(The Root) — Celebrity commencement addresses usually follow a pretty predictable formula: a few jokes and a few words of wisdom, delivered by someone successful, rich or famous (often all of the above) in hopes of inspiring a new class of graduates to become equally successful (or rich, or famous) someday. Rarely do such speeches make news. But first lady Michelle Obama’s recent commencement address did.
Speaking to the graduating class of historically black Bowie State University on Friday, she lamented the educational gap that is plaguing the black community, saying: “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,” Mrs. Obama continued. “Right now, one in three African-American students are dropping out of high school; only one in five African Americans between the ages of 25 and 29 has gotten a college degree.”
The remarks, which were picked up by outlets nationwide, were noteworthy for their brutal honesty, but more specifically because of the somewhat surprising source. The Obamas’ most high-profile celebrity friends are singer Beyoncé and her husband, the rapper Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter.
The close relationship has been a source of criticism for the Obamas, with some, including myself, questioning the appropriateness of any first couple — but particularly the first black first couple — so closely aligning their image and legacy with one performer who is defined first and foremost by a highly sexualized image, another who is a drug dealer-turned-rapper and neither of whom has made education a priority in their own lives or careers. The criticism reached a fever pitch after the Carters took a government-approved trip to Cuba, despite an ongoing embargo.
The Obamas have generally shrugged off such criticism, with the president and first lady going to great lengths to try to defend the Carters as role models when faced with criticism about their association. This default defense mode has noticeably waned since the Cuba trip created a legitimate political headache for the White House.
But Michelle Obama’s commencement address seems to be a delicate public acknowledgment of a hard truth that the White House appears to have been in denial about until now — namely that by regularly placing rappers and entertainers on a pedestal, the president and first lady have helped reinforce one of the most harmful stereotypes in our community: the stereotype that ultimately that’s what every little black girl or boy should aspire to be.
It appears that now the first lady is making a conscious effort to undo some of the damage she and her husband have unintentionally done with their example. But we all know that walking the walk is a much more effective way to influence people than talking the talk. So if the first couple really want to see more black youths value education over becoming rappers, they have to show that they value hanging out with educators over hanging out with rappers. Then perhaps students will be able to take her powerful and worthwhile message to heart.