In an environment that resembled a revival much more than a conference, the NAACP repeatedly and enthusiastically sought to reaffirm its relevance last week as it celebrated its centennial anniversary. Speaker after speaker insisted, somewhat defensively, that we need the NAACP “now more than ever” and with its young and charismatic new CEO, Benjamin Jealous, the organization made a significant push to court more youthful members. But every speech and presentation was inevitably overshadowed by the most prominent person of color on the planet–President Barack Obama.
Naturally, no event during the week conjured up more anticipation than the president’s address. After nearly six years of being snubbed by George W. Bush, the NAACP’s community was sure to offer a hero’s welcome to the nation’s first black president–and he did not disappoint them. In one of his most emotionally charged, relaxed and almost conversational speeches he proclaimed it was “good to be here among friends.”
This performance truly would halt any pundit opining about Obama’s supposed lack of passion and conviction in their tracks. In front of the first predominately black audience he has addressed since his inauguration, the president did not shy away from tough questions and from examining the ugly side of life in America for people of color.
“I stand here on the shoulders of giants,” declared Obama as he wove through the NAACP’s storied history and name-checked heroes like W.E.B. DuBois and Thurgood Marshall. But after starting with effusive praise for the NAACP, Obama transitioned into his patented nuanced prose. It was the politics of personal responsibility that he preached and while some have argued that the president appears pompous when he delves into these matters–the audience he addressed was grateful for the message.
When Obama speaks to a black audience his voice drops an octave, he allows himself to swagger, he breaks from his script and he appears to genuinely be having a good time. But he was also deadly serious. Too many young black children grow up with an “internalized sense of limitation,” he said, and as minorities grow to become majorities in America, we can not afford to let these children fall behind. He made it clear that what’s needed to improve education will be both more money and more reform.