(Note: This speech was the keynote address delivered at the UCLA African-American Studies Department 2016 Commencement. You may listen to the audio recording below.)
Hello, graduating class of 2016! Thank you to Professor Cheryl Harris, the faculty and staff on the Dept of African-American Studies, and Professor Sarah Haley for the invitation to celebrate this day with all of you—the now alumni of this institution.
Congratulations. How do you feel? This is huge. When I thought about what I could say to you that was worth me being up here for a precious thirteen minutes of your day, hoping to impart some pearl of wisdom, I spent a not insubstantial amount of time googling, “What the hell is the point of a commencement address.”
I thought back to my own commencement. I don’t remember it at all. In fact, on that day, I was consumed with just getting that paper and rushing into the real and better world with this ‘key’ that would unlock the dreams and expectations I carried for myself and my family.
Nobody in my immediate family attended a four-year university. I was the product of southern parents who vividly recalled integration and the Jim Crow era, whose own parents were only a generation or so removed from sharecropping. My mother told stories of wishing her mother would spend as much time with her as she did with those white children she had to care for. My father grew up tending land under the watchful eye of his merciless father and the vicious Texas sun. Nobody graduated from anything other than a high school or a vocational school. No one else had the time — they had to raise kids, or work…or serve time. My family navigated what often felt like narrow canals where they could only reach so far, see so far, belong so far. They kept this constriction to themselves, even saw it as normal.
So my whole family fully embraced this idea that university was the special thing that created a special person who could then create a special, expansive life. I embraced that with my whole heart—readily accepted the idea that a single place held my key to freedom, that my life would be broader and better because of this key.
It feels like, with freedom at your fingertips and all this glorious knowledge, freshly bubbling in your brains, that this is the key but keys only work in locks. You are leaving a brick & mortar institution of higher learning to enter an uncertain sea of civilization. It is big. Lots of space. Lots of spaces. There are no locks out there. Not like that.
What I discovered is that, while this a significant achievement, when I left—key in hand—I still regularly stumbled into spaces and systems that told me, “You don’t belong here.”
When I graduated, I started to feel like everyone had an ‘in’ that I had yet to figure out. He had access I didn’t; she could hold conversations I knew nothing about; they had people in their phone it blew my mind they knew. “You don’t belong here.” They must know something I don’t. How am I not getting it? What did I miss? How do they just know how to do this life thing, this being-social thing, this happy relationship thing and I don’t? “I don’t belong.” It happened the other way, too…not just in the ‘expansive’ places but in the world I came from. You’re different. “You don’t belong here.” I was lost.
It might happen to you on large and small scales, greater systems and smaller interpersonal spaces, both external and internal voices. “You don’t belong here.” It’s a lie when you hear that. We know it’s a lie, right? I hope we know it’s a lie. But man, is it an insidious one ready to hook you in the soft bits, wherever your vulnerabilities or insecurities are.
It’s so easy to get lost at sea with voices coming from every direction.
So here’s what to do with that. This is my pearl from the sea: when you hear that, reach out. Grab hold of something real, something firm. That voice is a lie that will spin an iridescent netting that you can’t quite hold onto, that you can’t always tell is there depending the light…so restrictive, so ephemeral. So reach out. Find something real. Find a voice that is firm and true.
That firm and true voice may come from a spiritual practice or your own code of ethics. I hope, eventually, it comes from a therapist or a mentor. If you must believe in keys, let them be in the voices of those who have already dived deep enough to anchor you. Ones that can reflect back to you who you are. Whose you are. Ultimately, I think, the goal is for that firm and true voice to speak most clearly from your own throat…for you to be your own key.
“You don’t belong.” It’s so awful to hear that, to feel that and not be able to find your footing. To swim towards those sirens singing in every direction. To see those around you diving, surfacing, doing well with their own breathing apparatuses while you struggle to not drown.
My family held fast to that restrictive belief in the one key because no one anchored them. Their pain became this whisper of doubt which crafted a net that held a wish for me…that I am grateful for. But if, all those years ago in their young adulthood, they could’ve reached out and found something firm to hold onto, they would’ve known their canal connected to the sea. Uncertain, but there.
Here is what I hope you remember from today: celebrate this accomplishment and then connect to the sea. You are a part of it now. Spread out. Reach out. Find your anchors. Dive deep and help others swim.
That world out there, that sea — big and uncertain as it is — is one space made up of millions of tiny ones. In the one millionth of a space you occupy at any given moment, who is to say you don’t belong? You do.