Class of 2017: Congratulations!
A friend of mine was a professor here at Williams some years ago and, in preparing to come here, I asked him to tell me about Williams. Had he enjoyed his time here? He said he had. What are the students like, I asked him. He said, “they’re cool.” Now, ‘cool’ seemed to me a bit unexpected, and so I asked exactly what he meant by ‘cool’. “Well,” he said, “they’re geeks.” Which I thought was rather lovely, because it seemed to him self-evident that to be a geek was to be cool. And so I particularly liked the idea of Williams as a college of cool geeks. My friend also said: “the students are hardworking, and their parents are very, very involved.” And so I want to say a big ‘congratulations’ to all the parents, because it appears that this is also your graduation. And congratulations to uncles and aunts and grandparents and all the other wonderful permutations of family here.
I asked a few other people who know Williams what they could tell me. I was looking for insider tips, the sorts of things I couldn’t find from reading proper histories of Williams. And one of them said to me, “Whatever you do, do not say anything good about Amherst College.” Now that was helpful, because it gave me an idea for this address—which is that I would begin by briefly telling you how wonderful Amherst is, and how unfortunate it is that you are graduating from Williams instead of from Amherst.
So, class of 2017, congratulations on graduating from a college that is consistently ranked number one among American liberal arts colleges. It’s impressive and terrifying. I read somewhere that graduating students never remember their commencement address. So you won’t remember anything I have to say, which I find quite comforting, because I don’t expect to say anything particularly memorable. But I do hope that you will always remember the emotional shape of today. That you will remember the sense of transition that today represents, that you’ll remember how today is both an ending and a beginning. I imagine you are exhausted and sleep deprived and relieved, and maybe you have mixed feelings that you cannot quite articulate yet. But whatever it is, I hope you enjoy today. I hope you make today meaningful to you, because this is it. You will not be graduating from Williams College again.
I read about this Williams graduation tradition of dropping a pocket watch from the campus chapel. If the watch breaks, it means that your class will be lucky. My first thought was that it seemed to me a suspiciously easy way of predicting good luck, because surely the watch always breaks. And does it matter how the watch is dropped? I mean, are we talking about a gentle act or a fierce fling?
But reading about that tradition made me think of good luck, or what I like to call fortune. Because I think luck is important. And luck has played a role in the success that I have achieved as a writer. I am not saying this to practice that kind of false modesty in which one coyly refuses to claim one’s success. I am instead acknowledging that there are writers out there in the world who write as well or better than I do, and who have not had the same success as I have. I was fortunate that an agent took me on. Her words to me were, “I will take a chance on you.” I was fortunate that my first novel was published 15 years ago at a time when the American publishing industry was going through a new kind of flexibility and openness. But the thing about luck is that you have to be prepared to meet it. It’s just one ingredient out of many. Sometimes you have to nudge fortune a little, sometimes badger fortune and keep trying. Because luck is never enough.
Writing is what I love. Writing is my vocation. Had I not had the good fortune of being published, I would be somewhere, completely unknown, but I would be writing. And I also would be doing the two things that I consider the essential corollaries of writing: reading and dreaming.
But I made the decision to be published. I did the research. I wrote and re-wrote stories. I sent out manuscripts—this was in the late 1990s, before email became common—and I spent a lot of the little money I had buying stamps for self-addressed envelopes. And each time I went to the mailbox and saw my own handwriting on a thick envelope, I knew that my manuscript had been sent back, and I would feel sad. And I would give myself a bit of time to be upset, and then I would dust myself up and go look up more literary agent addresses in the library and send off a new batch of manuscripts. I got rejection after rejection, but I kept sending them out. And then I got lucky. Which is to say that my determination and my hard work and my ambition met with fortune. Yes, ambition. And to all of you, particularly to the women—because so many studies have shown how unfairly American society judges women who are considered ambitious—I want to say: please own your ambition. Ambition is not a bad word. The desire to be better and to do better is not a bad thing.
I was also writing short stories and sending them out to journals. And for each story I sent out that was rejected, I knew that it was either that the story was a bad fit for that particular journal or that the story was just bad. Maybe the characters were flat. Maybe the prose was limp. Which is to say that it’s very helpful to be clear-eyed about your own work, to be able to hold in your hand the possibility that you might not have done your best.
I grew up in Nigeria. Mine was a very happy childhood, but it was also a childhood under military dictatorships. And because of that, I know how easily injustice becomes normal. I know how quickly, in the face of sustained mediocrity, we collectively lower our standards so that unacceptable things suddenly become ‘not so bad.’
This is not a perfect country. It is in fact not as hallowed as American nationalists like to think. But it was built on an idea that is humane, and beautiful, and very much worth perfecting. What America will become is now in the hands of your generation. You cannot be complacent—you cannot afford to become complacent—because democracy is always fragile. To keep a just society just has nothing to do with being on the political left or on the political right. It requires people who know that incompetence dressed up as strategy is still incompetence. And still unacceptable.
It requires resilient and resistant people who believe in the true idea of America, and in the idea of truth, and in the idea of just laws, and who will constantly and consistently take a stand. As you go forth into the world with your newly minted diplomas—whether to brave your way through graduate school or take on new jobs or hunker down in your parents’ basement—I want to ask you to please always take a stand. Stand for social justice. To paraphrase something I heard recently: be ashamed to die until you have taken one stand that benefits humanity.
It’s easy to talk about social justice, especially now in this age of hasty hashtags on social media. Which brings me to social media. Now please allow me to give a condensed version of a rant that I frequently deliver to my nephews and nieces. A rant which, by the way, has remained ineffectual.
The rant is this: put the damned phone down. Well, at least for a few hours a day. Read a book. Talk to other human beings. And when you do pick up the phone again, before you tweet or Snapchat or Instagram, call your parents. Or call an aunt. Or go outside and do something that you will not be photographing or videotaping for social media. In the grand scheme of things, views and likes on social media really mean nothing. Okay, that’s not true. They do mean something, in the way that they represent a fleeting, but still enjoyable, validation. And of course now in the age of something called ‘social media influencers’, they can be monetized. So it is not that being on social media doesn’t matter—it does matter. It does have its good uses. But the question is how much social media should matter, how much space social media should occupy in your life. Less than it did in college, I would suggest.
I would suggest, too, that you be very clear about the artifice that social media is. And that you try and have real connections with actual people that you actually know. Too much social media is like eating too much of a moist, too-sweet, too-rich, too-everything cake. You like it while you’re stuffing yourself, but afterwards, you feel less than good. And you realize you would have been better off with a little less cake. I speak from experience, by the way. Not with social media, but with cake.
Okay, now the rant is over. You can imagine why my nieces and nephews don’t like to visit me. Oh-one more thing about social media. Please don’t be one of those people who attack others under the cowardly cloak of social media. It is the most uncool thing in the world. And you, after all, are cool geeks.
But back to social justice. When the Nigerian government passed a ridiculous law that aimed to punish Nigerian citizens for being gay, I spoke up against it. An acquaintance told me that he didn’t understand why I wouldn’t just be quiet about it. You have nothing to gain, but everything to lose, he said. But I did have something to gain. Living in a just society is a huge gain. Not merely in moral terms, although those are terribly important, but also in practical terms. Your productivity and your well-being increase if you live in a system of justice. You are better off if your fellow citizens are better off. When I talk about standing for social justice, I mean some of the obvious things such as voting, helping others register to vote, calling your elected officials, actually knowing who your elected officials are, and paying attention to local politics. (And by the way, I would like to digress a bit and implore all the political science graduates here to please change the structure of American politics. Please work to drastically shorten campaign cycles. Please work to remove the soul-destroying influence of money. Please work to make this democracy truly democratic.)
But sometimes, standing for social justice can mean listening. Truly listening.
Be open to anyone who does not wish you harm. American politics is so deeply tribal now that a common response is to demonize the other side. I won’t ask you to never demonize a person with an opposing view because, quite frankly, some views deserve to be demonized. But don’t make demonization your first option. Listen first. Hear what is being said. Engage with it. Gauge it. Then form your opinion.
To stand for social justice is, in many cases, to be uncomfortable. Please, be willing to be uncomfortable. You might squirm a bit. You should squirm a bit, because nobody really enjoys being uncomfortable. But be uncomfortable. Discomfort can breed resilience. Discomfort can open up new understanding and meaning and knowledge. Standing for social justice is not without consequences. And there are worse consequences than being uncomfortable.
It is not enough to speak for the voiceless. You must work for conditions that enable the voiceless to themselves be heard. It is not enough to help. You must also ask why those you are helping are in a condition to be helped and whether there are structural changes to be made to give them back their full dignity.
And be careful not to define injustice in foreign terms. I am always half amused and half annoyed by Americans who are very keen to ask me about the terrible state of something called ‘Women in Africa’. And believe me, the news is not good. So the creeping impatience I feel is not because they are wrong, but because they have narrowly decided to define gender injustice as a foreign problem. Gender is as much a problem in the United States as it is in Nigeria; it just happens to wear a different kind of dress here. More women die in childbirth in America than should for country that is ostensibly the most powerful in the world. There is domestic violence, the pay gap, the abysmal number of women in positions of power, the cultural and societal ideas that diminish women, the idea that a room full of men can arbitrarily make decisions about women’s bodies.
So yes-there is great injustice in the far-flung places of the world. And there is injustice in your backyard.
Standing for social justice must invariably require acknowledging privilege. And I don’t mean that common expression in colleges, “check your privilege,” which to me feels a bit too easy, a bit too simple, bordering on glib. In thinking about privilege, it helps me to use my own experience. I am black (in case you didn’t notice), and I am a woman. And while I am very happily both, and would not change either for anything in the world, these are not identity groups that are privileged. But I do belong to another group that is privileged, and that is class. It means that because I grew up in a middle-class household and I had the good fortune of a good education in Nigeria because of the family I was born into, and because I have since acquired certain degrees, the world extends courtesies to me that it does not extend to people who do not have these qualities. How does this blind me? What am I unable to see because my own experience lies like a shroud around my eyes? If you are a white woman, you are privileged because you are white. In what ways does this blind you to the experience of women who are not white? If you are a student of color, there are many ways in which you are not privileged. But if you are graduating today, there is one way in which you now are. You have a fancy-pants degree. It means a certain kind of access. It means you have something that a majority of Americans do not have.
And if you are a straight white male, well- congratulations, you hit the jackpot. You belong to the groups that have the most privileges in this country and consequently the most possible blind spots, which means you might need to be checked at LensCrafters for a pair of glasses. But it also means that you have to be part of the solution.
So yes—calling out privilege is important, because very often privilege gets in the way of true social justice. But as you call out privilege, always make yourself complicit and beware of self-righteousness. And remember that every single person has gone through some challenge in their lives. Privilege does not mean an endlessly easy life. Privilege is always relative to something else. Privilege means that you fall into a group that has advantages that another group does not. Please do not use the idea of ‘privilege’ as a silencing tool, as a club to hit people over the head and make them silent–because there is possible value in everybody’s story. And remember that labels do not always capture the full texture of people’s lives.
I’d like to end with this line from Emily Dickinson: “Hope is the thing with feathers.” It makes me imagine hope as something both breakable and forceful.
May you always be propelled by Hope.
May you always remain the cool geeks that you are.
And I hope that pocket watch broke. If it didn’t break, you need to go back and fiercely fling it down until it breaks.
Congratulations. I wish you well.