In a room sprinkled with celebrities—and there were quite a few, from Ashley Judd to David Schwimmer—one stood out for reasons other than a starring role on TV or in the movies.
Eleanor Holmes Norton has been on the front line of social-justice causes her whole life, and she has no problem uniting with more well-known faces if it means success for the issue of statehood for the District of Columbia. She isn’t mad at them at all.
“If you can get celebrities to highlight a cause, get eyeballs when you would not before, that’s fine,” she said. “If more people know who’s doing the talking, it’s better off for your cause.”
It was definitely a major coup for Johnson C. Smith University, one of the nation’s HBCUs, to snag Oprah Winfrey as its commencement speaker. And she certainly delivered with down-to earth wisdom, her own inspirational stories and lessons from leaders from Martin Luther King Jr. to Maya Angelou.
On a sunny Sunday morning, Winfrey told the sea of more than 300 graduates—her words overheard by the several thousand family members and friends who came to support them—“Your future is so bright, JCSU, it burns my eyes!” The eyes that stared back at her, sometimes glistening with tears, reflected the global diversity of HBCUs, a quality that might surprise those who don’t know much about the schools’ historical mission. (Winfrey herself attended HBCU Tennessee State University.)
Winfrey was just one of a parade of high-profile speakers at HBCUs, up to and including the president and first lady, who, during the Barack Obama years, have highlighted the institutions that historically educated a majority of the doctors, lawyers and professionals of color—and, indeed, students of color in general—before most majority white institutions admitted them. And because admission to majority-white schools doesn’t guarantee a warm welcome (see current turmoil because of racially charged incidents on campuses from the University of Missouri to Yale), many students of color given every option continue to gravitate toward HBCUs for social and psychological reasons in addition to academic ones.
Sometimes, even when I suspect that he knows it will hurt him, President Barack Obama does not follow the script. The evening of the day when terrorists struck in Belgium, the president and his family attended a Major League Baseball exhibition game in Cuba. Why didn’t he rush back to Washington, D.C., or to Belgium to show solidarity with our European allies? “The whole premise of terrorism is to try to disrupt people’s ordinary lives,” he told ESPN during the game.
Agree or disagree with the choice—and Republican critics didn’t hesitate to strongly disapprove—Obama showed the calm that has characterized his presidency but that may be out of step with Americans’ fear of terrorism reaching our shores again. (At least, that what’s GOP presidential candidates and their supporters are hoping.)
When Obama was running for president in 2008, however, calm was one of the few emotions allowed in his public persona. If he had introduced himself in red-faced, hair-on-fire mode (think the current Republican front-runner), his campaign would have ended before it began.
In a swing state, the president offers a mix of policy and legacy as 2016 approaches, while some supporters wonder what’s next from Hillary Clinton.
Too soon, too soon, of course.
After observing close-up the kind of headwinds her husband has met in Washington, D.C., and beyond, there is absolutely no indication that first lady Michelle Obama is looking to place her own name on any ballot. She has, in fact, said the opposite, although in his just-released book, Michelle Obama: A Life, veteran journalist Peter Slevin reports that she has always been a full partner in her husband’s political career. But it is significant that former first lady, U.S. Sen. and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has hired Michelle Obama’s former communications chief as Clinton enters her bid for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination.
In recognition of Black History Month, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus and Co-Chair Sharon Day have released a statement in which Priebus says that “as we reflect on the generations of African Americans who contributed immensely to the fabric of our country and to the Republican Party, let us honor their legacy not just by what we say, but also in what we do.”
Yet last week, GOP members of the Senate Judiciary Committee called Catherine Engelbrecht to testify as the panel met to consider the nomination of Loretta Lynch. Lynch will become the first female African-American attorney general, and head of the Department of Justice, if she passes the panel’s gauntlet and is confirmed.
Last week, voting-rights advocates hailed a legal victory—at least briefly—when a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit cleared the way for North Carolina voters to utilize same-day voter registration and out-of-precinct provisional balloting, both of which were eliminated in a revision of the state’s election law that was passed by a Republican legislature in 2013.
But any celebration was incomplete—and short-lived.
Black women are often the backbone of political campaigns—making calls, managing offices and registering voters. And we show up at the polls. In the last two presidential elections, the turnout percentage of African-American women was greater than all other demographic groups. In Virginia, for instance, Gov. Terry McAuliffe owes black women, in particular, for his win in a year when President Barack Obama was not on the ballot. Yet the numbers, in terms of black women in elected positions, don’t reflect black women’s passionate political activism.
Is it a matter of cultural stereotypes? Is it harder to raise the money crucial to any successful campaign? Is reluctance of black voters to support black women an unexpected hurdle?
In some ways, Lupita Nyong’o fits the fashion-plate standard of beauty that’s changing, ever so slowly, but still frequently looks for a certain type: She’s thin and sculpted, with regal cheekbones and bearing to match. And her accent doesn’t hurt, either, in an America that’s still New World enough to be impressed by such things.
In a word, she’s gorgeous.
But in other ways, she’s something apart from the blond icons—from Jean Harlow to Marilyn Monroe to today’s ubiquitous Jennifer Lawrence—whom Hollywood normally presents as the ideal. Nyong’o—the 30-year-old, Mexican-born Kenyan who stepped out of the Yale School of Drama into fame and an Academy Award nomination—is dark-skinned, with a short, natural haircut, and no apologies.