Protect the Spark

So. The NAACP is celebrating its 100th anniversary (!), and President Obama gave a long and fiery speech to several thousand people at a formal party last night celebrating the anniversary. The first African-American president being on-hand to help honor the NAACP's first 100 years is blub-worthy enough on its own, but the speech itself is Obama at his best, pointed and inspiring:
[The barriers of our time are] very different from the barriers faced by earlier generations. They're very different from the ones faced when fire hoses and dogs were being turned on young marchers; when Charles Hamilton Houston and a group of young Howard lawyers were dismantling segregation. But what is required to overcome today's barriers is the same as was needed then. The same commitment. The same sense of urgency. The same sense of sacrifice. The same willingness to do our part for ourselves and one another that has always defined America at its best.

…I understand there may be a temptation among some to think that discrimination is no longer a problem in 2009. And I believe that overall, there's probably never been less discrimination in America than there is today. But make no mistake: the pain of discrimination is still felt in America. By African-American women paid less for doing the same work as colleagues of a different color and gender. By Latinos made to feel unwelcome in their own country. By Muslim Americans viewed with suspicion for simply kneeling down to pray. By our gay brothers and sisters, still taunted, still attacked, still denied their rights.

On the 45th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, discrimination must not stand. Not on account of color or gender; how you worship or who you love. Prejudice has no place in the United States of America.
I want to leave aside the very legitimate criticisms warranted by the cognitive dissonance between some of this rhetoric and some of Obama's policies (e.g. detainee program, refusal to prosecute for torture, extending half-assed federal benefits to same-sex partners), because that's not news to anyone here, so it's not the point of this post. The point is that our president gave a comprehensive address on the important history of the NAACP, the urgency of challenging bigotry of all kinds, the painful realities of a still-segregated nation, the blight of neglect, the government's integral role in creating equal opportunities, and a call to the African-American community to whom he was speaking, but also a call to us all, to protect the spark in the eyes of children, the spark that is killed by institutional inequality.

And the New York Times reported this speech with the headline: "Obama Tells Fellow Blacks: 'No Excuses' for Any Failure."

I really can't even begin to tell you how angry that framing makes me. Totally aside from the deliberately misleading and reductionist framing, to which I'll return in a moment, the headline essentially assures non-black readers (by which I mean white readers, in particular) "there's nothing to see here." Just the black president talkin' to black people—and Maude knows white folks got nothing to learn from that!

See, when it's a straight, cis, white male president talking to reg'lar Americans (straight, cis, white men) in their language, all the rest of us are meant to find ourselves in the cracks and crevices of their rhetoric, to extrapolate from their experiences—which are, after all, the experiences of which we're all meant to be desirous and for which we're all meant to strive—relevant and relatable information to our own.

But when it's the black president talking to black people, surely there's nothing anyone else could learn, nothing that needs paying attention to.

For how deeply, truly wrong that really is, I really recommend this thread at Ta-Nehisi's place, especially the comments, where he talks about how what Obama is saying is "said all the time in the community. I actually don't subscribe to the dirty laundry theory. But the notion that this wasn't being said before Obama, or even before Cosby, is deeply distressing. It betrays a deep ignorance of black people. Which is fine if your [sic] a civilian. Not so much if you get paid to write and report. … What you heard from Obama tonight, and Cosby before him, was basically what any right-raised black person heard in their home. Or in their church. Or out on the street. They didn't invent it. They got it from us. And they got it from us, because they are us."

This is an opportunity to experience and understand an important part of American culture. But because it's non-white American culture, it's dismissed out of hand as: "Obama Tells Fellow Blacks: 'No Excuses' for Any Failure."

And, Maude, the framing on that shit! Below, I will post the last 10 minutes of Obama's address, along with a transcript which is not the prepared transcript, but an actual transcript of what he said that I did, because it differs in important ways from the prepared remarks. Watch the video if you can, because, despite my best efforts, the transcript does not sufficiently capture the tone of his remarks.

It is from this section of the speech that the New York Times (and, to be clear, most of the rest of the media coverage of the event) took their go-to phrase: "No excuses"—a phrase that was not even in the prepared text. Look at everything surrounding it; see what was ignored in order to focus in on those two words. Note that it is being reported as though he were scolding members of the NAACP, rather than raising a battle cry. Note that in order to report it as a scold, the media has to ignore the cheers of the people to whom it was said, in order to infantilize them as people who need scolding so bad they cheer for it when they get it.

Note the remarkable coincidence that the mainstream media plucked out of its context the two words that most closely hew to the overarching narrative of white racists in this nation: "No excuses."

And once you're done noting the unmitigated fuckery of how this speech was misrepresented in the reporting, I encourage you to enjoy it, to really hear it, and maybe learn from it what our national media could not.

[We have to say to our children, Yes, if you're African American, the odds of growing up amid crime and gangs are higher. Yes, if you live in a poor neighborhood, you will face challenges that someone in a wealthy suburb does not. But that's not a reason to get bad grades, that's not a reason to cut class,] that's not a reason to give up on your education and drop out of school. No one has written your destiny for you. Your destiny is in your hands; you cannot forget that. That's what we have to teach all of our children. No excuses. [wild applause and cheers] No excuses. You get that education, all those hardships will just make you stronger! Better able to compete! [shouts of "Yes we can!" from audience] Yes we can. [laughs]

To parents, we can't tell our kids to do well in school and then fail to support them when they get home. You can't just contract out parenting. For our kids to excel, we have to accept our responsibility to help them learn. That means putting away the Xbox, putting our kids to bed at a reasonable hour. It means attending those parent-teacher conferences, and reading to our children, and helping them with their homework. [cheers and applause]

And, by the way, it means we need to be there for our neighbors' sons and daughters. We need to go back to the time, back, back to the day, when parents saw somebody, saw some kid foolin' 'round and, it wasn't your child, but, they'll whup ya anyway! [laughter and applause] Or at least they'll tell your parents [laughs], and the parents'll…you know. [laughs; audience laughs] That's the meaning of community. That's how we can reclaim the strength, and the determination, and the hopefulness that helped us come so far, helped us make a way out of no way.

It also means pushing our children to set their sights a little bit higher. They might think they've got a pretty good jump shot or a pretty good flow, but our kids can't all aspire to be LeBron or Lil Wayne. [laughter and applause] I want them aspiring to be scientists and engineers, doctors and teachers, not just ballers and rappers. I want them aspiring to be a Supreme Court Justice. I want them aspiring to be the President of the United States of America. [cheers and applause]

I want their horizons to be limitless! Don't tell them they can't do something. Don't feed our children with the sense of, that somehow, because of their race, that they cannot achieve.

Yes, government must be a force for opportunity. Yes, government must be a force for equality. But ultimately, if we are to be true to our past, then we also have to seize our own future, each and every day.

And that's what the NAACP is all about. The NAACP was not founded in search of a handout. The NAACP was not founded in search of favors. The NAACP was founded on a firm notion of justice; to cash the promissory note of America that says all of our children, all God's children, deserve a fair chance in the race of life. [applause]

It is a simple dream, and yet one that all too often has been denied and is still being denied to so many Americans. It's a painful thing, seeing that dream denied. I remember visiting a Chicago school in a rough neighborhood when I was a community organizer, and some of the children gathered 'round me, and I remember thinking how remarkable it was that all of these children seemed so full of hope, despite being born into poverty, despite being delivered, in some cases, into addiction, despite all the obstacles they were already facing, you could see that spark in their eyes. They were the equal of children anywhere.

And I remember the principal of the school telling me that soon that sparkle would begin to dim, that things would begin to change, that soon the laughter in their eyes would begin to fade, that soon something would shut off inside, as it sunk in—'cause kids are smarter than we give them credit for [murmurs of agreement from audience]—as it sunk in that their hopes would not come to pass—not because they weren't smart enough, not because they weren't talented enough, not because of anything about them inherently, but because, by accident of birth, they had not received a fair chance in life.

I know what can happen to a child who doesn't have that chance. But I also know what can happen to a child that does. I was raised by a single mom. I didn't come from a lot of wealth. I got into my share of trouble as a child. My life could easily have taken a turn for the worse. When I drive through Harlem or I drive through the South Side of Chicago, and I see young men on the corners, I say there but for the grace of God go I. [applause] They're no less gifted than me. They're no less talented than me. But I had some breaks.

That mother of mine, she gave me love; she pushed me; she cared about my education; she took no lip; she taught me right from wrong. Because of her, I had a chance to make the most of my abilities. I had the chance to make the most of my opportunities. I had the chance to make the most of life.

The same story holds true for Michelle. The same story holds true for so many of you. And I want all the other Barack Obamas out there, all the other Michelle Obamas out there, to have the same chance—the chance that my mother gave me, that my education gave me, that the United States of America has given me. [cheers and applause] That is how our union will be perfected and our economy rebuilt. That is how America will move forward in the next one hundred years.

And we will move forward. This I know—for I know how far we have come. Some of you saw, last week, in Ghana, Michelle and I took Malia and Sasha, and my mother-in-law, to Cape Coast Castle, in Ghana—some of you may have been there. This is where captives were once imprisoned before being auctioned, where, across an ocean, so much of the African-American experience began. We went down into the dungeons, where the captives were held. There was a church above one of the dungeons—which tells you something, about saying one thing and doing another. [cheers and applause] I was—we walked through the Door of No Return, and I was reminded of all the pain and all the hardships, all the injustices and all the indignities, on the voyage from slavery to freedom.

But I was reminded of something else. I was reminded that no matter how bitter the rod, how stony the road, we have persevered. We have not faltered, nor have we grown weary. As Americans, we have demanded, and strived for, and shaped a better destiny. And that is what we are called on to do once more. NAACP, it will not be easy. It will take time. Doubts may rise and hopes may recede.

But if John Lewis could brave Billy clubs to cross a bridge, then I know young people today can do their part to lift up our communities. If Emmet Till's uncle Mose Wright could summon the courage to testify against the men who killed his nephew, I know we can be better fathers and better brothers, and better mothers and sisters in our own families. If three civil rights workers in Mississippi—black and white, Christian and Jew, city-born and country-bred—could lay down their lives in freedom's cause, I know we can come together to face down the challenges of our own time. We can fix our schools; we can heal our sick; we can rescue our youth from violence and despair. [rising cheers and applause]

And one hundred years from now, on the 200th anniversary of the NAACP, let it be said that this generation did its part, that we too ran the race, that full of the faith that our dark past has taught us, full of the hope that the present has brought us, we faced, in our lives and all across this nation, the rising sun of a new day begun! [crescendoing cheers and applause]

Thank you. God bless you. God bless the United States of America.

[wild cheers and applase]

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