First lady Michelle Obama’s recent commencement speech at Tuskegee University bothered some people because she dared to talk about the realities of being black in America. How dare she?
She was playing “the race card,” whatever that is, some said. That’s the new far-right talking point when race is mentioned and they can’t or are unwilling to have an intelligent conversation on the subject.
Some folks were harrumphed because the first lady spoke at a legendary historically black university, which many of them never heard of, about the slights she has experienced in her life associated with being black. That kind of talk is so unsettling that it forces some people to grab tummy pills and gather on social media with like-minded folk who believe black people should not express their pain.
I know, because every time I mention race in this column, there is a loyal minority I can count on who get lathered up to go to the comments box. They must have “You are a racist” on auto-type on their computers.
It’s both laughable and sad, because Americans should be able to discuss race in an open and civil manner. Instead, it seems, they would prefer that African-Americans stop the talk about race and talk about sports and music. Well, if your leg is causing you problems, it’s useless to complain to the doctor that you’re left-handed.
In her commencement speech, she said, “You will follow alums like many of your parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, leaders like Robert Robinson Taylor (the first accredited African-American architect). … You will follow heroes like Dr. (Amelia) Boynton Robinson, who survived the billy clubs and teargas on Bloody Sunday in Selma.”
How dare she mention that last statement? That’s the mark of a racist, no doubt.
What would she have been called if she had mentioned the Tuskegee syphilis experiments, the infamous and secret clinical study conducted between 1932 and 1972 by the U.S. Public Health Service to analyze the progression of untreated syphilis in hundreds of rural African-American men?
In her speech, Obama warned students that even if they followed society’s handbook to success, some will question them merely because of the amount of melanin in their skin. FLOTUS was making sure they don’t forget.
Obama also suggested that racism is alive, bringing up instances in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore. She even talked about times when black men and women have been identified as “the help” no matter how well-dressed and how many college degrees they have.
By the way, Obama’s speech was far less bothersome than just a few words uttered by the late movie legend and hero of the right Charlton Heston. In a speech at a National Rifle Association convention, Heston stood on the stage with a rifle in one hand and said if government officials tried to take away his gun, they would have to pry it from his “cold, dead hands.” The NRA members, who use a similar slogan, whooped it up. Conservative talk show hosts and the far right still get chills when that clip is replayed.
Those few words were far scarier and more divisive than anything Obama said. Was Moses, I mean Heston, saying he would shoot innocent government agents who would be doing their jobs or that he would kill himself? Or did he mean he would die in a hail of bullets from police as they returned fire from his old musket?
FLOTUS told the students, “If you rise above the noise and the pressures that surround you, if you stay true to who you are and where you come from, if you have faith in God’s plan for you, then you will continue fulfilling your duty to the people all across this country.”
Please readers, FLOTUS must be preparing an apology for such crude and divisive remarks. Or she might be saying, until you’ve lived a black life, deal with it.
Edward Pratt, a former Advocate editor, is assistant to the chancellor for media relations at Southern University. His email address is email@example.com.