May 22, 2017

Address to the Class of 2017 Commencement Ceremony

Oberlin College

Remarks as Prepared

To President Krislov; trustees, deans, faculty and staff of Oberlin; and most importantly, to the Class of 2017: Congratulations! 

Today we celebrate your remarkable accomplishment. And while you all worked hard to get here, plenty of other people helped along the way. So, graduates, let’s show our appreciation for your friends, and family, and teachers, and loved ones. This is their triumph too.

As some of you might know, 100 years ago, on a magnificent day like this, the incredible Allen Memorial Art Museum opened here at Oberlin. Today, I’d like to take a moment to celebrate the Allen’s century of excellence, because it was on a college campus that I fell in love with the arts, and I believe the arts play a vital role in our society. 

They expand our imaginations.  They reorient our perspectives.  They challenge our assumptions. They instill the sense of empathy that binds us together—that keeps us together. 

Without the arts, we are without the tools to develop empathy.  And without empathy, there is no justice.  

There’s an old story about Benjamin Franklin. At the close of the constitutional convention, 230 years ago, someone approached him and asked: “Well, Mr. Franklin, what have we got: A republic or a monarchy?”

Franklin looked at the gentleman and said, simply: “A republic. If you can keep it.”

Class of 2017: This is what I ask you to think about today, your commencement day.  How do we keep our republic—how do we keep our democracy flourishing—not just despite our differences, but because of them? 

Spoiler alert: The answer is you.

Now, let’s face it: The stakes feel very high today. And they are. Global inequality is worsening. Here, in the United States, democratic institutions—like the media, civil society, and even the academy—are under attack, and expressions of hate are on the rise. The Southern Poverty Law Center found that, last year, the number of hate groups grew by 25% over the previous year. 

That’s enough to make one feel pessimistic about the current state of our democratic experiment. But we shouldn’t be. It’s worth remembering that while today’s threats to democracy and freedom are unique, they are not without precedence.

Recently, I’ve found myself reflecting on President Franklin Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms”—freedoms that he believed every person ought to enjoy:  Freedom of speech. Freedom of belief.  Freedom from want.  Freedom from fear. 

These freedoms inspired a famous series of Norman Rockwell’s paintings. They open the United Nation’s Universal Declaration on Human Rights. They remain the cornerstones of our democracy—of the republic that we keep.

But when we talk about freedom, we are far less likely to talk about how implicit within each of our freedoms is the responsibility to extend that freedom to others. 

In other words, freedom and responsibility are two sides of the same coin. So, “We, the People,” means that my freedom depends on your freedom.  It means that we keep democracy for one another. 

Let’s take an example: Freedom from fear.  

Everyone deserves to live free from fear. But the fact is, some people are more persecuted—and in more danger—than others. So those of us who have the privilege to be free from fear also have an obligation to act on behalf of people who do not, because when our neighbors feel less vulnerable, our community becomes less vulnerable and our democracy becomes stronger. 

This is true for all our freedoms.

Our freedom of speech means we have the responsibility to listen to each other.

Our freedom from want means we have the responsibility to serve each other.

And our freedom of belief means we have a responsibility to accept each other. 

This last freedom and responsibility—the responsibility to accept each other, with empathy—is more crucial than ever.  

Now, no doubt, freedom of belief was one of the earliest ideals that drew Europeans to the Americas—dating back to the Pilgrims and the Puritans. 

After the American Revolution, when we started our American experiment in earnest, the freedom of belief was necessary to bring all these disparate groups together. 

Remember: Pennsylvania was founded by Quakers. Maryland was founded by Catholics. We had rich elites and indentured servants. City merchants and country farmers.  Not to mention the hundreds of thousands of Africans who arrived here as slaves—stolen from their families and homes and sold into bondage—or the untold numbers of indigenous peoples who were evicted from their land and threatened with extinction. 

All of these diverse threads comprise the fabric of our history. 

Some of them—like our capacity to enslave our fellow human beings—should inspire shame and sobriety. But others—like our commitment to the freedom of belief—should inspire awe and pride, because the premise of our American experiment was, and remains, both a radical idea and a contradiction. 

Our forebears tested, and contested, profound questions:  Can we form a great nation with people from different backgrounds, beliefs and geographies who only share an aspiration of freedom?  Can we become a nation where, despite our differences, we truly believe all people are created equal?

Over the last two centuries, more people, from more places, have been captivated by this ideal, and joined in this American endeavor. 

Through the service and sacrifice of each successive generation, the circle of freedom has grown wider and wider. Irish and Italians and Jews. East Asians and West Africans—South Asians and South and Central Americans. 

And now, the promise has grown, and evolved, to the point where no matter your color or creed, your sexual orientation or place of origin—your accent, or ability, or age—you should be accepted here. The mix of beliefs and experiences represented in this country is more diverse than the founders could ever have imagined. 

Nevertheless, the work of building—and keeping—our pluralistic democracy has not exactly been easy. Nor is it finished. Nor is it ever finished. 

Unfortunately, we are continually tempted to mobilize around otherness, rather than around our common humanity. We are still fighting against those basic human tendencies and biases. We are still fighting against the reflexive push towards exclusion, rather than inclusion. And we are still fighting against racism and sexism, homophobia, ableism and Islamophobia and transphobia. 

Rising inequality makes discrimination along certain lines even easier to exert—be it class, or race, or just experience of the world. Sometimes these groups are formed based on a shared belief—on the “echo chambers” we put ourselves into.

In each instance, this fracturing of our society makes it much harder to engage with one another, and to establish, and extend, and enlarge our shared freedom to one another. In turn, our freedom of belief and responsibility to accept feels especially under attack—as more people feel threatened because of how they worship, or where their family started. 

Now I get it. Some of you might hear “responsibility to accept” and think that this is some commencement cliché or platitude, but hear me out. 

If our nation’s history includes chapters where we have mobilized against each other, it also includes chapters where we mobilized with each other.

One of the most glorious of those chapters involves Oberlin College. The history of this college has been a model of how we can accept others without accepting the status quo. 

In 1833, this college was founded on religious belief, and in its first four years, Oberlin began admitting African American students, and then women students—before any other college in the United States.

This campus has long been home to movements for justice. Oberlin was a central stop on the underground railroad before the Civil War, and served as a rallying point for abolitionist action. You have fought to keep our democracy and widen the aperture of American identity, and looked beyond our borders, leading the fight against Apartheid.  

But I want to be clear: Accepting others doesn’t mean denying our differences. 

There’s a flawed argument that you sometimes hear, particularly when it comes to race, but in other instances too. People will say, something like: “I don’t see color.” But this claim of “colorblindness” is still a form of blindness. It erases difference, rather than let us learn how to embrace and celebrate it.  

Our differences aren’t the problem. One of my sheroes is poet Audre Lorde, who once wrote:

“Certainly there are very real differences between us of race, age, and sex. But it is not those differences between us that are separating us. It is rather our refusal to recognize those differences, and to examine the distortions which result from our misnaming them and their effects upon human behavior and expectation.”

And that’s the idea behind our freedom of belief, and our responsibility to accept.

We need to accept that difference has always been a part of our American experiment—for better and for worse. We must make an effort to accept and understand that difference, not ignore it. 

We have to put in the time to understand people who aren’t like us, whether that means they grew up Christian or Muslim, Republican or Democrat, in a big city or a tiny town. 

We have to appreciate the perspectives of immigrants and indigenous peoples, and respect the grievances of poor people, regardless of their color. 

We have to understand the effects of inequality on our society, the pain and anger of people who feel vulnerable, or feel like the world has left them behind. 

We cannot afford to shut anyone out, or shut them down, just because they vote differently than us.  That is a form of giving up. That is a form of giving in to the idea that America can’t succeed. If we did that every time we disagreed, our democracy would not—and could not sustain itself. 

Our ideals and our reality have always existed in tension. The same country that declared all men were created equal was founded on slavery. We’re a nation of immigrants, with a statute in New York harbor calling out to poor huddled masses around the world, but we’re also a nation that is considering putting up walls on our borders. 

But despite those contradictions, our democracy is worth fighting for—because despite our differences, we must not lose sight of all we have in common.

And as Dr. King reminds us in The Letter from Birmingham Jail: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny”.

I believe Dr. King’s words—in part because of all the progress I’ve seen in my lifetime. I grew up black and gay in small, working class towns in the American South. I’ve known the sting of racism, the indignity of classism, the hatred of homophobia. 

But I’ve also seen the impact of social movements, and courageous women and men, who have fought not just for the freedom of belief, but the right to vote and the right to marry. Who have fought to be seen, and heard, and no longer remain silent. 

No doubt, our history—and our present moment—contain narratives that break us apart. But I choose to believe in the narratives that bring us together. 

I choose to believe in the narratives that preserve our democracy for all people—and allow us to pass its promise (and progress) from one generation to the next. 

Class of 2017:  We are endowed with the freedom of belief. But we must work to make sure that we accept each other. To empathize with others, but not normalize the act of othering. To protect the dignity of all—including and especially the people we disagree with. To walk in each other’s shoes. To be part of an American story that binds us together, rather than breaking us apart.

The iconic James Baldwin—one of my heroes—once wrote, “I know what I am asking is impossible. But in our time, as in every time, the impossible is the least one can demand.” 

This is what we should demand of each other—making the impossible, the possible; making the imperfect, more perfect.  

After all, our democracy depends on it.  This is how we keep our republic.

Oberlin class of 2017: Looking into your faces, I have every confidence that you will embrace your responsibilities—and expand the circle of our freedoms, as a result.

I implore you to seize this moment and make the America and world you want to see. This is your moment to keep our republic.