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HBCU graduates get ready to take on the world

The president and first lady, Oprah and others share their wisdom

Nothing can stop them now.

That’s how graduates of the nation’s historically black colleges and universities must be feeling these days after thousands of them, over the past month, have been given send-offs keynoted by a who’s who of adrenaline-boosting commencement speakers.

Those dignitaries have included from President Barack Obama; Vice President Joe Biden and first lady Michelle Obama, from the nation’s capital; two giants of comedy, Steve Harvey and Tyler Perry; and the queen of talk TV herself, Oprah Winfrey.

Their most oft-repeated advice:

  • Success doesn’t come without failure.
  • You’re not in this alone.
  • Embrace your racial identity.
  • Embrace your technology.
  • And always, have faith.

“Always think of those who came before,” Winfrey reminded the 300-plus graduates at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, N.C. She rattled off the names Sojourner Truth, Benjamin Banneker, Langston Hughes, “the roots of the branches.”

And she passed along advice from black leaders she remembered from her childhood.

“Excellence is the best deterrent for racism,” she remembered from Jesse Jackson. “So be excellent at whatever you do, even if it’s flipping fries.”

She also advised — perhaps with an eye on this generation’s tendency toward social media — that: “Dr. Martin Luther King [Jr.] said everybody can’t be famous, but everybody can be great … Because greatness is determined by service.”

And never give up.

“Every stumble is not a fall, and every fall is not a failure,” Winfrey said. “Failure is God’s way of moving you in another direction. …”

“Your future is so bright, JCSU, it burns my eyes. Go with God!”

Winfrey said there was no chance that House Bill 2 (a N.C. law that prevents transgender people from using restrooms corresponding to the gender with which they identify) or any other of “y’all’s” issues would keep her from the graduation of two of her “daughter-girls.”

Two degree recipients — Noluthando “Thando” Dlomo and Nompumelelo “Mpumi” Nobiva — are graduates of the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa.

Winfrey established the school in 2007 and invested more than $40 million to educate students in grades seven through 12.

At another commencement, Obama shot down a badly fading myth in speaking May 7 at Howard University, telling the 2,300 graduates that his presidency did not usher in a postracial society, according to various news reports.

He said race relations in America have improved over past three decades but that “there’s still so much work to do.”

Howard University President Wayne A.I. Frederick, left, adjusts the sash of President Barack Obama, center, as he is awarded an honorary Doctor of Science degree from Howard University in Washington, Saturday, May 7, 2016, by Vernon Jordan, right. Obama was also the commencement speaker for the 2016 graduating class.

Howard University President Wayne A.I. Frederick, left, adjusts the sash of President Barack Obama, center, as he is awarded an honorary doctorate from Howard University in Washington, Saturday, May 7, 2016, by Vernon Jordan, right. Obama was also the commencement speaker for the 2016 graduating class.

AP Photo/Susan Walsh

“We cannot sleepwalk through life,” said the president, whose last term has been marked by racial tensions, including police shootings of unarmed black men in Ferguson, Mo., and New York City.

The president also acknowledged a racial unemployment gap with African-American unemployment near 9 percent compared with 5 percent for all Americans.

Obama, whose father was Kenyan and mother was a white American, also told the graduates to embrace their racial heritage.

“Be confident in your blackness,” he said. “There is no one way to be black … There’s no straitjacket. There’s no constraints. There’s no litmus test for authenticity.”

Michelle Obama, speaking April 23 at Jackson State, advised some 1,000 graduates to use her husband’s strategy when dealing with racial adversity.

“… Take a deep breath, straighten your shoulders and do what [President] Barack Obama has always said, ‘When they go low, I go high,’ ” she said. “We do not allow space in our hearts and souls for darkness. Instead, we choose faith.”

Biden reminded some 700 graduates at Delaware State University of one big advantage of their generation.

“You have the technology at your disposal; you’re better-educated,” Biden said in his May 7 commencement appearance at Alumni Stadium in Dover, Del. “You’re the most talented, tolerant and technologically advanced generation in American history. You can be the next Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Robert L. Johnson or [Xerox CEO] Ursula Burns. You are equipped now with the capacity to be what you dream of.”

Alabama State University, May 7, TV host Steve Harvey:

A comedian, game-show and talk-show host, Steve Harvey, speaking May 7 at Alabama State, related the story of his gaffe heard round the world — when he announced the wrong winner of the Miss Universe Pageant. After being panned almost immediately on social media, Harvey made lemonade from the lemons, even landing a Super Bowl commercial that made fun of the faux pas.

“The day after [the pageant], my name was googled 2 billion times in 48 hours,” Harvey said. “I was on the front page of 64 countries’ newspapers. God had answered my prayers and increased my global persona and reputation, but it happened in a moment of adversity.”

The same day that Harvey spoke at Alabama State, Tyler Perry, actor, producer, and playwright, brought comedic levity to about 500 graduates at Tuskegee University, telling them that they might never use some of the education they’ve received.

“In the 27 years since I left high school,” said Perry, who never attended college, “nobody has asked me about the square root or nothing. Nobody has asked me about the Nina, the Pinta or the Santa Maria….”

The graduates howled. Then Perry added: “This college degree that you have, I envy you If I could get back half of the time and the money that I wasted because of what I didn’t know, I could have paid for everybody’s education in this entire school.

“It was what I didn’t know that made it difficult for me running my business in the beginning,” he said. “Now, don’t feel sorry for me. I’m doing all right!”

Tyler Perry’s moving Tuskegee University commencement speech

Among other noted HBCU commencement speakers

Tennessee State University, May 7, former congressman Harold Ford Jr.:

“Apathy is counter to who we are, mediocrity is not how we arrived to this moment and distractions are responsible for robbing people of their best years. …

“Excellence is the necessary standard for all of America. Don’t settle for good enough. Don’t back down from your dreams.” Some photos from The Tennessean.

Bethune-Cookman University, May 7, political strategist Donna Brazile:

“Don’t underestimate your power to serve and make a difference. And don’t underestimate your power to become a powerful figure one day. All you need is a seat at the table. When you get there, don’t shut up, speak up!

Cheyney University, May 7, actress and activist Sheryl Lee Ralph:

“You are a role model. You are somebody to be looked up to. You are the hope and the dream of a slave. You walked on this hallowed ground despite all odds. Whatever you went through to attain this dream that many other young people will never hold, it’s all going to pay off.”

Her speech energized the hundreds who attended.

Hampton University, May 8, author and political analyst Michael Eric Dyson:

“You’ve got to have perspective, and the perspective you ought to have is that you come from a great people. You come from a stock of people that made America what it is today.” Watch Dyson.

Shaw University, May 8, Charlotte Hornets president and longtime Michael Jordan sidekick Fred A. Whitfield:

“You will have some tough, cruel, competitive times. … You’ll need to take that ride with the people who have been supporting you all along.”

North Carolina Central University, May 14, U.S. Sen. Cory Booker:

“You can be like a thermometer, just reflecting the world around you. Or you can be a thermostat, one of those people who sets the temperature,” Booker said. “You don’t have to be one of those people that accepts things as they are. Every day, take responsibility for changing them right where you are.” Good advice from the U.S. senator.

North Carolina A&T University, May 14, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx:

“You are the ones who are standing on that line between all you have done and all you will do. …“

“In this quiet celebratory moment, you do stand between the end and the beginning. You can look back at the mountains you have climbed and you can look ahead at the inclines ahead.

“Class of 2016, I have three pieces of advice for you today …

“No. 1. Aspire to do great things.

“No. 2. Use what you have. Don’t worry about what you don’t have.

“No. 3. You set the standard. Don’t let other people set your standards for you. Aspire to great things.”

Spelman College, May 15, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch:

“This is my call to you: to find your change and live it.

“And so today we let go — knowing that you will soar, not just across the street but across the world. Knowing also that as much as we [families] want to hold you close, the world needs you more.

“Congratulations once again on all your accomplishments — cannot wait to see what you will achieve.”

What an inspiration. Lynch is the United States’ first black female attorney general.


David Squires is an educator and digital journalist who lives in the Charlotte area and teaches journalism at N.C. A&T State University in Greensboro. He has covered HBCU sports for several decades, first with the St. Petersburg Times and later as editor-in-chief of the original BlackVoices.com and BVQ magazine. He has also worked in news and sports in New York, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Fort Worth and Hampton Roads. His passion is college basketball, and he is a die-hard Tar Heel -- born and bred.