Remarks as prepared for delivery
Thank you, President [Mary Schmidt] Campbell, for that warm introduction, and for your tremendous leadership not just of Spelman College, but of the entire Spelman sisterhood – a family that spans generations and stretches across borders and around the globe, all blossoming from a tree planted 135 years ago. I also want to acknowledge Chairwoman [Rosalind] Brewer and the Spelman Board of Trustees for their stewardship of this great institution. I want to salute Class President Neah Evering and Student Government President Zarinah Mustafa for all of their great work over the last year. Let me also salute my fellow honorary degree recipient, Stevie Wonder. Stevie, thank you for the joy and the inspiration that you have brought to so many people, not only through your music, but also through your generous spirit and your incomparable example. You have received so many awards, deservedly so, but I suspect your most meaningful achievement is about to walk across this stage with her class in a few moments and join you in attaining a Spelman degree.
I am so grateful to be here with you all this afternoon. It is an enormous privilege to receive an honorary degree from Spelman College. But it is an even greater gift to be a part of this happy occasion – to stand alongside the professors, administrators and family members who have given so much to help you reach this day, and to join them in applauding you on a job well done. And even though I have not been with you every step of the way, looking out at this incredible group, I can’t help but share in their pride.
Let me extend a very special welcome and acknowledgement to our most special guests – the families and friends of our graduates. You are all here to celebrate – mothers and fathers, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends – because that is what families do. We come together to commemorate these milestone occasions in your life. When you graduate, we graduate. I also suspect that we have been on you lately, it may seem like now more than ever. That’s because all of this is finally real to us. So even though we know that you are ready to fly, indeed to soar, we hold on just a little while longer. And we pull and prod and ask questions. “You want to live where? But that’s so far away! Is that apartment safe? Are you going to church? Why won’t you accept my Facebook friend request?” On that last one, my advice to you is just don’t do it. It often does seem as if we’re holding on to you so tightly now, just when you are headed off into the world. But it is because even as we see you today, in all your graduation glory, we also see you on your first day of school, when you still held our hand to cross the street. And know this: all of our prodding and questioning and hovering come from a love and a pride that is so deep and so boundless it literally takes our breath away. So please forgive us if we want to hold on just a little bit longer. Because we do know that when you hit the world, you will shine.
Now it is also possible that, when you take a look at the world you are about to inherit, you may find yourself wanting to hold on a little longer as well. It is certainly true that we are in challenging times. We have ethnic strife across the globe. We have the largest wave of refugees into Europe since World War II, with an attendant rise in xenophobia that pulls at our darkest memories. Our oceans are rising, the seas are warming. In this country as well, we face threats to our national security and our cyber security as well as threats to our most vulnerable populations. We have the challenges of building and strengthening the bonds of trust between law enforcement and the community. We have the challenge of protecting the sacred right to vote. And we still have too many instances in this beautiful country of ours where our friends, our family, suffer discrimination and harm because of where they are from, what they look like, where they worship, whom they love – or something as profoundly simple and private as where they use the restroom.
We see all of these challenges facing you, facing all of us. But let me tell you what else I see. I see a global recognition that we cannot allow the despots of the world to rest their feet on the necks of their people. I see scientific advances that will change the way we live and heal ourselves. And as painful as the incidents are that have spurred our outrage, I see a conversation on civil rights in this country the likes of which we have not had since the days of the Civil Rights Movement. My faith in our ability to not just withstand but conquer these challenges is bolstered by what else I see today. I see more than 480 strong and motivated young women who have already decided to use their choices to change the world. I see the agents of change who are already committed to making a difference in their communities. I see brilliant and driven leaders with the potential to leave a lasting mark on the world. I see Spelman graduates, who exude the poise, elegance and confidence that this institution strives to confer – the qualities that will mark you as a Spelman woman for the rest of your life. Most importantly, I see a sisterhood – one that will stand together every step of the way, no matter how difficult the circumstances or how daunting the task.
The tasks ahead certainly can seem daunting. But know this: we have been here before. We have faced fundamental challenges to our good will, to our humanity, and prevailed. Our strength as a people, as a country, has always been to turn great challenges into great opportunities. Many of our greatest advances in equal rights, in human rights, have come after searing pain and heartbreaking loss. This has never been easy, but we have always pushed ever on and with every challenge we come just a bit closer. We have held the equality of all men to be “self-evident.” We have fought to maintain a government “of the people, by the people and for the people.” And we have followed “a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.” These are our values. These are our beliefs. And when we hold on to them, we do great things.
What we have learned from all our challenges is not that our values are not true and good, but that every generation must commit to them and work to make them real for the challenges of their time. And the catalysts for change have always been young people like you – who reject stereotypes and old ways of thinking; who insist that we can and will do better.
Now, I cannot tell you that living your choice to change the world for yourself and others will always be comfortable. Nor can I predict the exact results of your actions. But I can assure you that by working to improve the circumstances of your own particular time and place, you will create ripples of change that will flow far into the future, expanding as they go in ways that none of us can imagine. If you need proof of this, look no further than the history of our country. The lawyers and merchants who gathered in the Pennsylvania State House to declare their independence from Britain did not have you and me in mind when they asserted that “all men are created equal.” But their words have inspired movements for equality ever since. Because one does not claim liberty and equality by virtue of one’s gender or race or age, but by virtue of being a child of God. The organizers of the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 did not expect to awaken a national campaign. But their example has galvanized and empowered women to this day. Because when the full force of womanhood is awakened, nations change and dreams come true. The students who sat at that lunch counter in Greensboro weren’t looking to change federal law. But their actions ignited a wave of protests throughout the South that fueled the Civil Rights Movement and helped bring about a greater society. Because when freedom is awakened in the hearts of the people, it will never sleep again. And the 11 women, some of them former slaves, who sought an education in the dim basement of an Atlanta church 135 years ago did so not knowing if their dreams of an education for themselves and their daughters – all of us – would come true. But you are here today because of them. Because of the power of black women – to lean on faith, to make a way out of no way – can move mountains.
Graduates, you are the heirs to the vision of those founders; to the courage of those suffragists; to the persistence of those students; and to the determination of those women. Each of them sought to improve their own circumstances, and in doing so, they expanded the sphere of opportunity not just for themselves, but for generations to come.
But know this: they all at one time sat where you sit today – on the brink of moving into a world they were still learning to navigate. And all of them wondered, as do you, how will I make my way? What will be my path? They moved into the world not knowing what impact they would have and in many instances not living to see the fruition of their efforts. They sought not a title, but a task. They stepped out on faith, and wanted to be known for their works.
As you prepare to leave here today, I urge you to draw strength from your inheritance. Never doubt that the smallest step can create the most sweeping change. Go forth into the world and explore the sciences that expand our world, the economies that keep it running and the laws that set us free. But never lose sight of our comrades in humanity on whose behalf we are called to work or the faith that will sustain us through it all. This is my call to you: to find your change and live it.
And so today we let go – knowing that you will soar, not just across the street but across the world. Knowing also that as much as we want to hold you close, the world needs you more.
Congratulations once again on all your accomplishments – I cannot wait to see what you will achieve. Thank you.