Through his first six months as president, Barack Obama has tended to shy away from the historical significance and potential influence of his role as the nation’s first black president.
But in addressing the NAACP on its 100th anniversary, he finally, fully embraced that title, portraying himself as a descendant of the civil rights leaders of generations past and a partner in black America’s future progress.
The president’s speech in New York Thursday night was part homage, part homecoming and part heart-to-heart. Even as he admonished the crowd, Obama was met with thunderous applause, and the president jokingly referred to one corner of the Hilton ballroom as his “amen corner.”
Obama’s appearance was the pinnacle of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s centennial convention. It was an emotional moment for many in the audience and one not lost on Obama, who normally waves off the historic nature of his election.
Not so Thursday. As he spoke, Obama’s tone had the familiar cadence he honed as a community organizer, more preacher than president. At times, he swelled with pride and told the crowd it was “good to be among friends,” and the evening no doubt left him renewed after months of challenges: the economy, war in the Middle East, climate change and health care reform.
Much of his speech was a call to action. Obama reminded blacks that “the pain of discrimination is still felt in America,” and continues to hold back minorities, women and gays in areas including employment, health care and the criminal justice system. For months, he refused to segregate the plight of blacks from those of the rest of the nation.
But he also noted that unless these problems are solved, the entire country will suffer.
“The state of our schools is not an African-American problem; it is an American problem,” Obama said.
Obama told the crowd he’s leading by example, using the presidency to address the inequalities created by decades of injustice in areas like energy and consumer reform, to improve the lives of Americans in general and blacks in particular.
He also warned that, as in the past, government alone is not a solution, and that blacks needed a “no excuses” mentality to continue moving forward. It was an approach that channeled Bill Cosby, who has been criticized for publicly chastising black parents and their children.
But whereas Cosby came off as bitter and from a bygone era, Obama had a more fresh-faced, diplomatic approach that included hope as well as harping. The majority of his message was devoted to education, the topic to which he dedicated most of his speech and passion.
He told children in crime- and gang-ridden neighborhoods not to give up on themselves, to aspire not to be the next LeBron James or Lil Wayne, but to be the next Supreme Court Justice or even president.
He talked to the crowd in their language, quoting the Negro National Anthem and battle cry of the NAACP, “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.”
Obama offered his own humble beginnings and those of his wife as proof black America can, should and must expect more of themselves. He warned a defeatist attitude is as dangerous as discrimination in defining their destinies.
As Obama left the stage, he left the ball firmly in the court of black America.
Haines has covered the black community since 2006.
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.