Obama Tells Black Graduates to Soar

Michelle Obama at Tuskegee commencement

Michelle Obama at Tuskegee commencement

’Tis the season of commencement addresses and Michelle Obama gave a speech last week at Tuskegee University that reminded me of the talks I heard regularly at Morehouse College as a first-year professor (1980-81). It also reminded me of Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, one of the favorite novels of Michelle’s husband. Like Morrison, the First Lady talked a lot about flight.

In words that outraged the usual suspects on the right, Obama first acknowledged the reality faced by African Americans in this country:

The world won’t always see you in those caps and gowns.  They won’t know how hard you worked and how much you sacrificed to make it to this day — the countless hours you spent studying to get this diploma, the multiple jobs you worked to pay for school, the times you had to drive home and take care of your grandma, the evenings you gave up to volunteer at a food bank or organize a campus fundraiser.  They don’t know that part of you.

Rather than be discouraged, however, Obama told Tuskegee graduates to rise to the challenge. She illustrated her point by alluding to the fabled Tuskegee airmen, the first African American military pilots. After mentioning the discrimination they faced, she described what they accomplished:

Now, those Airmen could easily have let that experience clip their wings.  But as you all know, instead of being defined by the discrimination and the doubts of those around them, they became one of the most successful pursuit squadrons in our military. They went on to show the world that if black folks and white folks could fight together, and fly together, then surely — surely — they could eat at a lunch counter together.  Surely their kids could go to school together.

You see, those Airmen always understood that they had a “double duty” — one to their country and another to all the black folks who were counting on them to pave the way forward. So for those Airmen, the act of flying itself was a symbol of liberation for themselves and for all African Americans. 

One of those first pilots, a man named Charles DeBow, put it this way.  He said that a takeoff was — in his words — “a never-failing miracle” where all “the bumps would smooth off… [you’re] in the air… out of this world… free.” 

And when he was up in the sky, Charles sometimes looked down to see black folks out in the cotton fields not far from here — the same fields where decades before, their ancestors as slaves. And he knew that he was taking to the skies for them — to give them and their children something more to hope for, something to aspire to.

Flight is Song of Solomon’s central metaphor as well. The protagonist Milkman feels stuck in his middle class life, where he collects rent checks for his avaricious father. The book begins with the image of a failed flight, with Milkman born on the day that a Mr. Smith leaps from a tower in an attempt to fly. We are told that

Mr. Smith’s blue silk wings must have left their mark, because when the little boy discovered, at four, the same thing Mr. Smith had learned earlier—that only birds and airplanes could fly—he lost all interest in himself. To have to live without that single gift saddened him and left his imagination so bereft that he appeared dull…

Milkman begins to step into his potential, however, when he undertakes a roots quest and learns that he had a slave ancestor who, according to local legend, was one of the mythical flying slaves who flew back to Africa and to freedom.

The discovery of his history is as liberating to Milkman as I hope college has been to the Tuskegee graduates. At the very end of the novel, in what may be a moment of magical realism, Milkman launches into the air.

Before I note what happens, however, I return to Obama’s speech. She instructed the graduates not to give up and become angry:

I want to be very clear that those feelings are not an excuse to just throw up our hands and give up. Not an excuse. They are not an excuse to lose hope. To succumb to feelings of despair and anger only means that in the end, we lose.

At the end of Song of Solomon, Milkman is pitted against Guitar, his former friend, who has succumbed to race anger and is killing innocent whites in reprisal for the murder of innocent blacks. In a shift that is characteristic of terrorists, however, Guitar does not stop there but begins going after members of his own race. Thematically the book is asking whether African Americans will soar above race hatred or be pulled down by it.

Here’s the book’s final scene, located on two adjacent mountain ledges. Guitar has just shot Milkman’s aunt Pilate and is about to shoot him. Note that we aren’t told what the future will be, just as Tuskegee’s graduates don’t know what’s ahead for them. “Shalimar” is Milkman’s flying slave ancestor:

Even as [Milkman] knelt over her, he knew there wouldn’t be another mistake; that the minute he stood up Guitar would try to blow his head off. He stood up.

“Guitar!” he shouted.

Tar tar tar, said the hills.

“Over here, brother man! Can you see me?” Milkman cupped his mouth with one hand and waved the other over his head. “Here I am!”

Am am am am, said the rocks.

“You want me? Huh? You want my life?”

Life life life life.

Squatting on the edge of the other flat-headed rock with only the night to cover him, Guitar smiled over the barrel of his rifle. “My man,” he murmured to himself. “My main man.” He put the rifle on the ground and stood up.

Milkman stopped waving and narrowed his eyes. He could just make out Guitar’s head and shoulders in the dark. “You want my life?” Milkman was not shouting now. “You need it? Here.” Without wiping away the tears, taking a deep breath, or even bending his knees—he leaped. As fleet and bright as a lodestar he wheeled toward Guitar and it did not matter which one of them would give up his ghost in the killing arms of his brother. For now he knew what Shalimar knew: If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it.

Or as Obama put it to the Tuskegee graduates, if they hold on to their hopes and refuse “to succumb to feelings of despair and anger,” they will fly “through the air, out of this world — free.”

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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