not try to pathologize black children, or black people for that matter, nor does he paint a revisionist history of America. Look at this excerpt from the then Senator Obama’s 2008 speech on race. He delivered the address, aptly named “A More Perfect Union”, at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia in the wake of the controversial remarks about race made by his then pastor, Jeremiah Wright. The target audience of this speech was the American public, not just black America, and the president readily acknowledged the role of America’s sordid racial past and policy, of days gone by and of today, in the plight of African Americans. This is just a portion of the president’s moving address:

Segregated schools were, and are, inferior schools; we still haven’t fixed them, fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education, and the inferior education they provided, then and now, helps explain the pervasive achievement gap between today’s black and white students…

Legalized discrimination – where blacks were prevented, often through violence, from owning property, or loans weren’t granted to African-American business owners, or black homeowners could not access FHA mortgages, or blacks were excluded from unions, or the police force, or fire departments – meant that black families could not amass any meaningful wealth to bequeath to future generations. That history helps explain the wealth and income gap between blacks and whites, and the concentrated pockets of poverty that exist in so many of today’s urban and rural communities.

...working together we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds, and that in fact we have no choice if we are to continue on the path of a more perfect union.

For the African-American community, that path means embracing the burdens of our past without becoming victims of our past. It means continuing to insist on a full measure of justice in every aspect of American life. But it also means binding our particular grievances – for better healthcare, and better schools, and better jobs – to larger aspirations of all Americans…

In these words, Obama both acknowledged the prevalence of racism while also calling for unity, personal responsibility, and the collective responsibility of all Americans.


Ujima is a Swahili word that means collective work and responsibility. For those familiar with Kwanzaa, you know it is one of the nguzo saba – the seven principals which guide the holiday created by Afrocentric scholar Dr. Malauna Karenga.

This idea of collective work and responsibility is nothing new to the black community, and it is an idea embraced by all of America when we are at our best. Look to how we’ve come together in times of crisis, including the most recent examples of the Oklahoma tornadoes and the Boston Marathon bombing.

And make no mistake, there is a segment of Black America that is in a state of crisis.

In my four years as a teacher in inner-city New Orleans, I have taught children ranging from 10 – 18, and I have gone to two funerals, and had more students arrested and/or shot than I can count on all ten of my fingers. I work in an urban school every day, so I’m really not trying to hear what someone in the ivory tower of academia has to say about issues of our kids and their attitudes toward school.

Some black folks think of it as taboo and almost blasphemous to have conversations within earshot of The Others about the faux pas of the impoverished, uneducated portion of our community. I think of it like this – The Obamas are telling it like it T.I. is for the sake of trying to identify our growth areas as an African American community so we can better address them.

The DuBois Connection

My head already spinning as I performed research and gathered my thoughts for this essay, I decided to reach out to a former professor of mine to get his take on the issue.

Dr. William Jelani Cobb is a graduate of the historically black Howard University, a former Spelman professor (where he was one of my most inspirational instructors), and a current associate professor of history at the University of Connecticut. He is also the director of the Institute of African American Studies at the University of Connecticut . In essence, what I’m saying is brotha man’s got some letters behind his name. That’s why I sought out his opinion.

Before I was actually able to speak to Dr. Cobb, I decided to read an excerpt from his 2010 book The Substance of Hope: Barack Obama and the Paradox of Progress.

Dr. Cobb wrote:
A century ago W.E.B. DuBois published an essay titled “Of the Meaning of Progress” in his collection The Souls of Black Folk, in which he recounted his days as a teacher in small-town Tennesse. More than a summer job, his task, as he saw it, was part of a monumental undertaking to uplift the race.
Dr. Cobb goes on to recall how DuBois came back to this small town after becoming the first African American to earn his PhD from Harvard University. Dr. Dubois was disturbed by the lack of progress. According to Cobb, “Some of [DuBois’] students died unexpectedly, while others remained mired in conditions scarcely better than slavery.”

Doesn’t that sound like the condition currently faced by some members of the African Americans journalist Eugene Robinson refers to as the Abandoned?

According to Dr. Cobb, “Obama’s election represents progress, its meaning as complex and cryptic as life in Du Bois’s Tennessee town.”

Many of the dilemmas Black America currently faces are the same problems we have faced since coming to this country. No, racism is not often as blatant or violent as it was during DuBois’ lifetime, but educational equity continues to remain elusive, and many of the oppression-related issues faced by African Americans of the 20th century are still prevalent today. The prison industrial complex is a thriving capitalistic machine. Urban epicenters throughout America are food deserts, and often lack quality, affordable housing. Unemployment rates among black teens and adults, regardless of education level, remain significantly higher than those of their white counterparts.

The Souls of Black Folks still need a lot of healing, and systematic oppression is real.

POTUS’ Policy in Terms of Black America and the Question of Personal Responsibility

When I finally did get Dr. Cobb on the phone, I was surprised by some of the things he had to say. I plan on exploring our conversation in detail in another post, but in an effort to be fair and accurate, I must note that Dr. Cobb sides with those who criticized the president’s message to Morehouse’s graduating class.

Dr. Cobb’s criticism of Obama’s words to the graduates has a lot to do with what he views as Obama’s lackluster policy in regards to the African American community. Overall, Dr. Cobb has been an Obama proponent and defender. He’s spoken up for the president in articles such as Barack X , an article he penned for The New Yorker in October of 2012. However, when asked about his thoughts on the Morehouse commencement speech, here’s part of what Dr. Cobb had to say.

Quite simply, when people like me, who’ve been defending him, and been taking criticism for the extent to which I’ve defended him – when people like me are saying you need to cut this foolishness out -- you better believe there’s a much broader sentiment with people.

Dr. Cobb, like many critics of the Morehouse address, asserts that Obama regularly uses a chastising tone when addressing a Black audience.

My former professor was adamant about the fact that personal responsibility is not an issue within the African American community, and he cited some telling statistics about unemployment levels of African American college graduates (Dear Conservatives: please don’t twist this fact as an example of these individuals being lazy or under-qualified. Yours truly, the author).

In regards to Obama’s continued “calling out” of African-Americans, Dr. Cobb had these sharp words:
Unless [the president] is planning on pardoning Assata Shakur and setting up reparations for black people, I really don’t want to hear it…Politically speaking, I don’t think that’s smart, and socially speaking I don’t think it’s fair, or necessarily accurate.
Our conversation gave me a lot to think about and made me question if some of my views on the president’s policies are ill informed. Fodder for another day’s musings.

That being said, I still believe that personal responsibility is imperative, and black people have to continue to work on the issues of our community together, regardless of our socio-economic status or level of acculturation into the larger society. Those of us fortunate enough to go to college do have a responsibility to reach back.

Why Only Talk About Personal Responsibility When It Comes to Black Folks?

This piece of criticism has also been lobbed at Obama by some of his African American critics.

This piece of criticism is completely inaccurate. Obama does not limit his message of personal responsibility to African Americans. Reaching back to help others is not a unique commencement message, nor did Obama include such language exclusively in his words to the Men of Morehouse.

Obama gave his first commencement address of the 2013 graduation season at the Ohio State University. In his address to the 10,000 or so graduates and the 60,000 to 70,000 observers, Obama said these words:
You have been tested and tempered by events that your parents and I never imagined we’d see when we sat where you sit. And yet, despite all of this – or more likely because of it – yours has become a generation possessed with that most American of ideas: that people who love their country can change it for the better.
Sounds like a permutation of the message of collective work and responsibility Obama delivered in his commencement address at Morehouse.

According to an NBC News article by staff writer Daniel Arkin –

Obama challenged graduates to tackle key issues – such as education reform, infrastructure investment, climate change, LGBT rights, and gun violence – with “dogged determination.”

“I dare you to do better. I dare you to be better,” Obama said.

At its core, how different is this message from that Obama delivered to the graduating class of Morehouse?

One Morehouse Man’s Perspective on Obama’s Speech

I asked a friend of mine who is a graduate of Morehouse College for his thoughts on Obama’s speech, and this is part of what he had to say:

Morehouse is the only institution that makes young black men realize that we are simultaneously special, and not unique. As freshmen, we realize that we are no longer special because we were the SGA president in high school, or the smartest black guy in the school, or the captain of the football team, or the only black golfer in your city – we are one of many. However, every student’s unique fight is exposed in the constant challenging and engagement of his ideology and fundamental beliefs. It is this process that makes Morehouse great.

The curriculum, professors, staff, and upperclassmen push the freshmen and sophomores to find their gifts while also exposing them to the history of their forefathers, and the present conditions of their peers – both good and bad. And then they ask them to make a difference. Every aspect of Morehouse forces this journey and demands this query. At no other institution can this process occur for black men.

Similarly, the entire HBCU experience forces a journey through the past and an analysis of the present. We learn that our forefathers overcame far worse things than we can even imagine today; thus we must build upon the foundation they have laid for us and achieve what they thought was impossible. WE do not have slavery to separate families, or Jim Crow laws to keep us from voting, or segregation to keep us from opportunities for education, or VISIBLE racism to prevent us from getting a job. Because of this [progress and sacrifice of our ancestors], we can marry the one we love and have a family, take care of the children we have, vote in every election, attend any school in the world, apply for any job and become the CEO of any company.

Morehouse, and the entire HBCU experience, teach us to leave our excuses at home and be an example to the world.

The words of this Morehouse graduate capture the sense of indebtedness to ancestors that is part of the HBCU education and highlight the refreshing, progressive perspective of most of the Morehouse Men I know.

When Keeping It Real Goes Wrong

In closing, I want to zoom in on a portion of Obama’s speech to the Morehouse College class of 2013:

Well, we’ve got no time for excuses. Not because the bitter legacy of slavery and segregation have vanished entirely; they have not. Not because racism and discrimination no longer exist; we know those are still out there. It’s just that 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 you did – all of them entering the global workforce alongside you, nobody is going to give you anything that you have not earned.


So, to the scholarly critics of Obama’s commencement address to the men of Morehouse, I have two words – get real.

The president’s message was right on point and right on time.

republished with permission from Moi Naturale

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