First Lady Michelle Obama delivered what many view as a controversial commencement address to graduates earlier this month at historic Tuskegee University in Macon County.
Her speech wasn’t widely discussed for the standard bits of wisdom that are normally offered on such occasions, but because some heard in her words an unnecessary and unkind criticism of our national character that shouldn’t be coming from our First Family.
“The road ahead is not going to be easy. It never is, especially for folks like you and me. Because while we’ve come so far, the truth is that those age-old problems are stubborn and they haven’t fully gone away,” Mrs. Obama said.
She continued by telling graduates that the “little indignities” she has felt in her life were “nothing compared to what folks across the country are dealing with every single day — those nagging worries that you’re going to get stopped or pulled over for absolutely no reason; the fear that your job application will be overlooked because of the way your name sounds; the agony of sending your kids to schools that may no longer be separate, but are far from equal; the realization that no matter how far you rise in life, how hard you work to be a good person, a good parent, a good citizen — for some folks, it will never be enough.”
Many were disappointed in the message because it focused on the challenges awaiting Tuskegee’s graduates in America rather than the opportunities awaiting them because of America. It seemed to describe an awful place rather than the great country her husband leads.
In fairness, most of us weren’t Mrs. Obama’s audience. I’m sure many of those students heard a different speech than I read, and walked away with a different impression than I had. Words that struck me as discouraging salt in a wound may have provided comfort to someone who feels alone in their perspective of the world. Maybe her message, which I assume was one of solidarity in challenging times, was what many graduates needed to hear. I disagree, but again, I wasn’t the audience.
Whatever the purpose of the First Lady’s address at Tuskegee University, conservatives would do better to draw our nation’s attention to the school’s founder and one of the great conservative minds of 19th century America– Booker T. Washington.
While his landmark memoir “Up From Slavery” is often mentioned among books that conservatives ought to study, Washington’s contribution to American society — and the conservative movement — is enormously underappreciated. If the Federalist Papers are a guide to our founding document — our constitution — then his memoir is a guide to its founding sin and ultimate redemption — slavery, its abolition and the struggle to right the wrong.
The book tells his life story, from being born a slave to struggling to obtain an education as a newly freed American.
“I had no schooling whatsoever while I was a slave, though I remember on several occasions I went as far as the schoolhouse door with one of my young mistresses to carry her books,” Washington wrote. “The picture of several dozen boys and girls in a schoolroom engaged in study made a deep impression upon me, and I had the feeling that to get into a schoolhouse and study in this way would be about the same as getting into paradise.”
The memoir describes how he ultimately not only walked through a schoolhouse door, but how he built a schoolhouse himself.
Yet the book and his thoughts about how someone — of any color, in fact — can rise above the circumstances of birth go well beyond his personal story. His conservative-themed advice, rich in tradition and common sense, is a clear prescription for a good and worthy life, one of diligence, humility, good manners, gratefulness, and even holiness.
Whatever you think of the First Lady’s speech, commencement addresses are known for one thing — being easily forgotten. Yet Washington’s advice is timeless, and colorless, and reading his story should provide everyone with enough education, inspiration and motivation to last a lifetime.