There I was on Saturday, May 7, along with thousands of others, sitting in “The Yard” on the Washington, D.C., campus of Howard University. We’d come because most of us had loved ones who were among the 2,300 graduates. The day was the culmination of a weekend of activities for the graduates from the many schools at Howard University.
And if that wasn’t enough to pop the buttons off our shirts, the icing on the cake was the appearance of President Barack Obama, the 44th president of the United States, as the commencement speaker.
At times, it was hard to contain myself, like when we stood for the National Anthem — The Star Spangled Banner — followed by The Negro National Anthem — Lift Every Voice and Sing. I was bursting with pride: Proud to be an American, proud to be an African American, and proud to be a witness for this occasion.
My friend Betty Spence, her pastor, Bishop James Adams of the historic St. John Baptist Church in Overtown, and I stood together as the songs were played. Betty and I had sung in the Booker T. Washington High School chorus as teenagers. And here we were nearly 60 years later, belting out the songs like we were still teens. The moment filled my heart with joy.
I had the same feeling of pride the day before, when my godson Cecil Andrew Duffie received a Masters of Divinity degree with honors from Howard’s School of Divinity. Like his parents, Troy and Cecily, and Spence and her son Darryl, he is a member of St. John, where he serves as the assistant to Bishop Adams. Cecil’s younger brother, Troy Adam, a junior at Howard, and his sisters Cecily Anastacia, Caitlin and Trinity, were also there to cheer on their big brother.
Some of the others in the party: godparents Grace and Homer Humphrey; adopted brother Andre Uptgrow of Tulsa; Shaunta Ellis of Metter, Georgia; Tara Paramore of Miami; Uncle Hali Robinson and wife Caroline of Columbus, Ohio; and cousins Venice Mitchell of Miami and Inez Mitchell Myers of Kissimmee .
On the day Obama spoke, we cheered with the audience for those who received their honorary doctorates — actress Cicely Tyson was one of the recipients — and then we readied ourselves to hear what the president had to say to the graduates.
“Four years ago, when you were just freshmen,” he said, “I understand many of you came by my house the night I was reelected. So I decided to return the favor and come by yours,” he said as he began his 42-minute speech.
The president reminded the grads that they are a part of a long line of Howard graduates, whose “spirit of achievement and special responsibility has defined the campus ever since the Freedman’s Bureau established Howard just four years after the Emancipation Proclamation; just two years after the Civil War came to an end.”
Obama told them they had big shoes to fill, reminding them that the university has been a “centerpiece of African-American intellectual life and a central part of our larger American story. This institution has been the home of many firsts: the first black Nobel Peace Prize winner; the first black Supreme Court justice. But its mission has been to ensure those firsts were not the last.”
: He spoke on the changes he has seen in America during his lifetime. But even with all its problems, America is a better place today then it was when he graduated from college in 1983. Since then, he said, the poverty rate is down; and the rate is up for Americans with college degrees, more women are in the workplace and they are earning more money; the dropout rate of African Americans has been slashed by almost 60 percent.
Obama said that when he graduated in 1983, he was a part of fewer than 10 percent of African Americans who finished college with bachelor’s degrees. “Today, you’re part of the more than 20 percent who will.”
In closing, Obama gave three challenges to the graduates:
▪ “Be confident in your heritage. Be confident in your blackness ... One of the great changes that’s occurred in our country since I was your age is the realization there’s no one way to be black. Take it from somebody who’s seen both sides of the debate about whether I’m black enough.” He told them to have the same confidence that late superstar Prince had. “He blew up categories. People didn’t know what Prince was doing and folks loved him for it. As my daughters tell me all the time, ‘You be you, Daddy’... Feel confident.”
▪ “Embrace our own beautiful, unique and valid versions of our blackness. ... Remember the tie that does bind us as African Americans ... is our particular awareness of injustice and unfairness and struggle. That means we cannot sleepwalk through life. We cannot be ignorant of history ... we can’t walk by a homeless man without asking why a society as wealthy as ours allows that state of affairs to occur. We can’t just lock up a low-level dealer without asking why this boy, barely out of childhood felt he had no other options.
“We have cousins and uncles and brothers and sisters who we remember were just as smart and just as talented as we were, but somehow got ground down by structures that are unfair and unjust ... You’ve worked hard, but you’ve also been lucky.” He advised them not to get an “attitude” because God may have blessed them. “It wasn’t nothing you did.”
▪ “Have more than just a passion for change; you need a strategy. ... Not just awareness, but action. Not just hashtags, but votes. ... Change requires more than righteous anger. It requires a program, and it requires organizing.”
Obama told the graduates, “Now it’s your turn. And the good news is, you’re ready. And when your journey seems too hard, when ... cynics tell you that you’re being foolish to keep believing or that you can’t do something, or that you should just give up or... just settle, you might say to yourself a little phrase that I’ve found handy these last eight years: Yes, we can.”
And with a wave and a swift “Good luck! God bless you and God bless the United States of America. ... I’m proud of you,” he was out of there.
And I, a 78-year-old black American woman, sat for a few moments basking in the history-making hour I’d just spent in the presence of the first African-American president of the United States. I can only sum it up in the words of an old gospel song, “What a time ... what a time” it was.
‘DYNAMIC PRAISE EXPERIENCE AND AFTER PARTY’
First Church of North Miami, United Church of Christ kicked off their first Friday evening “Dynamic Praise Experience and After Party” on April 8, and featured hip hop recording artist Canon.
According to the Rev. Harvey Larkhart, the idea was to give “young people a safe, wholesome alternative to Friday night entertainment.”
Larkhart said the next free Dynamic Praise Experience and After Party will be at 7 p.m. Friday, May 13, at the church. The event will feature contemporary Christian singer J. Allen Pealer and Christian hip hop artist Jbez, and the church’s in-house band. The after party will feature DJ Klasik, who will spin Christian hip hop.
It’s free and open to the public. The church is at 1200 NE 135th St. in North Miami. For more information call 305-354-2236.
‘BOLDLY LIVING A LIFE OF GREATNESS’
The Universal Truth Center at 21310 NW 37th Ave. in Miami Gardens invites all who would like to join to attend new member orientation at 10 a.m. Saturday, May 14. Spiritual baptism and babies and children’s christening will follow during worship service at 10 a.m. on May 15.
The May Lesson Series theme: “Boldly Living a Life of Greatness,” with the sermon topic “You Must Prepare for Greatness,’ to be preached by the Rev. Charles Taylor, senior pastor of the church. All are welcome.
TIBETAN BUDDHIST MEDITATION
If you have ever wanted to know more about Tibetan nuns, you should attend an informal gathering at 4 p.m. Sunday, May 15, at the Kagyu Shedrup Choling Tibetan Buddhist meditation and teaching center at 60 NW 86th St. in El Portal.
The event will include Tibetan music, a short film and presentation about the Tibetan Nuns Project, and light refreshments, including traditional Tibetan “momos”, vegetarian steamed dumplings.
The event is free and open to the pubic, but donations will be appreciated and will benefit the Tibetan Nuns Project.
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