Nina Johnson - Last Collection
Thank you for the honor of addressing you. I appreciate that you have trusted me with this moment and only hope that I can rise up to meet it. I want to congratulate you all on this wonderful accomplishment. It is an incredibly heady feeling to begin an arduous task, like an undergraduate degree, like the brief journey of your four years here, and to complete it. It is no small feat to meet the high expectations and standards for rigor here and I want to honor you all for your achievements and for arriving at this moment.
I also want to honor those who arrived here with you — your parents, families, your teachers, friends, neighbors, the people and places you come from. They made you. They brought you here. Wherever you come from, there is good, there is value, there is worth and you brought that with you here today. I stand before you humbled by and grateful to those who brought me here. To my forbears, who defied the brutal logics of their time and refused to die, that I might live. To my grandfathers and especially to my grandmothers, who persisted and fought and persisted and fought and persisted and fought, that I might persist and fight. To my mother and father, who taught me everything worth knowing, who always warned us “that in all our getting, to get an understanding” and who taught me to choose joy. And to fight. And to laugh. And in all things to be motivated by love. So I bring them all with me tonight. And I bring James Baldwin and Audre Lorde and Zora Neale Hurston and Nina Simone and Yusef Lateef and Ida B. Wells and Ella Baker and Fanny Lou Hamer and all my teachers and friends and confidantes and family and countless others that have shaped my ways of thinking and being in the world. They are, as my mother calls them, my north stars. As I walk through this life, they remain my lights and my guides on the path. They orient me, remind me who I am, and return me to myself when I veer off.
And to stand before you tonight, I needed them. When I got word that I would be addressing you, I was certain I had received yet another one of Nora Johnson’s emails. When it was confirmed, my stomach dropped. I wondered, what am I supposed to tell you? I thought back to my own commencement exercises, much of which is a complete blur, and tried to remember the speaker. I felt better when I realized you won’t remember this either. Our speaker was Bill Cosby. Needless to say I abandoned that source of inspiration.
Then I thought I might reflect on this moment in time. On what’s happening in the world as a way to encourage you to think about your place in history. That in 2015, the U.S. is still involved in military actions abroad that have caused more instability and violence than they have addressed. That in 2015, there are 45 million Americans living in extreme poverty and politicians who still believe access to food is a privilege rather than a right. That in 2015, we defend the rights of corporations to make a profit over the rights of workers to earn a living wage. That in 2015, because of our unwillingness to address climate change head on, we watch the most vulnerable perish in the face of man-made natural disasters. That in 2015, the United States, the leader of the free world, has the dubious distinction of having the highest rate of incarceration — we’re only four percent of the world’s population, but are responsible for 22 percent of the world’s incarcerated. That in 2015, we still allow race, gender, class, sexuality, immigration status, religion, nation of origin to determine how and if we live or die.
But someone — well several someone’s — reminded me that this was celebratory and discouraged me from traveling too far down that path. But I think it’s important as you think about the “what now” of your life, that you think about the challenges of our time… that you think about them and see them as opportunities — opportunities to put your time, talent, and resources to work to improve the things that concern you most. Those who come after you, the future generations, will question, as you have questioned those who came before you, how you allowed injustice to occur on your watch. As great an accomplishment as it is, it will not be enough to say that you graduated from college. It will not be enough to say you attended a selective institution. It will not be enough to say you recognized, acknowledged, felt badly about, or checked your privilege. The question will be what you did with it, how you leveraged it. As I often share with my students, how you feel mostly matters to you (and your Facebook friends), what matters to those around you is what you do. And in the final analysis, you will have to give account and show that the world is better because you were here. And that will only happen if you do something. So, do something.
And before you ask, no, I don’t know what you should do. And before you think it’s just me, let me assure you, no one else knows what you should do either. That is something you have to discover on your own. And that process of discovery is what will define your life’s journey from here on out. And while I can’t tell you what to do, I can offer you some of what I have found useful from the unlimited supply of solicited and unsolicited advice I have been given that has helped me on my “what now” journey. After I finished writing this, I realized the useful bits mapped not so neatly onto the categories of “love, honor, and cherish” — but not in that order. As a hip hop devotee, I reserve the right to sample and remix.
I’ll start with honor. What does it mean to enter a space with honor? Humility, respect, regard, equal, and humane treatment, reciprocity, mutuality — all of those come to mind when we think about interacting with others in a way that is honoring. But how do we maintain that as a way of being and moving in the world?
Engaging the world with an open mind, an open heart, and a keen sense of your own knower will carry you through. What do I mean by knower?
Have you ever been in a room filled with people, abuzz with activity, that everyone seemed to be participating in and all you can feel is something in the pit of your stomach saying, something isn’t right? Have you ever been in a space in which someone is speaking with a certainty, declaring with full force something you unequivocally feel is wrong? In those moments, it is that still, small voice that matters most. The voice you should trust the most. The whisper that should be amplified to full volume in your life. The voice that is yours. Trust that. Even and especially when it runs contrary to what the world has defined for you. Even and especially when a path is calling out to you, drawing out your gifts, your talents, filling your soul, bringing you joy, producing results, speaking life to others, bringing good to the world…and other voices are encouraging you to be practical, to be cautious, to be comfortable, to stay on established territory, to be agreeable, to do the expected. Especially as women and as young people, we are socialized to adapt ourselves to an environment, to be pleasing, and to adjust ourselves to external expectations. There will always be other voices that exist, they’re all around. Listen to your own, honor it and live your own life. Audre Lorde said, “If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies of me and eaten alive.” Even those with the highest intentions for us can at best provide a version of us that is distorted through their own filter. The world needs you. And the fullness of you has to be come from your self-definition. So honor your self. It is the first step toward honoring others and living a life that reflects that.
A great story was recounted to me a couple of months ago. A student activist had gone to an event where his heroine, Joanne Bland, was the speaker. She was one of the youngest participants in the march to Selma that has come to be known as “Bloody Sunday." The student thanked her for her courage and acknowledged that she was one of the giants upon whose shoulders he was standing. She responded that she loved that he knows he’s standing on the shoulders of giants, and was in fact honored by him. And then she said something critical. “Get off," she said, “We’re tired. Become your own giant.”
Let’s turn to love.
In college, I had a dear friend who was a bio engineering major — a woman, a person of color, first-generation daughter of Haitian immigrants to the U.S.. And she was knocking it out of the park. And because of the intersections she occupied, I assumed I understood why. In my political view, she was defiant, resisting the margins to which she might have been relegated, daring to excel in a space she was not meant to. And then I saw her perform one night. She danced and the music and the drum carried me higher. In every move, more and more of who she was became revealed. I was awed. She was transcendent. I didn’t even know I was standing until another friend pulled me down into my seat. With tears in my eyes, I declared to her after the performance that “surely she must dance!” Don’t fall victim to the pressures of this pre-professional ivy and its bourgeois student body, wasting away in the STEM fields. You have nothing to prove to them. You must follow your true calling in the arts. And yes, I was that ridiculous as an undergraduate. After “liberating” myself from the clutches of business school after a soul-crushing banking internship, I was on a mission to free other misguided souls. Thankfully, I had patient and loving friends. She explained to me that she loved engineering, loved her classes, loved the approach to problem solving — that she was as much a dancer as a scientist. And now, years after getting her MD/Ph.d., she does groundbreaking work on infectious diseases. And she’s still dancing. And she’s still my longsuffering friend. And she is still correcting me.
A wise woman said to me, do what you love and the rest will come. In this life, you must work hard. And the only way to sustain that is to be motivated by love. Work you love, work that unites your purpose and your passion, will be nurturing to you. And exhausting. Find the joy in what you do and that will help you deal with the parts of any endeavor that are less fulfilling. My grandma said you can stay in hell six months if you know you’re gonna get out. That’s why having a vision is really important. Knowing what you’re working toward, that prize you keep your eyes on, will get you through the rough bits. And it is hard. (Anyone who tells you it isn’t hard or won’t feel like work is lying or selling something. Or most likely lying and selling something). Meaningful work is uncomfortable and hard. But it’s worth it. If it’s in you to do, then you can’t do anything else anyway. So, get comfortable with the discomfort, with the difficulty, with the uncertainty. And do what you love.
And surround yourself with people who share and support your vision — people of like precious faith who will encourage you when you need it, who will give you a swift kick when you need it. People who love you enough to celebrate you, challenge you, confront you, and hold you accountable. People who will tell you the truth with love. Like my dear friend’s grandmother. She walked in proud of a new style she had tried. Grandma said, “Whoever told you your hair looks good like that doesn’t love you.” I love our elders. I can’t wait for the day when I’m an elder and I can just stand flat footed and tell the truth — in love.
That aside, in all my dreams of a more equitable world, in all my desire to fight injustice, in all my willingness to sacrifice for my beliefs and commitments, in all my eagerness to deconstruct and dismantle unfair systems and construct alternatives that honor our humanity across categories of difference, I have learned that the most revolutionary act is to love. To love and be loved. Through our anger, through our grief. To mourn, to rage, to fight with every tool we have, and to love anyway, every way and always.
I’ll wrap up with cherish. When I was preparing to come before you, I asked the people I treasure most what I should say. That trusted group includes students, current and former. One student, at the end of our last meeting for the semester, reminded me of a question I had asked on the culminating day of a previous course we’d had together. It had been a particularly challenging class because of the subject matter and the seemingly insurmountable cycles of structural inequality (instantiation, resistance, concession, backlash, re-entrenchment). We ended our last class with “What makes you hopeful?” And I want to end with that question this evening. What makes you hopeful? For me, it is you. It is all your accomplishments. It is seeing your theses come together. A senior dance performance that captured a truth of our time and moved me. A more comprehensive and complete historical narrative of the events of 1969 here at Swarthmore. A senior exhibit in the List Gallery. Proctoring an honors exam, glancing at your scrap paper and realizing all the economics I’ve forgotten or never known. Your excellence is in evidence all over this campus. And I salute you.
But it isn’t just your intellectual and aesthetic achievements that command my attention, it is your commitment, your proven dedication to your beliefs, your demonstrated courage in living your convictions. My mom always says “love is what it does,” not just a feeling but an observable set of actions. You have loved Swarthmore enough to question it, challenge it, and push it to live up to its promise and its ideals. And I expect that you will continue, wherever this life may lead you. I believe in you, in your capacity to work collectively to build something greater than yourselves. And my belief and my hope in the possibility of something more, something better, something greater is something I cherish. And when I look at you, I know there are people who share that belief and are working alongside me. And I thank you.
Though I have not had the pleasure of teaching many of you here, I feel safe in saying on behalf of members of the faculty, it has been an honor to teach you, to be witness to your intellectual growth, and to partner with you on this part of your journey.
James Baldwin invites us to “be sensual…to respect and rejoice in the force of life, of life itself, and to be present in all that [we do] from the effort of loving to the making of bread.” Be present. Be yourself. And in being the fullness of yourself, you will be just what the world needs. You will be impertinent. You will be powerful. You will be dangerous. You will be triumphant. And you will do it all with love. We know that another world is possible, a better, more equitable world. And with you out there living your best life, we will be a step closer to achieving it.
Take care of yourselves and each other. Thank you.