Barack Obama is a gifted storyteller, and he’s always used his own life as a text, a parable, a lesson. Often he’s told tales from his own past to transcend race, to identify with mainstream America, to claim common ground about hardships suffered and obstacles overcome.
By now we can recite many of them by heart. His single mother resorting to food stamps; his grandmother losing a promotion; his grandfather serving with Gen. Patton. Who can forget the rusty car he used to drive, or the loan payments he struggled to meet?
Michelle Obama, too, relies heavily on stories to teach lessons, and speaking to graduates of Bowie State, an historically black school, she repeated a familiar narrative: “My dad was a pump operator at the city water plant, diagnosed with MS in his early thirties. And every morning I watched him struggle to get out of bed and inch his way to his walker, and painstakingly button his uniform, but never once did I hear him complain. Not once. He just kept getting up, day after day, year after year, to do whatever he could to give our family a better shot at life.”
Those stories from both Obamas convey the same simple message: We’re just like you. We share your values. We know what your lives are like. Day after day, year after year.
But when the president spoke recently at Morehouse College, another historically black school, he did something he seldom does.
Instead of avoiding race, he invoked it. Instead of addressing all Americans, he spoke directly to African-Americans — men in particular.
“There are some things, as black men, we can only do for ourselves,” he said, and the word “we” was critical. I’ve been there, brother, he was telling his audience. I feel your pain and your past. Now get over it.
“Nobody cares how tough your upbringing was,” the president said sternly. “Nobody cares if you suffered some discrimination.” Stop whining. Start winning.
To reinforce his point, the president again invoked his own history. “We know that too many young men in our community continue to make bad choices,” he confessed. “And I have to say, growing up I made quite a few myself. Sometimes I wrote off my own failings as just another example of the world trying to keep a black man down. I had a tendency sometimes to make excuses for me not doing the right thing. But one of the things that all of you have learned over the last four years is there’s no longer any room for excuses.”
The reaction in some quarters of the black community was disheartening. A Washington Post headline read, “Obama message sounds a bit stale,” and the story quoted Trevor Coleman, a former Democratic speechwriter: “The first couple of times it was OK, but I and a lot of other people are beginning to grow weary of it.”
Leola Johnson, a professor of media studies at Macalester College, said the president’s words were “actually not aimed at black people.” Instead they were designed to make “white people, liberals especially,” feel comfortable with a black president.
The criticisms are both inaccurate and unfair. Just because a story is familiar doesn’t make it “stale.” Why do we tell children Bible stories, fairy tales, Greek myths? Because they contain eternal truths. Because they cannot be repeated often enough.
Their critics actually prove the Obamas’ point. They were doing exactly what the president and his wife warned against — deflecting blame for the ills of the black community. Refusing to hear words aimed directly at them. Instead of taking responsibility, they were making excuses.
In her speech, Michelle focused on the value of staying in school: “When it comes to getting an education, too many of our young people cannot be bothered.” Please, she pleaded with the graduates, “stand up and reject the slander that says a black child with a book is trying to act white. Reject that.”
The president focused on the value of staying at home, of being a father. He spoke wistfully of his own parentage: “I sure wish I had had a father who was not only present, but involved. Didn’t know my dad.” And again he drew a lesson from personal experience: “I will tell you this: Everything else is unfulfilled if we fail at family, if we fail at that responsibility.”
These are not “stale” stories. They are always new and always true. There’s no excuse for not listening to them or living by them.