Commencement Address, May 21, 2022
University of Virginia
Thank you, Rector Clement.
To President Ryan, Board of Visitors, Administrators, devoted Faculty and staff, and the loving parents, guardians, relatives, and friends of the graduates, it is a privilege and an honor to participate in this joyous occasion.
To the members of the magnificent class of 2022, I congratulate and commend you on a job well done.
What a fellowship, what a joy divine, and what a blessedness, it has been to be a part of your educational journey.
As I stand before you, I feel not just an unspeakable joy but a profound gratitude to be in community with you, to celebrate not just your individual accomplishments but your collective achievements – achievements that extend beyond grade point averages, fellowships and awards, championship banners, and job placement rates.
What you have given the university—the gift of grace, the gift of hope, and the gift of restoration in these trying times—cannot be quantitatively measured but will forever be remembered.
When you arrived on grounds in late August 2018, the darkness of the preceding summer lingered over us, but your luminous presence provided a guiding light as we tended to our mutual woundedness and interdependence.
First years—that descriptive seemed woefully inadequate in capturing what you truly represented. You were the University’s new beginning or what Gil Scott Heron might call “the first minute of a new day.”
So, forgive me in advance for departing from the traditional commencement address, when the speaker tells you what you must do. I’d like to revel in what you have done.
The fruits of your labor bloom and blossom across this university, and because of your brilliance, resilience, and determination, this university has remained a site of critical inquiry, knowledge production, scientific innovation, imaginative and life-sustaining art, medical advancement and healing, athletic excellence, and human transformation.
For these and many other reasons, you have not only my respect but my deep admiration. It is an admiration based on real human exchange and forged through our wonderous pursuit of knowledge and truth. Collectively we have experienced the joy of discovery, the sheer delight of pushing the boundaries of existing knowledge, and the humbling recognition of how much we will never know.
Interwoven with our quest for disciplinary expertise, professionalization and vocation has been a collective reckoning with the urgency of our contemporary moment.
For us, the classroom has been anything, but a utopian oasis detached from the real-life dramas of a democratic republic in deep crisis; instead, it has been a bold experiment in shared learning and critical exchange, a place where we confront the realities of the moment but also imagine, to quote Toni Morrison, “the world as it ought to be.”
Imagining and dreaming of a better world was not always easy as we witnessed publicly coordinated attacks on the U.S. capitol, state after state pass restrictive voting laws, rising levels of income and wealth inequality, a media ecosystem that freely circulates weapons of mass distortion, the rise of authoritarian regimes, declining public faith in the scientific authority of medical experts, and a global pandemic that has left millions dead.
While navigating these challenges, we have grappled with deep philosophical and ethical questions that get at the heart of the human condition.
How do you respond to unimaginable human suffering, loss, and rupture?
How do you deal with uncertainty?
How do you keep the faith amid human, ecological, and economic calamities?
How does one survive in a sea of grief without drowning?
If I turned inward and attempted to answer these questions, I would attribute my ability to keep on keeping on to a variety of things: family and friends, faith, Grubhub, music, and my work as a historian of the African American experience privileged with the opportunity to teach and research on the long black movement toward justice, freedom, equity, and truth.
But somewhere in the equation would be you, my students.
Thank you for ensuring that the classroom remained a site of transformation and hope. Thank you for ensuring that UVA persisted as an academical village in not only name but practice.
In our shared moments together, particularly after March 2020, I came to appreciate more deeply the sacredness of the classroom, the worlds made and remade when two or more gather in the pursuit of knowledge and truth, the magic created when we allow the world’s greatest scholars, writers, scientists, and artists to transport us to another place and time.
I also came to appreciate the beauty of an intense intellectual conversation, when individuals with varying worldviews come together, to understand the other person’s perspective and the intellectual and spiritual sources of that perspective.
Thank you for never losing faith in the power of ideas and human exchange, despite balancing your multiple roles and responsibilities as students, caregivers, and workers.
Of course, your contributions extended beyond the classroom.
With fearlessness and selflessness, you illuminated those moments when UVA fell short of not just greatness but goodness.
Moved by the political fervor of the times, you tackled a variety of issues: rising tuition and student debt, campus policing, the university’s relationship to the local community, the changing patterns of work, and the increased precarity and vulnerability of essential workers during COVID-19.
In doing so you provided a model of democracy in action and reminded us that democratic renewal requires us to subject our ideas, our beloved institutions, and cherished traditions to scrutiny.
Whether critiquing the historic landscape, calling for the renaming of buildings, or pushing to inscribe your own notions of justice and fairness in the honor code, you have sought to not only right perceived wrongs but recreate community.
In her book, Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality, political theorist Danielle Allen argues that “the point of political equality is not merely to secure spaces free from domination but also to engage all members of a community equally in the work of creating and constantly re-creating that community.”
Fifty-two years ago, President Edgar Shannon echoed similar sentiments to the graduating class of 1970.
That spring semester had been marked by intense political upheaval, as students registered their critique with the ongoing war in southeast Asia and the murder of four students at Kent State. Not content with simply challenging the war in Vietnam, student activists addressed larger issues facing the university, including its integration of African Americans and women into the student body and key administrative positions, and its commitment to improving the economic conditions of workers on Grounds.
Feeling the weight of weeks of intense student organizing, as well as facing fierce criticism from lawmakers in Richmond, President Shannon cautioned against tethering the college’s vision of the future to old paradigms and formulations: “We cannot return to the ‘good old days’” he declared, “nor should we want to.” “In looking to our future here, within the University of Virginia, we must avoid, I think too much use of slogans about the ‘old University’ and the ‘new University.’ Sloganeering is a poor substitute for hard thinking. We must continue to be a true university that provides freedom and opportunity.”
Freedom and opportunity—freedom and opportunity cannot thrive under the weight of orthodoxy, rigidity, and dogmatism.
Growth—institutional and individual—requires regeneration and renewal.
And this brings me to the only advice I will provide today:
Don’t be afraid to depart from the script—the one you write and the one others will attempt to write for you.
Life is a series of promising starts, unexpected disruptions, dashed expectations, and beautiful surprises.
Unexpected change—and departures from the script—have marked my adulthood.
Upon graduating from high school, I left Jacksonville for Philadelphia, where I enrolled at Temple and played on the women’s basketball team from 1994 to 1997. Everything about the experience was transformative. And there are so many memories seared in my mind: Walking down to South Philly and hearing the “Roots” for the first time, traveling to Harlem with the poet Sonia Sanchez who annually financed a day trip to the Schomburg for her students, seeing Allen Iverson play for the first time, and listening to one of basketball’s greatest minds, John Chaney, talk match-up zone and how to cultivate a critical self.
And then there were the heated debates about everything, from philosophy to hip-hop to politics.
So invigorating were the intellectual conversations within and beyond the classroom, that my love for athletic competition faded tremendously. There was more to life, I thought, than 6 am workouts, afternoon practices, late night bus rides to and from arenas.
So, I revised the script and graduated early. The decision was exhilarating and frightening—sort of like giving a graduation speech before thousands of people.
After my bridge year, which consisted of teaching math and science to middle schoolers, I enrolled in the Ph.D. program in history at Notre Dame. In the last year of my doctoral studies, I applied for a series of professorships at colleges and universities across the country.
The decision to apply to UVA was very last minute. It seemed like a long shot.
But much to my surprise, I received an interview and eventually a job offer. After accepting the position, I received many notes of congratulations but there was one note of warning. The University of Virginia, I was told, was a conservative place steeped in tradition, the land of frats and floral dresses. And perhaps, I should consider another university.
Despite the warnings, I accepted the job. That decision remains one of the best decisions of my life. But the journey here has been anything but predictable. There have been roadblocks, unplanned exits, and unexpected detours. Of course, not all detours are bad. In fact, some provide much more than redirection from a dangerous or hazardous route. Some detours open us to new possibilities.
That was the case with the detour that has become the center of my academic joy at UVA: Black Fire, a film series and a lecture course that explores the richness and fullness of the black experience at the University of Virginia. Over the past decade, I have collaborated with my colleague, Professor Kevin Everson of the Art Department, on a series of short films that combine historical research with creative practice to highlight the rich tradition of political protest at the University, celebrate the women and men who built vibrant social and cultural institutions, and confront the hard truths of the past and the present. I also teach a large lecture course that explores many of the themes and topics present in our films, it opens in the 1960s focusing on how the Civil Rights movement transformed UVA and closes with the Unite the Right Rallies of 2017. The topics are wide ranging—we explore politics, sports, religion, Greek life, major trends and issues in higher education. One important feature of the class is guest lectures from UVA alumni, who share stories of the political battles won and lost and the vibrant social and cultural worlds they created.
For the students, there is something deeply transformative about close contact with the people who shape the landscape they are traversing. Because of their encounters with the past, students think more deeply about both their own legacy and the institutional inheritance of the next generation. As the semester progresses, two questions creep more into the conversations and assignments: How will we be remembered and for what will we be remembered?
Perhaps those questions have lingered in your thoughts over the past few days. It’s only natural. Commencement invites both celebration and reflection. I have certainly done a lot of reflecting on your remarkable journey and how you responded to unprecedented challenges without blueprint or guide. Please know that I feel incredibly blessed to have lived and learned in your presence. Your sacrifice, patience, hard work, and generosity serve as perfect reminders that transformative learning involves, to borrow from the historian Vincent Harding, “not just the sharing of information but the sharing of life.”
And that’s what you’ve done here at the University of Virginia—you’ve not only pursued your dreams, but you’ve shared your life. For that I am eternally grateful, and the University is immensely better.
Class of 2022, thank you for the gift of grace, the gift of restoration, the gift of fellowship, and on a more personal note, the gift of friendship.
Congratulations on a job well done. God speed.