Friday, May 20, 2016

Famous Speech Friday: Michelle Obama at Tuskegee University

"Was I too loud, or too angry, or too emasculating?"

You might find it difficult to imagine yourself saying those words in front of a crowd of thousands. But that's just what U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama did in her commencement address this year at Tuskegee University, in a speech that considered how we view and treat race in our society from an historic and more contemporary perspective. And in doing so, she took back some of the power of being a woman speaker, by naming the criticisms that aimed to silence her.

First, she spent considerable time talking about the Tuskegee Airmen, America's first black military airmen. These African-American fighter pilots and bomber pilots fought in World War II in the 332nd Fighter Group and the 477th Bombardment Group of the United States Army Air Forces. Despite their service, they faced discrimination and segregation on the ground. Here's how Mrs. Obama made this historic group come alive for the graduates. From the transcript: 

Just think about what that must have been like for those young men.  Here they were, trained to operate some of the most complicated, high-tech machines of their day -- flying at hundreds of miles an hour, with the tips of their wings just six inches apart.  Yet when they hit the ground, folks treated them like they were nobody -- as if their very existence meant nothing. 
Now, those Airmen could easily have let that experience clip their wings.  But as you all know, instead of being defined by the discrimination and the doubts of those around them, they became one of the most successful pursuit squadrons in our military.  (Applause.)  They went on to show the world that if black folks and white folks could fight together, and fly together, then surely -- surely -- they could eat at a lunch counter together.  Surely their kids could go to school together. (Applause.)
Later, she turned to the discrimination and silencing questions she herself faced:
Back when my husband first started campaigning for President, folks had all sorts of questions of me: What kind of First Lady would I be?  What kinds of issues would I take on?  Would I be more like Laura Bush, or Hillary Clinton, or Nancy Reagan?  And the truth is, those same questions would have been posed to any candidate’s spouse.  That’s just the way the process works.  But, as potentially the first African American First Lady, I was also the focus of another set of questions and speculations; conversations sometimes rooted in the fears and misperceptions of others. Was I too loud, or too angry, or too emasculating?  (Applause.) Or was I too soft, too much of a mom, not enough of a career woman?
She details more of those specific jabs and criticisms, then says:
So throughout this journey, I have learned to block everything out and focus on my truth.  I had to answer some basic questions for myself:  Who am I?  No, really, who am I?  What do I care about?  
And the answers to those questions have resulted in the woman who stands before you today. 
For her efforts, this speech was dubbed racist or "reverse racist" by conservative critics. She was told to "quit whining," and worse--all reactions using a long-standing tactic of branding the speaker as doing the very thing she's speaking against, and a true double standard.

What can you learn from this famous speech?
  • Name your silencers: The easiest way to take the power away from harsh criticisms--the kind that aim to silence your voice--is to name them in your speeches. Shed light on these negative tropes and take your voice back. In doing so, you'll be a great example to others.
  • Show us those places where history echoes: With a deft hand, this speech shares parallels between the history of discrimination against the airmen, and the first black president and his family a generation later. The discrimination takes a different form, but remains in the form of "fears and misperceptions," despite progress, and the speech does a great job sharing that perspective from the individuals' points of view.
  • Make your speech one that only you could give: This commencement speech could have been formulaic, so familiar is this spring speaking ritual. But by adding her own perspective, Mrs. Obama made this speech very much her own. The next time you are preparing a presentation or speech, ask yourself: Could anyone else give this? If the answer is yes, put more of yourself into it.
You can watch video of the speech here and below, and read the speech here.

(White House photo by Chuck Kennedy)

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