On Friday, first lady Michelle Obama reached back 150 years for a metaphor that conveys what was once the centrality of education in the black community.
During her commencement speech at Bowie State University -- a historically black college in Maryland that opened in January 1865 -- Mrs. Obama reminded the graduates that their diplomas came at a price they'll be paying for the rest of their lives.
"Now, just think about this for a moment," she said. "For generations, in many parts of this country, it was illegal for black people to get an education. Slaves caught reading or writing could be beaten to within an inch of their lives. Anyone -- black or white -- who dared to teach them could be fined or thrown in jail.
"And yet, just two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, this school was founded not just to educate African-Americans, but to teach them how to educate others. It was in many ways an act of defiance, an eloquent rebuttal to the idea that black people couldn't or shouldn't be educated."
Mrs. Obama evoked images of a time when students trekked up to 10 miles a day for the privilege of sitting in spaces that were "little more than drafty log cabins with mud floors, leaky roofs and smoke-wood stoves in the corner," and where blackboards and books were considered luxuries. Teachers were regularly threatened for contradicting the widely believed myth that blacks couldn't learn.
She reminded her audience that the families of those first Bowie students held fundraisers and donated labor to the school because they expected a return on their investment in the form of liberty for their people. "Education means emancipation," Mrs. Obama said, echoing the words of Frederick Douglass, a self-taught slave who stole books designated for white kids before escaping north to become one of that era's greatest abolitionists.
"So to the folks who showed up at your school on that January day back in 1865, education meant nothing less than freedom," she said. "It meant economic independence, a chance to provide for their families. It meant political empowerment, the chance to read the newspaper and articulate an informed opinion, and take their rightful place as full citizens of this nation."
The first lady noted to applause that back then, people were hungry to learn. "Do you hear me? Hungry to get what they needed to succeed in this country. And that hunger did not fade over time." Yet, as Mrs. Obama admitted later in her speech, the passion for education did end for far too many black children and their families.
"But today, more than 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation ... too many of our young people just can't be bothered," she said.
"Today, instead of walking miles every day to school, they're sitting on couches for hours playing video games, watching TV. Instead of dreaming of being a teacher or a lawyer or a business leader, they're fantasizing about being a baller or a rapper," she said. She then recited the dismal statistics about low high school and college graduation rates among blacks who have the kind of educational opportunities their 19th century forebears never would've imagined on their most optimistic days.
"And as my husband has said often," Mrs. Obama urged at the end of her 20-minute speech, "please stand up and reject the slander that says a black child with a book is trying to act white. Reject that." The applause she received was thunderous and heartfelt. It was a speech that complemented her husband's commencement address the next day at Morehouse College, a historically black university for men in Atlanta.
President Obama may have just had the worst week of his political career, but his speech before the Class of 2013 was energetic and uncharacteristically personal. He covered much of the same territory as Mrs. Obama, including the fact that the first class of Morehouse men consisted of 37 free blacks and freed slaves whose hunger for education couldn't be extinguished by the violence and intimidation of the post-Civil War years.
His comments about pursuing excellence and shouldering the burden of responsibility for making one's community better have gotten the most media attention.
When Mr. Obama referred to himself as "black" while dealing frankly with his own flawed decision-making as a young man, it upset the usual cadre of numbskulls who hate to be reminded that Frederick Douglass, the man who once beat his "master" to a pulp, was right: "Education means emancipation."
Tony Norman: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1631; Twitter: @TonyNormanPG.