Address to the class of 2016, Hunter College winter commencement ceremony
Thursday, January 21, 2016 – Remarks as prepared
To President Jennifer Raab; to the leadership of CUNY; to the deans, faculty, and staff; to the family and friends of the graduates; and, most importantly, to the Hunter College class of 2016: Congratulations!
Today, we celebrate a wonderful occasion for you, for Hunter College, for our city, and for our country. Yes, we marvel at your accomplishments—at your resolve and resilience. Yes, we pause in awe and appreciation for your tomorrows—full of promise. But this moment also belongs to history—the histories from which you emerge, and the history that you will make.
For my part, I come from a personal story not vastly different from many of yours. The child of a single mother—the product of Head Start and public schools—I know what it’s like to attend class, while holding down more than one job; to make friends in the financial-aid office; to work through the summer because you can’t take a break when on the verge of going broke.
And I know what it means to graduate from a great public institution like Hunter, one of the defining innovations in American history; colleges and universities where ambitious and bright young people can pursue their dreams, regardless where they begin in life.
Indeed, history is exactly what I’d like to discuss with you this afternoon—even as we look ahead to your bright and brilliant futures.
Of course, from our history, we draw our sense of perseverance—of grace and grit. In our history, we see the roots of many of our thorniest challenges. We hear the echoes of history in debates over how far the right to bear arms extends; or who does—and doesn’t—have the right to immigrate to a nation of immigrants; or the right of private donors to exert influence on public institutions.
Every civic argument—from the name of a professional football team in Washington DC; to the often tragic failures of our criminal-justice system; to the heartbreaking fact that we still need to affirm that black lives do matter—all of this, all of it, returns us to our history. As William Faulkner put it, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
During the last year or so, I’ve found myself reflecting often on the effect of history on our lives, especially in light of recent protests on college campuses from Columbia, Missouri, to New Haven, Connecticut. And I’ve found myself reflecting, in turn, on how history has propped up and protected systems that perpetuate privilege and inequality.
I think about this often because, at the Ford Foundation, our work is designed to disrupt inequality in all of its forms—and because we have found that entrenched cultural narratives often lead to persistent prejudice.
You see, narratives matter. It was a narrative about skin color and inferiority that allowed many Americans to justify centuries of slavery and discrimination. It was a narrative about gender and ability that allowed some men to deny women the right to vote—and, for that matter, equal pay today. It’s cultural narratives of “rags to riches” and “lifting yourself up by your bootstraps” that allow some people to ignore their own advantage—to mistake their running start for a fair start.
These narratives and others even inform the way we memorialize our history—who is included, and who is left out. What we remember, and what we choose to forget. In America, after all, one widespread cultural narrative is that our nation is exceptional. American exceptionalism is rooted in the earliest writings of Alexis de Tocqueville.
All across this country, people are hugely invested in this idea of America—this idealized America—that papers over the many difficult pages of our history, no matter how clear and present the effects of these problematic passages remain. But the stories that many Americans believe advances a narrative that holds us back. One recent example shows how and why this all matters.
As you all know, Princeton University is one of our nation’s oldest institutions of higher learning. Its renowned school of international affairs is named after Woodrow Wilson, the 28th president of the United States, and, before that, the 13th president of Princeton.
Woodrow Wilson was a prescient visionary and remarkable leader. He signed the Federal Reserve Act. He earned the Nobel Peace Prize for efforts to create the League of Nations, an idea that became the blueprint for our United Nations.
But Wilson also was a virulent racist. As president of Princeton, he denied admission to black students. As President of the United States, he demoted black civil servants from leadership positions in government.
Now, as a result of all this, a century later, a vigorous debate is raging about whether his name should stay on the Wilson School—about whether we still should honor this man at all.
On one side, some would remove the Wilson name, and erase any mention of him from university grounds. “It is offensive,” they understandably argue. On the other, some say keep it, maintain the status quo, and focus on the good parts of Wilson’s legacy—of which there are many. Once again, we find ourselves in a binary, polarizing debate that drives us further apart.
I will be honest. I don’t think either side is right. Erasing the symbols of an oppressive history neither changes what happened then, nor helps us make changes for the better now. Furthermore, I think the choice these two sides present—to tear down or turn away—is a dangerous one.
To me, we shouldn’t get caught in these limited binaries, because both represent destructive acts. Either we destroy history by removing the name or we destroy it by ignoring the whole truth. In many ways, these are two sides of the same coin—because both actions are based in a fear of engaging with the uncomfortable parts of our past.
And yet, our uncomfortable history is essential to our very being. Because in a larger sense, the contradictions present in the character of Woodrow Wilson are the contradictions present in the character of America.
Consider: Our founders gambled their lives, honor, and fortunes to expand rights to life, and liberty, and full citizenship while counting African Americans as three-fifths of a human being—and, by the way, without mentioning women at all. We aspire to a common good, built on collaboration and compromise while our politics have become course, debased, and degraded—often devoid of facts and evidence.
Graduates: This is us—the good, the bad, the ugly. And don’t get me wrong, I love my country and I believe fervently that the righteous still prevail over the unjust. But my point is: No matter the outward complexity or contradiction—or the controversy that may follow—the truth is not something to shy away from, or bury deep.
One other example makes the case. For years, Thomas Jefferson’s legacy was unassailable. Many scholars succumbed to the temptation to see the romance of Jefferson, not the reality. The truth, however, is that he was a man, not a marble statue—replete with foibles and flaws.
Jefferson authored the Declaration of Independence, affirming that “all men are created equal.” He was a prophetic voice, advocating for religious liberty and public education. He founded the Library of Congress and established the University of Virginia.
But Jefferson also fathered children with a woman he held in bondage, Sally Hemings, his slave. He wrote some of the most racist and odious things about black people in “Notes on the State of Virginia.”
Needless to say, the former doesn’t somehow justify the latter. Quite the contrary. At the same time, Jefferson’s contradictions don’t nullify his contributions, either. What’s most remarkable about Jefferson is that he embodies what actually makes us exceptional: Not the fact of perfection but the act of perfecting.
What makes us exceptional as Americans is a shared quest, from the moment of our founding, to expand the circle of promise and possibility. Inch by inch. Step by step. Bridge by bridge. Sometimes, blow by blow. What makes us exceptional is that we have the strength to acknowledge our own flaws and failures—and the courage to make what’s wrong into what’s right.
This is why we must demand an accounting of the past that is not over-idealized—but inclusive and honest. Why we must embrace our past—in context, completely. And why we must not allow ourselves to settle for false choices instead of hard-earned understanding.
Some already have begun this fight. Today, throughout the American South, countless monuments honor Confederate history and racial hierarchy—statues, plaques, faces carved into a mountain. But there is another narrative of the American South that is not told.
My friend Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, has been working to elevate this other narrative: Building a movement to construct markers at slave markets and lynching sites across the south, where the history of terror of AA is all but invisible, but also at the homes and meeting places of southern, white abolitionists. These people were American heroes—risking their lives, time and again—though unfortunately their stories have been lost to history. Until now, anyway.
Bryan is helping us recover and uncover the suppressed and distorted—revealing a multi-faceted history that illuminates and broadens the American narrative. He is helping us to remember a fuller, fairer story of the past—in tragedy and in triumph. He is making history by marking history, as we do, in a different sense, this afternoon.
And so, today—as you go off to make history—I ask you: What kind of history will you make? Will you write our full history, with your words and deeds? Will you right the wrongs of history with your actions, in a future that will be only as just as you make it?
And I’m not just talking with the history majors. We all have a part to play. Because when I look into your faces, I see the wider, broader history of America. A more perfect, more colorful history of America.
What’s more, as Hunter graduates, you are uniquely suited to the task of making a better, more inclusive history—because of who you are and where you come from; and because, as an institution, Hunter has strived for inclusion through its 146 years.
Hunter College, as you know, began as a school for women back in 1870, long before women had the right to vote. It became a center for women of all racial, economic, and religious backgrounds. And throughout its own history, Hunter has produced many history-makers: History-makers from communities that might otherwise have been excluded, otherwise not written into the story.
History-makers like Dr. Antonia Pantoja, who worked during the day and took classes here at night, became a vital advocate for her Puerto Rican sisters and brothers, and earned the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She made history.
Or Rosalyn Sussman Yalow, the second American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Medicine, who graduated from Hunter 75 years ago this month. She made history.
Or Lew Frankfort, son of the Bronx who became a titan of commerce, the CEO of Coach who reinvented retail for a generation. He made history.
Or Audre Lorde, the genius poet and activist, who once wrote—and I’m quoting: “It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.” She also wrote: “We cannot allow our fear of anger to deflect us nor seduce us into settling for anything less than the hard work of excavating honesty.”
Think about that. The “hard work of excavating honesty”—this is the heavy lifting in which I know you will participate.
Hunter class of 2016: I’m not asking you to rewrite history; none of us can do that. I am asking that you engage in “excavating honesty”—and to engage in the act of excavation honestly.
I know that you, because you come from Hunter, are up to the task. And for this reason—because of you—my faith in the future has never been stronger.
Thank you for allowing me to join this moment in history with all of you. I cannot wait to see where you go, and what you do, and how you honor this remarkable place you come from.