As much as I'd love to talk about first lady Michelle Obama's perfectly curled hair and her beaming smile, her Jackson State commencement address was probably one of the most goosebump-inducing speeches I've heard.
Obama, whom our education reporting fellow Sierra Mannie and I refer to warmly as Mickie O, spoke about the strained history of Mississippi, from the first football game with black players from Grambling State University and Jackson State University that took place at Veteran's Memorial Stadium to her husband being elected the 44th and first black president of the United States.
She demanded the graduating class of nearly 800 to stand up for equality and fight for each other, to use the power of their privilege to create a better future.
The one theme that she continued to play upon was the idea of excellence.
In my family, and plenty other black families, the Obamas are the pinnacle of black excellence—an African American president, his gorgeous, educated wife and their two beautiful teenage daughters living in the White House, running the country and maintaining the ideal of the American Dream.
This is the reality I live in, but for my great-grandmother who lived through the era when she had to walk on the opposite side of the streets and use a separate restroom—just half a century ago—this remained a dream.
For my grandfather, who selflessly fought in a war alongside men he wasn't allowed to sit next to in public back home, seeing a black man hold the highest position of power in this country feels like all the marching was worth it.
When I think back on my short 22 years on this green Earth, I think of skinned knees, mosquito bites, and late nights studying and poring over textbooks in the hopes that I'd make my family proud. I think of my great-grandmother scraping together $7 for me to go on field trips to the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science or to buy a copy of "Harry Potter" at the Scholastic book fair, or my mother dragging me to 6 a.m Quiz Bowl practices and buying AP exam practice booklets.
As someone who took five years to earn her bachelor's degree in psychology, I know what it feels like to want to give up completely and somehow manage to pull it all together just in time to achieve greatness because of the investments poured into me.
When President Barack Obama was elected, I was a sophomore at Pearl High School, barely passing half my honors courses and sleeping through the other half. I'd always been tasked with high expectations from my mother and my teachers, and while I did graduate, I don't think I understood what was asked of me. My mother wanted me to be excellent because "we are not average people." My grandfather wanted me to be the next Condoleezza Rice or Oprah Winfrey. My great-grandmother wanted me to graduate; she'd dropped out of high school when she was in the ninth grade. I just wanted to be done.
I fought against these high expectations for years, so much that it bled into my college years and resulted in me having to stay behind after all my friends graduated to earn a degree I wasn't even sure I wanted anymore. I nearly buckled under the pressure and then scrapped to build myself into someone worthy of knowing.
On Saturday, when the first lady stood in front of the podium and said "excellence is the most powerful answer you can give to the doubters and the haters," that's when I realized that all of this—the pain and the struggle, late nights binging on Red Bull and jalapeno Cheetos, tears shed in adviser's offices and sitting in the scorching May sun in a black gown—culminated into this moment.
I sat in the press pen at last weekend's commencement surrounded by journalists, reporters and cameramen and realized that I was one of them. I stared out into the crowd of nearly 35,000 people who showed up to support the graduates and listen to the first lady speak and realized this is what excellence feels like to me.
Black excellence is striving against the odds, whether it's racism or sexism (or for me, a double whammy), and pushing yourself toward greatness. Black excellence is a graduating class of nearly 800 taking responsibility for their own futures and preparing themselves to be the next generation of doctors, lawyers, educators, engineers or journalists. Black excellence is activists such as Malcolm X, Medgar Evers and Ida B. Wells fighting for civil rights and becoming known as pioneers of equality, paving the way for fumbling black youth like me to want something better for ourselves.
Black excellence is Beyonce Giselle Knowles-Carter dropping a visual album on HBO to millions of viewers on a Saturday night, but I'll sip that lemonade later.
It's through these figures, these selfless paternal figures, who may be problematic and flawed but respectable nonetheless, and these bad-ass, unapologetically fierce women who demanded all they wanted from the world that I am able to see that I, myself, am black excellence. It's through these women and men who sacrificed their lives so that I would be able to vote and attend a university, who cried and marched and bled for me to be treated like a human being, that I am able to find strength in myself to demand better. I demand excellence and greatness from my friends, so it's only right that I expect it from myself.
Each year, we like to highlight wonderful teenagers who are working diligently to make this city we love a better place. This year, we have artists, athletes, engineers, activists and others who make up the 2016 class of Amazing Teens, and as an adult fresh out of the nest, I commend them all and hope they will be shining examples for the next generation of youth to come after them. I urge the teens, the 20-somethings and those not far removed from young adulthood to push to the limit to reach greatness.
During a recent conversation with a friend, she told me that nothing is permanent, that everything is temporary. This idea of constantly transforming and shaping yourself into whatever you want to be can be hard to grasp, especially to some who aren't afforded the time or opportunity, but when these opportunities present themselves, close your eyes, take a breath and dive feet first. It's yours.
"Be excellent at everything that you do," Michelle Obama said. "Be an excellent boss, be an excellent employee, an excellent parent, congregant, neighbor, be excellent, and graduates, when you encounter small slights or small people, I hope and I pray that you stand tall and respond with dignity and grace, because no one, no one ever succeeds in this world by playing small."
Demand greatness and strive for excellence in all that you do. Always.
Deputy News Editor Maya Miller is a Jackson State University graduate. She writes about crime, music, art and her ever-growing obsession with Beyonce. Send her news tips to [email protected].