Former President Barack Obama delivered a virtual commencement address to graduating students from historically black colleges and universities (HBCU) echoing the country’s urgency for a new generation to take control.
Last Saturday, Obama acknowledged the uncertainty and the particular circumstances that college students have faced in the last stretch of their academic training, especially at universities dedicated to educating the African-American community.
“You’re being asked to find your way in a world in the middle of a devastating pandemic and a terrible recession,” the former president said. “The timing is not ideal. And let’s be honest — a disease like this just spotlights the underlying inequalities and extra burdens that black communities have historically had to deal with in this country.”
“We see it in the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on our communities, just as we see it when a black man goes for a jog, and some folks feel like they can stop and question and shoot him if he doesn’t submit to their questioning,” he added.
Obama took the opportunity not only to congratulate and recognize the students’ efforts, but to remind them of their role as a new generation, especially at a key time for the country.
“Injustice like this isn’t new,” he said. “What is new is that so much of your generation has woken up to the fact that the status quo needs fixing; that the old ways of doing things don’t work; and that it doesn’t matter how much money you make if everyone around you is hungry and sick; that our society and democracy only works when we think not just about ourselves, but about each other.”
Talking about how imperative it is for every new voter to go to the polls this year, Obama did not hesitate to call a spade a spade:
“More than anything, this pandemic has fully, finally torn back the curtain on the idea that so many of the folks in charge know what they’re doing. A lot of them aren’t even pretending to be in charge.”
“If the world’s going to get better, it’s going to be up to you. With everything suddenly feeling like it’s up for grabs, this is your time to seize the initiative,” he insisted.
“In taking on this responsibility, I hope you are bold. I hope you have a vision that isn’t clouded by cynicism or fear. As young African Americans, you’ve been exposed, earlier than some, to the world as it is. But as young H.B.C.U. grads, your education has also shown you the world as it ought to be.”
As the alma mater of such pivotal figures in history as Martin Luther King Jr., Oprah Winfrey, Althea Gibson, Spike Lee, Kamala Harris, and Anika Noni Rose, HBCUs set the tone for the inclusion of communities of color even before the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Despite their roots in the country’s period of segregation, today they have 101 institutions, both private and public, and preserve the academic quality that once attracted minds like Albert Einstein to change the direction the world was going.
At a time when the world is once again experiencing a global crisis, and at a time when the government and federal agencies insist on consolidating white privilege as the dominant one, the former president’s words, rather than recommendations, are a call for help to a new generation.
“On the big unfinished goals in this country, like economic and environmental justice and health care for everybody, broad majorities agree on the ends,” Obama concluded. “That’s why folks with power will keep trying to divide you over the means. That’s how nothing changes. You get a system that looks out for the rich and powerful and nobody else. So expand your moral imaginations, build bridges, and grow your allies in the process of bringing about a better world.”