I am long familiar with the messages delivered in recent days to black college graduates by the First Family. When done right, they sear you forever and seal you with purpose. Two of my most memorable wake-up calls to my worldly obligations came from my late uncle, Tommie Smith, a dean at historically black Jackson State College in Mississippi.
Fresh out of college in the mid 1970s, I was cutting his lawn. He came home from work and asked how I was doing. I muttered something that many of my contemporaries mindlessly said at the time.
“I’m survivin’,” I said.
With the only anger I ever saw him flash, he said, “Turn the lawn mower off!” He proceeded to lecture me that “survivin’ ” was for old folks and the slaves who preceded us. “At Jackson State, we tell our men they’re not here to survive. They’re here to thrive!”
Nor did Uncle Tommie suffer the sleepy gladly. He also was fond of saying, “If you get up in the morning and feel tired, roll right back and stay in bed because we don’t need you out here.”
The admonishments delivered in recent days to black students by President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama were no different. In Atlanta, the president told graduates of Morehouse College they cannot make excuses for failure. Explaining that they face a “hyperconnected, hypercompetitive world” with competition coming from Asia and Brazil, Obama said, “Nobody cares how tough your upbringing was. Nobody cares if you suffered some discrimination. And moreover, you have to remember that whatever you’ve gone through, it pales in comparison to the hardships previous generations endured.”
In Maryland at the Bowie State commencement, Michelle Obama reminded students of the “hunger” of past black generations who saw education as “nothing less than freedom.” She said too many young black children now are watching TV and dreaming of being a basketball player or rapper rather than being a teacher, lawyer, or business leader. She told students to dig deep for the “same kind of grit and determination” of the past.
Telling black folks in a piercing way to dig deeper is not harmful in the abstract. But fairness demands a comparable directive from other commencement speakers to white graduating classes. The issues that stick out the most are fatherhood and hard work. Obama spent considerable time at Morehouse telling black men to be family men and role models because “everything else is unfulfilled if we fail at family.”
I’ve been to many commencements, and I cannot recall one where men in predominantly white audiences were called out to be great fathers. It’s not that there isn’t a need for such advice: According to a Pew Research Center survey last March, American fathers spend only an hour a day with their children, despite some recent increases. Mothers spend an average of two hours a day.
Surely there is a need for some kind of parallel message, as half of white marriages end in divorce, and poverty is hardly the sole domain of African-Americans. The highest rise in use of food stamps in the recession was in Idaho.
Surely there is a need for a more universal message that can be issued at commencements as American college graduates enter a work world with one of the worst work-life balances in the developed world. A 2010 Reuters poll showed that only 57 percent of US workers utilized all their vacation, and three times as many men as women said they worked very long hours, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. The United States, according to the OECD, is the only member nation with no paid family leave policy.
It was fine for the First Family to play uncle and aunt at black colleges to remind graduates to push hard for success without leaving their families behind. It’s a good message, and an important sense of obligation to impart to young graduates. But that obligation is for all Americans.Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.