Friday, July 17, 2009


Black-To-Black Responsibility

Giving credit where it's due: President Obama's address to the NAACP last night was the perfect book-end to last weekend's speech in Ghana.

Each was an exhortatory addresses that recognized the past wrongs, respectively, of colonialism (in Africa) and racism/discrimination (in America). But ultimately, the president declared that the power of improvement ultimately exists within Africa's -- and African-Americans -- own hands.

It goes without saying (but, of course, I have to say it anyway), but a white president couldn't have made thoe speeches -- or at least not in exactly the same words. Fairly or not, they would have been seen and likely received as patronizing and demeaning. Not so, coming from Obama (who also graciously noted the major commitment made by President Bush to fight HIV/AIDS in Africa):

It is easy to point fingers, and to pin the blame for these problems on others. Yes, a colonial map that made little sense bred conflict, and the West has often approached Africa as a patron, rather than a partner. But the West is not responsible for the destruction of the Zimbabwean economy over the last decade, or wars in which children are enlisted as combatants. In my father's life, it was partly tribalism and patronage in an independent Kenya that for a long stretch derailed his career, and we know that this kind of corruption is a daily fact of life for far too many.

Of course, we also know that is not the whole story. Here in Ghana, you show us a face of Africa that is too often overlooked by a world that sees only tragedy or the need for charity. The people of Ghana have worked hard to put democracy on a firmer footing, with peaceful transfers of power even in the wake of closely contested elections. And with improved governance and an emerging civil society, Ghana's economy has shown impressive rates of growth.

This progress may lack the drama of the 20th century's liberation struggles, but make no mistake: it will ultimately be more significant. For just as it is important to emerge from the control of another nation, it is even more important to build one's own.

Similarly, while seasoned with a fair bit of presidential-agenda boilerplate (hey, the man is a politician), much of the address to the NAACP wasn't that different from what Bill Cosby has been saying in recent years. But coming from the very important bully pulpit afforded the president of the United States, the words carried an unparalleled weight and impact:
We've got to say to our children, yes, if you're African American, the odds of growing up amid crime and gangs are higher. Yes, if you live in a poor neighborhood, you will face challenges that somebody in a wealthy suburb does not have to face. But that's not a reason to get bad grades -- (applause) -- that's not a reason to cut class -- (applause) -- that's not a reason to give up on your education and drop out of school. (Applause.) No one has written your destiny for you. Your destiny is in your hands -- you cannot forget that. That's what we have to teach all of our children. No excuses. (Applause.) No excuses.

You get that education, all those hardships will just make you stronger, better able to compete. Yes we can. (Applause.)

To parents -- to parents, we can't tell our kids to do well in school and then fail to support them when they get home. (Applause.) You can't just contract out parenting. For our kids to excel, we have to accept our responsibility to help them learn. That means putting away the Xbox -- (applause) -- putting our kids to bed at a reasonable hour. (Applause.) It means attending those parent-teacher conferences and reading to our children and helping them with their homework. (Applause.)

And by the way, it means we need to be there for our neighbor's sons and daughters. (Applause.) We need to go back to the time, back to the day when we parents saw somebody, saw some kid fooling around and -- it wasn't your child, but they'll whup you anyway. (Laughter and applause.) Or at least they'll tell your parents -- the parents will. You know. (Laughter.) That's the meaning of community. That's how we can reclaim the strength and the determination and the hopefulness that helped us come so far; helped us make a way out of no way.
This isn't the first time Obama has employed the rhetorical "tough love" with respect to issues within the black community. Indeed, his 2008 Fathers Day speech -- the one that got Jesse Jackson in emasculation mode -- was one of the most intellectually honest of last years' campaign. It was the one that made Obama appealing to a conservative like myself. While major parts of the president's legislative agenda are profoudly troubling, I'm glad he's not shying away from using his unique position as an historic figure to make truthful statements to the all sides of the black diaspora.

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