Storytelling has been a part of human culture ever since humans could communicate and is found in every culture. From cave paintings, to ancient religious texts, to fables and folklore such as those retold by the Brothers Grimm, to songs, to the television shows and films of the modern era. Not only do stories engage, entertain, and entice audiences, but they help people make sense of the world. Speakers frequently tell stories within their speeches to persuade, motivate, or inspire audiences. Commencement speeches are one genre of speech that often use stories. In this paper, I will use the narrative perspective to interpret and evaluate a commencement speech delivered by Michelle Obama at the Santa Fe Indian School.
Why should anyone care about or pay attention to commencement speeches? They are typically aimed at one group of students, who may or may not even remember who gave their commencement speech. So what is the purpose of studying them? Commencement speeches should be studied because they can serve many purposes. They can serve as inspiration or motivation, they can help audiences to reflect and learn something about themselves and to help audiences learn about the speaker. With new technology and mass media, it is easier for commencement speeches to be shared and reach larger audiences.
Michelle Obama’s commencement speech at Santa Fe Indian School is an important piece of rhetoric deserving of analysis because of the historical context between Native Americans and the United States government. The school was established in 1890, when the relationship between the two groups was rough, and served not so much to educated Native American children, but to force them to assimilate to European standards (Rothman). Now, the school is one that not only values education, but embraces Native American cultures. Michelle Obama delivered her speech at time in political history when the Obama Administration was working to improve policy and funding surrounding Native American education and youth (Berkovitch). Along with this, Michelle Obama’s visit to the school was only the second presidential visit to the Native territory in fifteen years (Berkovitch). Analyzing this speech is important because not only did it provide hope and inspiration for the audience, but it served to positively reinforce a political agenda and to continue to connect and mend bridges between Native American communities and the United States government.
On May 23rd, 2016, First Lady Michelle Obama stood before the graduating class of Santa Fe Indian School in Santa Fe, New Mexico to deliver her congratulatory words of inspiration to students and audience members alike. The audience was filled with friends and family, but also cultural figures, tribal leaders, as well as political leaders. Michelle sought to inspire and motivate graduates to use their growing experiences and education to create change within their communities.
Although Michelle Obama uses a generic commencement speech formula in her speech, one very prevalent strategy she employs is that of the narrative. She uses the story of her family to play on the values of the audience to inspire them. The main characters in her story is her family, with the protagonist being her father. She begins and sets up her story by describing her ancestors. Her great-great grandfather, Jim Robinson, born and died a slave. Her great-grandfather, Fraser Robinson, was a servant who taught himself and started his own business. Her grandfather, Fraser Robinson Jr., left the segregated south to build a better life for his family. The remainder and the bulk of her story focuses on her parents, Fraser Robinson III and Marian Robinson, who both worked tirelessly to be able to send Michelle and her brother to college. Her story takes place in the south side of Chicago, where her family lived in an apartment. Her story tells of how her parents worked hard to create a good life to fund their children’s education. How, despite her father’s multiple sclerosis, he never quit working and never gave up. How, despite the jobs and illness, her parents still found time to care for elderly family members. The antagonists of her story are not so much a person, but barriers and society as a whole, from segregation to illness. The plot works to uncover the theme of family and community values.
Taking a narrative perspective involves analyzing the form and the function of narratives. Narratives are stories that captivate and entertain us, but also work to help us understand the world. A narrative criticism should first identify the forms of the story, which are characters, plot, setting, and theme. After the forms have been identified, a narrative criticism must identify if and how the piece of rhetoric fulfills the functions of narrative. According to Rowland, there are four functions of narrative. The functions are to keep the attention of the audience, create a sense of identification between the audience and the character and/or between the narrator, “to break down barriers to understand” (Rowland, 129) through the use of setting, and to create an emotion reaction by playing on the values and needs of the audience. After the form and functions have been identified, a narrative criticism then must connect and evaluate the former two as well as evaluate how the story functions. The narrative criticism must consider if the story is compelling, if it fulfills the functions, and if it is credible for the target audience.
Michelle Obama’s commencement speech fulfills the functions of narrative. The story kept the attention of the audience by creating build up to the main points and by inserting plot details throughout the speech. She starts out by simply describing her ancestors, building on, before talking about her parents. For example, she briefly mentions her dad’s illness, leaving audience members to consider the significance of that detail, before bring it up later and relating it back the plot as well as tying it in with the main theme. Michelle’s story creates a strong sense of identification between herself and the audience by relating her families struggles and values to those of the audiences, evident when she says “the values that infuse this school—are the very same values that my parents handed down to me” (Obama, 2016). Her story transports audiences to another time and place. This is most evident when she describes where she grew up “in a tiny apartment on the South Side of Chicago, just upstairs from my elderly great aunt and uncle… blocks away from our extended family… who were always in out of each other’s homes and lives, sharing stories and food and talking and laughing for hours” (Obama, 2016). Her story also clearly taps in the values of the audience. She overtly discusses and taps into the values of integrity, giving back, and perseverance, but she also covertly taps into the values of family and community.
While the story short and woven throughout the speech, Michelle Obama created a compelling story that was easy to connect to. The characters and plot came together to instill the theme of family and community values as well as perserverance. Her speech also sought to inspire the audience to achieve greatness and managed to connect the audience members to a symbolic figure of a higher institution, herself. Along with this, her story fulfills that four functions of narrative. It creates a strong sense of identification between Michelle Obama and the audience by relating struggles and values. It taps into the values of the audience by talking about family and community; coming together to help one another, working hard to build a better future, and being a productive member of the community. The other two functions were fulfilled, but not as strongly. While the story is interesting and manages to transport audiences to a different time and place, the story is short and the plot is not detailed enough for these functions to be completely fulfilled.
Michelle Obama’s story also has credibility. The fact that she tells a personal story is what makes it more credible. According to Rowland, audiences tend to believe stories “that are consistent with personal experience” (Rowland, 134). Her story also has a great deal of structural and material coherence. The story has consistency and would still make sense and could stand alone out of the context of the speech. Along with this, her story is consistent with personal experiences and other stories she has told in other discourses. Her story was effective for the audience because it was personal. It made Michelle Obama, someone with high power and prestige in the United States government, seem more relatable.
In her commencement speech at Santa Fe Indian School, Michelle Obama used the power of the personal narrative to connect to and inspire audiences. She tells the story of her family; the struggles her ancestors faced and overcame, the challenges her parents faced in trying to provide an education for her, and the values passed down to her along the way that helped her become the person she is today. By applying the standards of the narrative perspective, it is revealed that Michelle Obama’s story functions more than just to inspire and motivate audiences, but also to connect herself to the audience members and continue to build bridges between Native American communities and the higher institutions.
- Berkovitch, Ellen. “Michelle Obama’s Radical Commencement Speech at Santa Fe Indian School.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 3 June 2016, www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2016/06/michelle-obama-indian-school- commencement/485204/.
- “Remarks by the First Lady at the Santa Fe Indian School Commencement.” National Archives and Records Administration, National Archives and Records Administration, obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2016/05/26/remarks-first-lady-santa-fe- indian-school-commencement.
- Rothman, Lily. “Michelle Obama Commencement Speech in Santa Fe: A Sad Past.” Time, Time, 26 May 2016, time.com/4341115/history-michelle-obama-graduation-santa-fe/.
- Rowland, Robert C. “The Narrative Perspective.” Rhetorical Criticism: Perspectives in Action, by Jim A. Kuypers, Rowman & Littlefield, 2016, pp. 125–145.