Today former President Barack Obama gave two virtual graduation speeches. Midday, he spoke to the graduates of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), and in the evening, he spoke to the high school graduates of 2020 in an event called Graduate Together.
Both speeches were a striking contrast to the language we have become accustomed to hearing from today’s White House. And while they were directed at this year’s graduates, they mapped out more generally a new direction for America than the one we have taken since 2017.
The former president noted that we are in a frightening moment, when we are coping with a deadly pandemic and a terrible recession. But he also heralded the enormous possibilities of a time when all the cards have been thrown up into the air, waiting to be gathered up into new patterns.
Obama noted that the pandemic had “fully, finally torn back the curtain on the idea that the folks in charge know what they’re doing. A lot of them aren’t even pretending to be in charge.” “Turns out that they don’t have all the answers. A lot of them aren’t even asking the right questions.”
He called for today’s youth to honor “honesty, hard work, responsibility, fairness, generosity, respect for others.”
He rejected the aggressive individualism that has defined America since the Reagan years. “[I]t doesn’t matter how much money you make if everyone around you is hungry and sick…. [O]ur society and democracy only works when we think not just about ourselves, but about each other.”
He placed America’s strength in community. “No one does big things by themselves. Right now, when people are scared, it’s easy to be cynical and say let me just look out for myself, or my family, or people who look or think or pray like me. But if we’re going to get through these difficult times; if we’re going to create a world where everybody has the opportunity to find a job, and afford college; if we’re going to save the environment and defeat future pandemics, then we’re going to have to do it together. So be alive to one another’s struggles. Stand up for one another’s rights. Leave behind all the old ways of thinking that divide us — sexism, racial prejudice, status, greed — and set the world on a different path.”
He urged young people to change the world. “If the world’s going to get better, it’s going to be up to you. With everything suddenly feeling like it’s up for grabs, this is your time to seize the initiative. Nobody can tell you anymore that you should be waiting your turn. Nobody can tell you anymore ‘this is how it’s always been done.'”
“More than ever,” the former president said, “this is your moment—your generation’s world to shape.”
[Photo: Children’s driftwood fort, 2018]