Keynote Address by Freeman A. Hrabowski III
... the power of music and such words as "truth" and "justice," and the gift of Chava to elevate our souls.
One more round of applause for Chava, please.
Oh, it's amazing.
Mr. President, and to the faculty and staff and members of the dais and the trustees and all the wonderful families, and to the great Class of 2018: Good morning! Good morning.
Commencement is a deeply personal experience and an experience involving the value of community. Young people, I couldn't help but think, as your chairman of the trustees was talking, that it was 48 years ago I was sitting at my institution, at my beloved Hampton. I'm sitting there and I'm about to graduate and I just asked my girlfriend to marry me. And she had said yes, thank goodness. And I'm wondering, "Will I be a good husband?" And I'm wondering — we're going off to grad school — "Will I be okay in grad school?" And somehow there were words that I didn't know then that I know now that might have helped. The words were from Mr. Burr to Mr. Hamilton and the words are these: "Smile more, talk less." And there's my first message.
My wife is still with me ... give her a round of applause ... for 48 years. Very proud of that. Thank God. A wonderful mother.
You know, some people may not understand why we keep congratulating and thanking mothers but if you got a momma, you understand. I want all mothers to get up and stand so we can celebrate you one more time. Mothers and grandmothers, stand up! Mothers and grandmothers, stand up! Let us see who you are! And women who take care of other people's children. We can never celebrate our mothers too much. Never, never. Oh!
I am privileged today to have a kitchen cabinet. I asked to speak to several members of your class because I wanted to hear from them about you, the Brandeis experience, and what they might suggest that I would say. And so I want Jacob and Lilly and Amber and Hannah and Gbenga to stand and be applauded. They've been helping me out. Wherever you are, stand up, let them see you.
Thank you so much. Amazing.
One of the reasons I like to do that is to make the point that whatever I might say will not be something you don't already know, that the fact is whatever wisdom you need, not only for today but for your lives, quite frankly, is a matter that is about how you were raised. All the lessons that were really important in your life come down to how your mommy and daddy helped you to grow to who you are, and then the faculty here who have made you to become the well educated people you are.
And so their messages to me were these: the value of community, both the outside community and being committed to making a difference; the social justice issue that this campus is known for from its beginning; the notion that community within the institution and the different communities, that we all need networks of people who can be supportive of us; and the fact that you had challenges — as was mentioned early that you lost two classmates and you grieved together and it brought you closer. The fact that you will be the last class that ... part of that activism group that said to your beloved Brandeis, "You can be better. We can be better. We can more inclusive than ever before."
Give yourselves a round of applause for what you did to make this campus better than it has been.
Each of us is a collection of stories, and I'm from the Deep South. I like to say that Baltimore is the upper south. "Upper south." One day we think like Philadelphia, the next day like Richmond. But Birmingham, my home town — the Deep South. And I begin with several stories.
In 1948, the year this university was founded, my mother led an amazing protest. She was a teacher, and she was very bothered because black teachers were paid much less than white teachers with the same education. She led that protest and she was fired. And amazingly within days another school system picked her up, and she always said it was the best firing she could have ever had, because she stood up for justice.
Give my mother a round of applause. She stood up for justice.
As it turns out, she went and worked at a school where the mother of one of your alumni was also working. The mother of Angela Davis and my mother were two very, very activist teachers there in the Birmingham city schools. It was powerful to see these teachers who would stand up for what's right in the same way that Justice Brandeis talked about the importance of free speech, the importance of standing up for the common man, and of social justice, and of pursuing the truth, of letting nothing get in the way of pursuing the truth.
And so my message to you today, graduates, is that the way you think about yourselves, the language that you use, the way you interact with each other, the values that you hold, will be so important. You become like the things you love. I challenge you today to dream about the possibilities. It was Harriet Tubman who said, "Every great dream begins with a dreamer." And you have this possibility.
You know, when I talked with the students what I could sense was their passion of wanting to know, "What can I do to make a difference? How will I have an impact?" I'm here to tell you today that you are, first of all, among the most privileged human beings on the face of the earth, in one of the most privileged countries, in one of the finest universities in the world, and of those to whom much is given, much is required. And what's so good about you is that you're ready and prepared to lead.
Justice Brandeis said the most important office in our country is that of private citizen. It's the notion that you as educated people will always make sure that when you make a statement you can back it up with evidence, that you have been taught here to listen to different perspectives in the same way that Justice Brandeis talked about the importance of free speech, that you know also, though, how to analyze and determine and make that distinction between truth and simply somebody saying something. And I would challenge you as the most privileged, not only to be able to make those distinctions for yourselves, but in your work. Whatever you're doing as a teacher, as a lawyer, a doctor, scientist, an artist — whatever you do, that you continue through your actions and through everything that's about you to make the point that nothing is more important than seeking the truth.
You know, you are by far ... Give me a hand for the truth. We can never say it enough, that we must always call it out when it's not that way.
And so my messages are very simple.
Number one: Have a sense of self. You know, I had this privilege of marching with Dr. King. I was such a frightened little kid. I was just a chubby little kid who loved mathematics. But what I wanted was a better education. I'm sitting there in that jail, and it was awful. Treated like animals. And Dr. King said with our parents out front, he said, "What you do this day as children will have an impact on young people who've not yet been born." Well, after that we had the Civil Rights Act and the Higher Education Act and the Voting Rights Act, and today you stand here. You are here in the audience in a way that 50 years ago we could not have been here. Fifty years ago we could not have been with all these countries, and all the international and the domestic diversity. Your parents know exactly what I'm saying. And this institution has always supported all kinds of people, but the fact is ... and the numbers and the ways in which you're doing it. So I want you to have that sense of self. I had to be taught to believe in myself even in jail. I had to be taught that I was not an animal, that I could not allow other people to define who I am. Don't you ever allow anyone to define who you are.
Big round of applause to define who you are. You define who you are, and don't you ever let anybody make you into a victim. You are not to be a victim. Remember that. You are a graduate of Brandeis seeking the truth, being about justice.
And then I want you to always ask good questions. One of my heroes is I. I. Rabi, the Nobel laureate physicist in the '40s who said when he was growing up in New York all of his friends' mothers would ask them at the end of a school day, "What'd you learn in the school?" He said, "Not my Jewish mother." He said, "My mother would say, 'Izzy, did you ask a good question today?'" And the practice of encouraging his curiosity made him the thinker he became. Keep asking the good questions.
And then finally: never stop learning. You are just beginning. What you have now, whether undergrad through grad, is the ability to learn and to think. Samuel Beckett, the Irish novelist who wrote in French, talks in one of his books about the dancing of bees. When bees are dancing they're actually communicating. And he said this: "Here is something I could study all my life and never understand it." And he says it with rapture, because the more he begins to understand the dancing of the bees and how they communicate, the more he realizes there's so much more to know. And there is the beginning of wisdom, when we realize we have so much more to learn.
So as you smile and listen, as you analyze the truth versus that which is not, as you make the presentation to fight for social justice, don't ever forget your stories. Tell your mothers, your grandmothers, your fathers, you want to know your stories, because you stand on their shoulders. They have struggled over generations. This university is the collection of so many wonderful stories from all over the world.
And I close with words from a story about my mother at the end of her life. She had come from Alabama. She had been somebody to quote Zora Neale Hurston, and, "Ships at a distance have every man's wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of the sight, never landing until the watcher turns his head away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by time. That is the life of men." And she would say, "And women." And the fact was that education makes the difference.
And there she had come to live with us, this brilliant woman, this teacher of English, and all of a sudden we realized she had developed dementia. You don't want to see your parents going downhill. Somehow one day we're sitting out on the porch and she said, "I know the end is near." Now she didn't even who I was. She knew I was familiar. It was very painful. And I said to her, "What's important to you?" Because at the end of one's life you get the essence of the person. She looked at me and she gave me the gift I give to you: she said, "What's important: relationships." I was about to cry. And she said, "My relationship with my God." She said, "You hold on to your faith. You'll be okay."
Give me a hand for that idea, of having that relationship with one's God.
And then she said, "My relationship with my husband. He's a wonderful man." She'd forgotten daddy had died years before. And then she shocked me, students. She looked me right in my face and she said, "You know, I have a son." "Oh my God," I'm thinking she's gonna tell me she had a kid when she was a teenager and she's just telling me about it. All of my grief turns to anger and I'm thinking, "TMI — Too Much Information." If I haven't had a brother at this point I don't want a brother, right? And she said, "He's a college president, and he's a college president." Thank God. She was talking about me, all right?
But here is the gift I give to you: she said, "You know, I now understand that teachers touch eternity through their students. Teachers touch eternity through their students." Young people, you are all teachers, you are all leaders, and I challenge you to watch your thoughts; they become your words. Watch your words; they become your actions. Watch your actions; they become your habits. Watch your habits; they become your character. Watch your character; it becomes your destiny.
Dreams and values, young people. You are so good and you're gonna be even better.
Thank you to the Class of 2018! Thank you to the Class of 2018!