A sermon for black America

The President has called on African-Americans to take control of their lives. David Usborne went to Harlem to hear how his tough-love speech went down
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The Independent US

On the first dog-day of summer, the crowds on 125th Street keep to the shady north side and the luckiest find doorways chilled by air leaking from banks or hair salons. From banners hanging high on lamp posts, the face of Barack Obama looks down. He had been in town the night before, but far from here. Denizens of this 'hood rarely go to Midtown Manhattan where Mr Obama gave his speech on race relations on Thursday night, much less the ballroom of the Hilton. Central Park and deep economic and social divide lies in between.

Yet, they know it was to them that the President had in fact been speaking. And even if his message had been harsh – a sermon on blacks taking greater responsibility for their lives – they appreciated it, mostly. "I was just thinking about all this this morning," professes Divine, 49, his bright red T-shirt layered with cheap gold chains. "Racism is always going to be there, but man, you have to put your foot down and move forward and do what you have to do. We have to get over this racism thing."

Divine might almost have had a hand in writing some of the passages of the speech given by the President at a gala dinner celebrating the 100th anniversary of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, the oldest and most venerated civil rights group in the country. "We don't have to stagnate," Divine remarked before striding into the traffic in search of a day's work as a housepainter.

Not everyone was sure that changes in mindset that Mr Obama says black America needs – his refrain of the night was "No excuses! No excuses!" – can come quickly or are even entirely realistic. But nearly everyone in Harlem is thankful at least for the mere fact of Mr Obama being America's commander-in-chief.

"African-Americans have to get along with their lives and have to lift themselves up and do better to make their lives better," says Keyshia Brown, 23, rushing to a business studies class. "And I see a lot of kids doing that. And I think part of that is because Obama is president."

Never mind if at times Mr Obama came close to lecturing as he delivered his most important speech on race since coming to office. (He was twiddling with passages of the text until moments before delivering it, aides said.) Parents, for example, should be "putting away the Xbox and putting our kids to bed at a reasonable hour".

Nor did it seem to matter that in parts he might have insulted some of those dawdling with Divine on 125th Street. "When I drive through Harlem... and I see young men on the corners," he said, "I say, there but for the grace of God go I". But he went on: "They're no less gifted than me. They're no less talented than me. But I had some breaks".

Above all, he explained in a speech that at times was more personal than political, he had a (white) mother who did not allow him to lower his ambitions because of the colour of his skin or because of the obstacles he was likely to face. And no one should be in any doubt that those obstacles remain. "Make no mistake: The pain of discrimination is still felt in America," Mr Obama said, drawing successive standing ovations and chants of "Amen".

The speech was in part an exercise in political flattery; the NAACP is the closest thing to a representative body in America for the black population and was crucial to his election victory last November. Thus, Mr Obama vowed progress on all those areas of discrimination that remain, for blacks and others, particular in education.

"They're 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," he said. "But what's required to overcome today's barriers is the same as what was needed then. The same commitment. The same sense of urgency."

And Mr Obama took care to pay homage to those black figures of the civil rights struggle whose courage and sweat had cleared the path for him to finally make it all the way to the Oval Office. Those historical figures, he mentioned, included the writer W E B DuBois, the former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and, of course, the civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr.

But much of the presidential rhetoric in the Hilton Hotel ballroom on Thursday, lilting sometimes with the cadences of a preacher, was aimed at "all the other Barack Obamas out there". He declared: "No one has written your destiny. Your destiny is in your hands, and don't you forget that... No excuses! No excuses!"

Parents had to say to their 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 neighbourhood, you will face challenges that somebody in a wealthy suburb does not have to face. 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."

Looking at their kids, he went on, black parents, "might think they've got a pretty jump shot or a pretty good flow...But I want them aspiring to be scientist and engineers and doctors and teachers not just ballers and rappers. I want them aspiring to be a Supreme Court justice. I want them aspiring to be president of the United States."

Meriyen Merquez, 25, had just stopped by the Children's Zone, a Harlem charity group, to pick up leaflets about a march for children's justice this weekend. Her two children, Angelina, 4, and Breeana, 11 months, at her side, she stops to explain how she appreciates what Mr Obama is trying to say. "He's right. Kids even at four years old are playing video games all day, because the parents can't be bothered."

She knows changing attitudes will be difficult and a president cannot do it alone. "But it is a beginning and Obama is important because he is a reminder to them what they could be doing for their futures and that's true for Hispanics and other minorities here as well." Don Burton, 34, teaches accountancy at the Global Business Institute. He is a bit more sceptical that Mr Obama can make much difference. "It's a healing process and it's not going to happen overnight. When being on welfare has been in your family tree for years or when poverty has been your way of life for decades, it's hard to overcome that. It's going to take time and I haven't seen any change as of yet," he says.

"But the fact that they can see that an African-American can become president should affect the mindset of all of us."

Ethnic divide: The numbers say it all

*Average African-American household income: $33,916

Average national income: $50,233

*Poverty rate among African-Americans: 24.5 per cent

National poverty rate: 12.5 per cent

*Proportion of African-Americans without health insurance: 19.5 per cent

Proportion of national population without health insurance: 15.3 per cent

*The estimated HIV rate among African-American population: 96.2 cases per 100,000 people

The estimated national HIV rate: 25.6 cases per 100,000 people

*African-American chief executives of Fortune 500 companies: five

Other chief executives of Fortune 500 companies: 495

Sources: US Census Bureau/AVERT

Barack Obama: 'I want our kids to set their sights higher'

We need a new set of attitudes – because one of the most durable and destructive legacies of discrimination is the way that we have internalised a sense of limitation – how so many in our community have come to expect so little of ourselves.

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 neighbourhood, 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 give up on your education and drop out of school. No one has written your destiny for you. Your destiny is in your hands – and don't you forget that."

To parents – we can't tell our kids to do well in school and fail to support them when they get home. For our kids to excel, we must accept our own responsibilities. That means putting our kids to bed at a reasonable hour. It means reading to our kids, and helping them with their homework.

And it means we need to be there for our neighbour's son or daughter, and return to the day when we parents let each other know if we saw a child acting up. That's the meaning of community.

It also means pushing our kids to set their sights 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 the next LeBron or Lil Wayne. 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 President of the United States.

I was raised by a single mother. I got into my share of trouble as a kid. My life could easily have taken a turn for the worse. But that mother of mine gave me love; she pushed me, and cared about my education; she took no lip and 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 for Michelle. The same story holds for so many of you. And I want all the other Barack Obamas out there, and all the other Michelle Obamas out there to have that same chance – the chance that my mother gave me, that my education gave me, that the United States of America gave me. That is how our union will be perfected and our economy rebuilt. That is how America will move forward in the next 100 years.

This is from a speech Barack Obama delivered to the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People

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