Gwen’s Take: The Chasm Close to Home

Posted: Thu, 05/23/2013 - 5:45pm

President Obama gave the commencement address at Morehouse College, an all-male historically black college [Photo: Morehouse College].

I watched the president’s address to the Morehouse class of 2013 this week with special interest. Part of the reason was personal: I had a great time delivering the commencement speech there two years ago. A sea of promising, educated young black men stretched before me as far as the eye could see.

I was certain these men would rule the world.

The other reason I was interested in watching the president was professional, if not clinical. What would the president have to say to a black audience?

In reporting for my 2009 book on Obama, politics and race, I’d noticed the president was usually careful to sidestep the issue. It seemed enough to ask America to elect its first black President without stirring the race pot more than necessary.

But people I respect who read an advance copy of this week’s speech, declared it profound and revelatory, so I made a point to turn the channel to watch the president speak in an Atlanta downpour.

The president spoke of the need for black men to be unafraid like Martin Luther King Jr., and talked about the hopeful future. But I discovered much of the subsequent commentary split along racial lines.

This is what caught my ear when the president spoke about individual responsibility: “As Morehouse men,” he said, “you now wield something even more powerful than the diploma you’re about to collect -- and that’s the power of your example.”

Yet what many white analysts took special note of was when the president talked about the potential for bad outcomes. He said, ”there but for the grace of God… I might have been in prison. I might have been unemployed. I might not have been able to support a family. And that motivates me.”

I do understand it is rare, if not unprecedented, for a U.S. president to suggest an alternate universe for himself that included prison. But, still.

On the flip side, some critics – many of them black – heard the president in the same speech say there is no time for excuses. They saw his comments as scolding.

As with almost every word that the president utters – about race or anything else -- the filters snapped into place almost instantly. Yet most of the speech was devoted to uplift. It was a commencement speech, after all.

Gwen Ifill gave the commencement address at Morehouse in 2011 [Photo: Morehouse College].

I was filled with immense pride the day I spent at Morehouse. Reveling in the promise of all that young black manhood, I wanted to hug everyone who crossed that stage for a degree. The president’s speech brought that back.

Only days later, I would feel despair, this time over a life’s opportunity lost.

Julian Dawkins, 22, a shy, soft-spoken colleague with velvet eyes and elaborate dreadlocks, worked at the PBS NewsHour as a driver -- shuttling people, tapes and mail back and forth between our two office buildings with a bright smile for everyone. He was allegedly shot and killed by an off-duty sheriff’s deputy steps from his aunt’s front door early Wednesday morning.

The circumstances of his death remain murky, which has proved especially difficult for inhabitants of a newsroom that routinely traffics in hows and whys.

But no matter the circumstance, a loss is a loss. For me, the contrast between the men in polished shoes, caps and gowns who heard from the first black president on Sunday, and the grieving family we tried to comfort when they came by to tell us why Julian wouldn’t be at work on Wednesday, was almost too much to bear.

So I went back to the president’s speech to see if I could find a passage that addressed that aching chasm between promise achieved and promise unfulfilled.

I may have found it in the portion where he appealed to the graduates to be role models.

“Those who’ve been left behind, who haven’t had the same opportunities we have -- they need to hear from you,” he said. “You’ve got to be engaged on the barbershops, on the basketball court, at church, spend time and energy and presence to give people opportunities and a chance.  Pull them up, expose them, support their dreams.  Don't put them down.”

There are a lot of men like Julian -- lives cut short. There a lot of men like those Morehouse graduates -– lives brimming with promise.

Perhaps there’s a bridge in there somewhere.

Julian Dawkins photo credit: Curtis Dawkins

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