The New York Times this week offers a retrospective on First Lady Michelle Obama’s college commencement speeches, and her openness on race, gender roles and intersections of culture and accountability in these keynote addresses.
Of specific emphasis is her appearances at historically black colleges and universities, which, if you know how the White House press machine works, had to be a specific footnote in their pitch to major media outlets like the Times to underscore the last mile of the Obama Administration and its efforts to repair its relationship with Black America. An excerpt:
On April 23, Mrs. Obama will speak at Jackson State University, a historically black university holding its 139th spring commencement ceremony. University officials are expecting about 30,000 people to attend, the kind of crowd that even her husband now rarely addresses.
“The community has been blowing up my email” looking for tickets, said Dr. Elayne H. Anthony, dean of the School of Journalism and Media Studies at Jackson State. “We are ecstatic.”
For most of her time in the White House, Mrs. Obama has made a point of addressing at least one historically black college or university each year. She spoke at Tuskegee University in Tuskegee, Ala., in 2015; Dillard University in New Orleans in 2014; Bowie State University in Bowie, Md., in 2013; North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in Greensboro in 2012; Spelman College in Atlanta in 2011; and the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff in 2o10.
In her speeches, she has become more personal and often uses words like “we” and “us” when describing the challenges that only African-Americans face. Last year at Tuskegee, Mrs. Obama told the audience that she was subjected to a barrage of questions as the nation’s first African-American first lady.
“Was I too loud, or too angry, or too emasculating?” she asked to applause. “Or was I too soft, too much of a mom, not enough of a career woman?”
Each appearance from the First Lady says something about the audience she wants to reach, the topic she wants to broach, and more importantly, the politics which the White House wants to convey. Through HBCUs, Mrs. Obama filled in a political void created by her husband; deftly speaking to real social issues from an exclusively black context while the president often used his platform to chide black shortcomings in economics, education, and social promotion.
When HBCU advocates tested President Obama on destructive financial aid policies and a seemingly dismissive view on HBCUs, Obama responded in person with Ivy League-bred rhetoric on graduation rates and loan defaults, and responded in policy by rolling out a proposal to make community college free for all Americans.
Mrs. Obama never directly fell into publicly stoking HBCU or black sensibilities. Instead, she played an important role in helping the administration to maintain some streams of black goodwill from 2008 through her appearances at HBCUs, along with other pop cultural placements like giving bars on the need for students to go to college.
But when you talk to some HBCU presidents, they will tell you that coldness towards HBCUs, in some form, wasn’t exclusive to President Obama.
When Mrs. Obama appeared at the 2012 CIAA Tournament, several conference presidents were granted an audience with the First Lady, who was in town to stump hard for reelection and the importance of getting out the vote in HBCU communities. Some presidents and chancellors directly inquired about President Obama’s commitment for helping to sustain HBCUs, especially while all campuses were in the throes of a dramatic change in federal student loan lending policy that forced more than 28,000 HBCU students nationwide out of school.
According to presidents in attendance, Obama was gently dismissive of the inquiry; saying that presidents should be more concerned with the direction of the election and the country instead of an exclusive appeal for their colleges. This meeting was private, out of the view of public review and commentary, and exclusive to leaders who knew first hand what policy looks like under the guide of an indifferent Commander-in-Chief.
To them, her lack of interest created more ‘business as usual with President Obama’ reaction than a state of shock. But this meeting, this brief engagement to tell our presidents to chill out on HBCU advocacy, was one more meeting with our leaders than her husband ever took with HBCU stakeholders.
It was one shining moment for the First Lady to underscore what appears to be a family philosophy; black colleges aren’t what drive the nation, they only drive black folks to register and cast votes. It didn’t go well, it doesn’t seem that it helped to change any policy to favor black colleges, and it didn’t change her trajectory away from aligning her brand with HBCUs of all sizes and mission, unlike President Obama, who strategically chose only to speak at elite, private institutions and only after his two elections.
Comparing the President and the First Lady, two personalities with the same philosophies on black colleges, you could easily say that no one from the White House really showed any concern beyond the symbolism of these campuses with an important portion of the electorate. But at least Michelle Obama was willing to play the part of politician with HBCUs, while her husband worked hard to distance himself from our communities.
She with the kid gloves and he with the iron fist — that is the Obama legacy on black colleges. And maybe the White House planned for it to be that way all along, knowing that we, HBCU students and alumni, would love them anyway.