Commencement Speech At Grinnell College
by Tim Wise, May 20, 2003
Thank you very much, to the administration, faculty, assembled guests and parents but mostly to the graduating seniors, who for some totally inexplicable reason have chosen me to give today's commencement address.
I am still convinced that there must have been some terrible, terrible mistake, perhaps some kind of vote fraud, as it is not everyday that radical activists are asked to speak at these kinds of things. Indeed, I barely made it to my own graduation, so you can imagine my surprise when I was asked to attend yours.
My first thought was, honestly, what kind of example can I possibly set for these students? I mean, I graduated thirteen years ago and have just finished paying off my student loans, like, last Wednesday or something, so I can't imagine that makes me much of a role model.
But anyway, having said all that, I will dispense with the self-deprecation, for the clock is ticking, and although you did not come here today to listen to me, I was apparently chosen to give this speech for a reason, and so I figure I'd best say something worthy of the occasion.
I mostly want to avoid saying something trite, something terribly cliché, something ordinary and pedestrian--like the kind of thing most folks say when asked to give a commencement speech. I want desperately not to say something like, "you are the future of this country," although indeed you are. And I want even more desperately not to say something about how you should, after leaving this place, "continue to learn and to search for truth," though indeed you should do both.
Because you see, trite and cliché are already far too prevalent in this culture. Meaningless platitudes are the order of the day it seems, from politicians, corporate leaders, media talking heads, you name it; and I want desperately not to be like that.
And even though meaningless platitudes often come wrapped in the best of intentions, they are rendered no less meaningless by the heartfelt decency of their authors: a truism that has become painfully obvious to me, especially in the past two years.
Ever since 9/11 in fact, trite and cliché have almost become virtues it seems, as millions of good and decent people have rushed to slap bumper stickers on their cars, which say things like "United We Stand."
United, really? Well excuse me if I'm not convinced.
You see, unity is not a state of being that can be secured by a simple act of proclamation; it does not flow like water just because one wishes it to be so. Unity is something to be created; the culmination of dedicated effort, and a condition that requires as a prerequisite something else, and that something else is justice. And not just for some, or most, but for all.
And justice in turn requires equity: true equity of opportunity and access, neither of which condition existed on 9/10 or 9/9, or 9/8 or at any time before 9/11, and neither of which condition miraculously emerged phoenix-like from the ashes on that day.
Let me suggest to you that so long as the poverty rates for people of color in this country are two to three times the rates for whites, that we are anything but united.
So long as 42 million people go without health care, and millions live just a layoff or major illness away from destitution, and even homelessness, we are anything but united.
So long as there are a million black children living in families with less than $7000 in annual income--a 50% increase in the number of such kids in extreme poverty in just the past three years--we are anything but united.
So long as there are, according to federal data, roughly 3 million cases of housing discrimination against people of color each year in this country, we are anything but united.
So long as my Arab and Muslim brothers and sisters are being profiled as likely terrorists, in ways that no white men were in the wake of Oklahoma City, we are anything but united.
So long as hundreds of thousands of women continue to face glass ceilings, and worse--sexual assault--in their homes, and even at the Air Force Academy, we are anything but united.
So long as my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters can be fired just because they are gay or lesbian, or arrested in their homes for consensual sexual activity, we are anything but united, and I should add, anything but free.
As we search in vain for those weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and fail to find them (even the $1.5 billion dollars worth of chemical and biological weapons that American corporations sold Saddam for all those years), let us remember that we have our own weapons of mass destruction, and I'm not talking about our bulging stockpiles of war material. Rather I refer to other kinds of weapons, weapons which kill and maim more Americans than Osama bin Laden ever has: they are weapons known as indifference, apathy, fatalism, and a sense of resignation to the way things are.
Because the fact is, none of the progress about which we as a nation like to boast came about as a result of folks being passive, or conforming, or because people accepted the system into which they were born.
And change certainly never comes about if people are too afraid to issue harsh critiques of their nation's flaws for fear that small-minded, scared little men with radio or TV talk shows or cabinet-level positions might call them unpatriotic.
Patriotism, if it is to have any value whatsoever, must mean the desire to set right the wrongs present within one's own nation; to demand justice and equity and to oppose anything and anyone that stands in the way of either.
Patriotism does not mean waving a flag, saying a pledge, chanting "USA, USA," at some jingoistic pep rally, and then ignoring everything the Constitution says your nation was supposed to be about. It does not mean nation-worship, and if it does, then God help us, patriotism has become little more than modern idolatry, and is a concept with which we can do without.
For those people of color, seeking to navigate the waters of a society still not fully committed to treating you as the equals you are, please know that you are the generation your ancestors prayed for, and you are capable of transforming this land. What's more, you are entitled to do so, seeing as how your parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents have no doubt paid for it many times over.
And for whites, wondering where we fit in this struggle for racial equity and justice, I say to you that we must learn to listen, to follow, to be allies in the truest sense of the word; to challenge this society even when, and especially when, it provides to us unearned privileges because of our skin color, our history, and the inertia propelled into the present-day by that history.
And not because of some misplaced liberal guilt, but because racism diminishes us as well, and steals a part of our humanity by separating us from our brothers and sisters of color.
Now I know this can be hard to hear. It is easier, I suspect, to content oneself with the clichéd notion of personal innocence--as in, "I didn't do it, I never owned slaves, I never killed an Indian, I never discriminated against anyone"--but truly, it is a little late in the proverbial day for that.
Because you see, we inherit the legacy of what has come before. History does not start, and stop, and then start again. There is no reset button that allows us to go back to a state of innocence long after that innocence has been delivered stillborn.
So although we may not be responsible for the creation of a system of racism, among other forms of injustice, we are responsible nonetheless for doing something about that system from this point forward. To do less is to collaborate with the original sin, to make us no better than those who set things up this way.
Perhaps a story can make the point here by way of analogy.
Shortly after I graduated from college, I made the decision to move into a large house with nine other roommates. Please note, and let me spare you the experience, this is never a good idea. But we thought at the time that it would be great. It would be really cheap and we would even share grocery expenses, and take turns cooking so as to share responsibility for the group.
And one night, about two weeks into our little experiment in collective living, one of my roommates made a big pot of Gumbo, because that's what you do in New Orleans.
And when I returned from work that night, he asked if I wanted some. I said no, having already eaten; but I asked him to please save some for me and to put it in the fridge for the next day, as I might take it to work with me; and then I went upstairs to my room, watched TV and went to bed.
The next morning, I come down for my coffee before heading out the door, and what do I see but that pot of Gumbo, half-full, still sitting on the front left burner of the stove. No portion of it had been saved for me, but more to the point, a great quantity of food had gone to waste. And I was upset. Having a little time on my hands, I thought to myself, perhaps I should clean up this mess.
But then I caught myself, and I thought, "Wait a minute; I didn't make this mess; this isn't my fault, and so I'm not cleaning it up." And I took my self-righteousness out the door and went to work.
About 6 o' clock, I returned home and noticed another roommate cooking the evening's dinner on the front right burner of the stove, but on the front left burner, there was still that pot of Gumbo, getting nastier, and crustier and funkier by the minute.
And I asked roommate number two what he was doing; why was he cooking around last night's dinner; why hadn't he cleaned up first?
To which he responded that he hadn't made that mess; that it wasn't his fault; and so he shouldn't have to clean it up--logic with which I could hardly argue, as indeed I had said the same thing just a few hours earlier. So I grabbed a plate of the night's meal, went to my room, did some work and went to bed.
7 a.m. came, and I had forgotten to set my alarm, but I really didn't need one; for I assure you that when Gumbo has been sitting on a stove for thirty-six hours, the smell will extend beyond the kitchen, will travel up the stairs, down the hall, under your door and through your keyhole, and assault--in a way I cannot describe--your nostrils; and indeed that is what happened.
And now I was mad. I bolted down the stairs, glared at the pot of Gumbo, as if somehow I expected it to return the stare. I saw it sitting there, now even nastier, and funkier, and there was not a roommate in sight.
And it was at that point that I said to myself, "I might not have made this mess, this may not be my fault, but I'm going to clean it up, simply because I'm tired of living in the funk."
And you see, it is the same with human societies. When we finally become tired of living in the funk, in the residue of injustice passed down to us from previous generations we will seek to clean it up, issues of blame and guilt aside.
Not to say that it will be easy of course. Cleaning up a pot of two-day Gumbo after all is a lot easier than transforming a culture.
People will tell you that you can't change the way things are; others will ridicule you for even trying, and often times your efforts will fail. They will, in fact, likely fail more often than they succeed. But that doesn't matter, because--and please never forget it--there is redemption in struggle.
Win or lose--and don't get me wrong, we indeed fight in the hopes of winning true justice--there is something to be said for confronting the inevitable choice one must make in this life, between collaborating with or resisting injustice, and choosing the latter.
There is something to be said for knowing you did all you could to stop a war, eliminate racism, or improve your community for the good of all. There is something to be said for a good night's sleep, and the ability to wake in the morning, look in the mirror, and never doubt that if today were your last, that you would have lived a life of integrity.
For although we never know when our efforts will succeed, or even if they will at all, we do know one thing as surely as we know that the sun will rise and set each day; we know what will happen if we DON'T do the work: nothing.
And given that choice, between the certainty of defeat and the promise of justice, in which territory lies the measure of our resolve and humanity, I will gladly and without reservation opt for hope. And I'm hoping you will too.
So as James Baldwin put it: "The world is before you, and you need not take it or leave it as it was when you came in."