First Lady Michelle Obama spoke to Tuskegee University’s 2015 graduating class on Saturday, May 9, in Tuskegee, Alabama. She exhorted the graduates to be authentically themselves in spite of doubters, to work hard, and to vote. She also acknowledged difficulties unique to African Americans and offered a way to overcome them.
Mrs. Obama urged the graduates to define themselves and to pursue their own passions, not those of others. She also spoke of the school’s humble beginnings and dauntless, resourceful leaders such as Booker T. Washington, who, having no money to build a needed dormitory, pawned his pocket watch so he could buy a kiln so students could make bricks with which they could build a dormitory.
The Tuskegee Airmen, the vaunted pilots many of whom Mrs. Obama says were already highly educated and licensed as pilots before being chosen by the Army, were a kind of theme throughout the speech. She quoted one of the Airmen, Charles DeBow, who described a takeoff as “a never-failing miracle” where “all the bumps would smooth off”—a nice metaphor for new graduates who are themselves about to launch.
In spite of the Airmen’s success as a squadron and their evident intelligence and accomplishments, they were considered inferior treated that way. Yet, they didn’t allow themselves to be defined by their detractors, and Mrs. Obama urged the students to follow their example of grit and resilience,
She also spoke personally of her own doubts during her husband’s first campaign and even after he became President. What did people expect of her? What would she be like as first lady? As the first African American first lady she felt a unique pressure. But she eventually found the answer: “I realized that if I wanted to keep my sanity and not let others define me, there was only one thing I could do, and that was to have faith in God’s plan for me. I had to ignore all of the noise and be true to myself.”
She defined herself, unapologetically, as “first and foremost, a mom,” to applause. Noting that “while that may not be the first thing that some folks want to hear from an Ivy league-educated lawyer, it is truly who I am,” she urged the graduates to be their truest selves as well.
Ms. Obama didn’t shy away from noting that the Black community still endures slights and indignities that could cause some to despair, but she said succumbing to anger or hopelessness would only cause us to lose. She exhorted students to, instead, channel their “frustrations into studying, organizing, and banding together” to effect change, and emphasized voting—at every level, in every election—as an effective means of controlling one’s destiny.
Challenging the graduates to work toward finding solutions to stubborn problems—like poverty, education, and lack of opportunity, she offered specific, do-able actions such as helping a relative in high school with filling out financial aid forms; or volunteering at an after-school program.
Telling the graduates they had everything they needed right now to succeed, the first lady closed with Charles DeBow’s words. She described the “never failing miracle” of progress—the personal progress and freedom borne of hard work, resilience, giving back to others, and of being yourself.