American actress Viola Davis, star of ABC’s critically acclaimed show “How to Get Away with Murder,” delivered the keynote address to the Class of 2019 at Barnard’s 127th Commencement on Monday, May 20, 2019 at Radio City Music Hall. She spoke about America’s complicated history, rising above childhood poverty, and making it against all odds.
Thank you. I love you, too. And I’m going to show you how much I love you. This speech, these pages have all of my breakfast items on it. Avocado toast, jelly, everything. [Laughs]
President Beilock, distinguished faculty, alumnae, family, friends, the 657 or so sisters in the audience, graduating class. I’m going to make it plain: “History is not the past. It is the present. We carry history with us. We are our history.”
In other words: You’re a product of your environment. Now that term is usually relegated to people from low-income, crime-infested areas…but why? We all are a product of our environment.
Your existence is an amalgamation of every triumph, every hard-won battle, every woman who had an idea and massaged it, and had the courage to use it to change the world. Every person who survived slavery, Jim Crow and the black codes, to the Trail of Tears, wars…and passed their dreams on to you—of love, of hate. Yup, you are also the product of the other: Of silence, of apathy, a school built on stolen ground. Of women, a parent, grandparent, ancestor who suppressed dreams and ideas, who died with lost potential and horrific memories of sexual assault, mental illness, who didn’t feel good enough, or pretty enough or ENOUGH. Even your anxiety is part of your history…and yet here you are. Privileged, blessed…to do…what?
There are two roads that I see that people usually take: The choice to think that your path is all about you and your success, how high you can climb in your career and your status. Or, the so-called “save the world” approach, where you have a vision for the world and, by God, you will change it because you’re different. The first road requires you to mistake your presence for the event, to be in complete denial; and, the second requires you only to deny the really bad stuff. It requires you to forget racism, not see color, intersectionality, poverty… “but maybe I’ll take the sexism because it pertains to me.” Forget any evidence in my family of mental illness, of violence. Forget anything in me that will get in the way. Forget my fear, my pain. BOTH dead end. Both result in well-intentioned, very bright, enthusiastic people doing NOTHING.
There are two roads that I see that people usually take: The choice to think that your path is all about you and your success, how high you can climb in your career and your status. Or, the so-called “save the world” approach, where you have a vision for the world and, by God, you will change it because you’re different.
How about this as a novel idea: How about owning it? Owning ALL of it—the good and the bad. Own the fact that the 39 delegates who wrote the greatest document, with the greatest mission statement, wrote it when slavery was an institution, Native Americans were being slaughtered and women were fighting for their lives. Own the 100 years of Jim Crow that were implemented after the 13th Amendment, restricting the rights of people who were a quarter black, an eighth black, black-black, Native Americans, Malays, Hispanics, Jews. Own every gun-toting, violent, hate-filled shooter. And own the fact that THAT is America. Own every heroic deed, great idea. Own the mission statement of THIS school. Own all of your memories and experiences, even if they were traumatic. Own it! Own IT! The world is broken because we’re broken. There are too many of us who want to forget. Who said that all of who you are has to be good? All of who you are is who you are. It hurts, you rage, battle it out, ask, “Why?” Then you forgive, reconcile and use your heart, your courage and vision to fix, to heal and then, ultimately, to connect, to empathize. And that empathy creates a passion for people and it all is the fuel of the warrior—a brave, experienced soldier or fighter.
It’s like Thomas Merton said, “If you want to study the social and political history of modern times, study hell.” Power concedes nothing without a demand. Know what that means? Women are under siege: suicide rates have skyrocketed, our reproductive rights are seriously in jeopardy, as is our pay, our healthcare, our safety, our worth. Sex trafficking has risen by 846 percent in the last five years and three-quarters of the victims are women of color. And in the greatest country in the world, we’ve seen a 26.6 percent increase in women dying during childbirth, and a 243 percent increase amongst black women.
You are graduating from a school whose mission it is to not just hand you a diploma, but a sword. You either start wielding it or you put it away as a conversation piece. Because there is a cap to success. Now everybody tells you that’s what you got to hit, that’s the best of the best that you can have in life. And then you hit it and then comes disillusionment, exhaustion, isolation, the imposter syndrome and a loss of passion. Because no one talks about the real final cap, the real ceiling—and that’s significance.
That living life for something bigger than yourself is a hero’s journey. That answer to your call, to adventure and journeying forth with mentors and allies, and facing your greatest fears, where you either die or your life as you know it will never be the same. And then you seize the sword, the insight, the treasure. The hero at that stage must put all celebrations aside to prepare for the final battle. The road back. The road back is the moment where the hero goes back to the ordinary world, where she must choose between her own personal objective and that of a higher cause. The reward? Your gift to the ordinary world? [sighs] That is the Holy Grail, the elixir.
What’s your elixir?
You know, my testimony is one of poverty. You know, you heard I grew up in Central Falls, Rhode Island. And let me tell you something about poverty: You’re invisible. Nobody sees the poor. You have access to nothing. You’re no one’s demographic. You know what my “a-ha” moment was? I had a memory when I was nine years old, and I remember my parents fighting in the middle of the night. It was so bad that I started screaming at the top of my lungs, and I couldn’t stop. My older sister Dianne told me to go in the house or people would hear me. I ran in the house. I ran to the bathroom, screaming still, just couldn’t stop. And got down on my knees, and closed my eyes, I put my hands together and said, “GOD! If you exist, if you love me, you’ll take me away from this life! Now I’m going to count to 10 and when I open my eyes, I want to be gone! You hear me?!” And I put my hands together and I was really believing it. “One!” And then I got to eight. “Nine! 10!” And I opened my eyes … and I was still there. But, He did take my life. He left me right there so when I gained vision, and strength, and forgiveness, I could remember what it means to be a child who was hungry. I could remember what it means to be in trauma. I could remember poverty, alcoholism. I could remember what it means to be a child who dreams and sees no physical manifestation of it. I could remember because I lived it! I was there! And that has been my biggest gift in serving.
“You can only understand people if you feel them in yourself.”
And you know what? In the words of Joseph Campbell, you have not even to risk the adventure alone, because the heroes of all time have gone before you. The labyrinth is fully known; you have only to follow the thread of the hero-path. And where you had thought to find an abomination, you shall find a god. And where you had thought to slay another, you shall slay yourself. And where you had thought to journey outward, you shall come to the center of your own existence. And where you had thought to be alone, you shall come to be with all the world.
Now, you know, I jumped out of a plane recently—lost my mind for half an hour. But, you know, when you’re flying up in the plane, you’re anticipating the jump, your heart is beating, you’re praying, you’re doing everything possible and then your instructor says, “It’s time.” And this is usually my Wakanda salute to my sisters, okay? [Puts both hands up in front of her and keeps them up for the remainder of the speech.] So, this is how I’m going to end it: when you put your legs outside of that plane, he tells you to “put your hands up, put your head back, and then you fall.” So with my hands up, what I’m saying is that on this day of your genesis, your leap, your commencement, your mark in your history, perhaps your elixir is simply this: that you can either leave something for people or you can leave something in people.
Source: Bernard College