FLOTUS Michelle Obama spoke her truth to the Class of 2015 at Tuskegee University, an HBCU founded by legendary higher education trailblazer Booker T. Washington. By so doing, Mrs. Obama made it possible for black women to breathe a little more deeply before progressing with their lives. Who amongst us could not relate to her accounts of prejudjement of her by others with limited knowledge? When Michelle Obama recounted her struggle in the context of a graduation speech at a university famous for producing trailblazing leaders, she blazed a rhetorical path echoing forewomen of power like Audre Lorde. Lorne’s work reminds us that the desire to re-make our world is more than a dream. It is destiny, itself. Any womanist, any cultural studies theorist or practitioner, must include Madame Obama’s Tuskegee Commencement address in her/his catalog of classic black feminist thought. Modern-day Black women’s personal narratives have universal appeal. We speak about injustice in order to remind ourselves and others that despite insults to our beings, our bodies, and our ethical, moral, and spiritual selves, we still rise.
One of my favorite parts of her speech, and one my own father has told me many times, is the story of how Booker T. Washington, desired to build a new building on campus for the benefit of student housing. Because resources for this endeavor were limited, Washington had to think strategically and practically. So, he inlisted in the assistance of his own students who helped him build the building. Yes. The students did it. They would not let their collective dream be stymied due to lack. Their desire for a better world became reality through their own initiative.
By Mrs. Obama re-telling the story of the Tuskegee students creating their new reality, she reconnected the world with the legacy of Tuskegee. This legacy, acessible to all, in theory, is a powerful reminder of our ability to not just imagine alternatives, but make those alternatives accessible.
The story of Mrs. Obama’s visit to Tuskegee is a touchstone cementing her status as a trailblazer. In this context, we cultural studies theorists and practitioners look at another university, University of Southern California, and its group of trailblazing students. The entire entering 2014 MFA class at USC’s Roski School of Art dropped out of the art program and went back to their respective homes in protest of what they argue is a higher education system lacking accountability.
The USC-MFA students’ collective narrative has occupied space in numerous Facebook timelines of the well-educated. The students’ action follows in the tradition of graduate-student teaching assistants who organized for better pay and benefits at New York University.
Michelle Obama and the USC Roski students represent time-honored democratic American principles of bearing witness and truth-telling via narrative and for this reason, we scholars must document and re-tell their stories.