Monday, May 5, 2014
A commencement speech given by Silas House
at Berea College, Berea, Kentucky, 3 May 2014
I’ve spoken at many commencements but I don't believe I've ever been so honored to be speaking because you are my people, and I am so proud of you. I know how happy you are that four years—or more—of struggle are finished. I have been humbled and moved and inspired by the journey of so many of you. The best part of teaching at Berea is that I learn something from each of you every day.
I know this is a day of celebration for you, and rightly so. Because you have worked hard, you have fought the good fight. You are revolutionary because you are committed to knowledge in a time and world that increasingly values dumbness and apathy, a world that celebrates the talentless and makes celebrities out of the undignified. You are revolutionary because you are a generation that is demanding equality in a way no generation ever before has. Because I have seen you demand this equality every day by accepting each other for your differences during your time here. I’ve witnessed you loving one another not in spite of your differences but because of them. That is what true family does. I’ve watched so many of you evolve and grow; I’ve seen you trying to be the best people you can be.
And that is the most revolutionary thing of all is the act of trying our best to be good. We are not creatures composed completely of goodness. We are made up of innate meanness and a natural kindness. We are people who are forever trying to make the good the bigger part of us. I have seen the good prevail, in the way you support and encourage one another, in the ways you love your families both blood and created. And I’ve witnessed it in the way you stick up for one another and refuse to sit by while hatred and judgment happens.
Now, with all of that said, please don’t misunderstand me to be a downer when I tell you that the even bigger struggle begins today. Over the past few years you’ve lived and learned within the Berea Bubble, and to some extent, you’ve been shielded from many aspects of the wider world. But now that world looms before you, standing tall and wide and outfitted with sharp, jagged teeth. Not only the struggle to find a job and find your place in the world. But the truest struggle of all that you must work toward each and every day is being the best person you can be. Each day of your life you will have to make moral decisions. You will have to strive to be the bigger person.
And you will have to strive to remain revolutionary. To retain your power. One of my favorite writers is Alice Walker. She once said: “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.” I believe we have added to your power during your time here at Berea. We have pumped up your power to recognize injustice, to participate in civil discourse, to actively seek out ways to serve others.
But even within this beloved community—where we work every single day to examine issues of equality and service and compassion—we have seen power distorted. There have been awful instances of racism, homophobia, and classism. We have seen patriarchy rear its terrible head. The difference between this beloved community and the wider world is that I believe we truly do try our best here at Berea. Witnessing injustice is harder here because we are more conscious here at Berea. We talk about these things in a complex and mostly honest way. The same is not true in that sharp-toothed world awaiting you. Because when you encounter injustice there, no one will appear to ask for you to reflect on it like we do at Berea. No meetings will be called. No counselors will be brought in. You are on your own, and you must stand alone in a world rife with rudeness and hatefulness, with snideness and arrogance, a world teeming with ignorance. And because of what we have taught you here at Berea—to fight for justice, to stand against intolerance, to be of service—you will have to plant your feet firmly and refuse to condone these acts of injustice by being silent.
The greatest challenge for all of us is to walk through the world each and every day with conscious hearts.
That is the great challenge of this life: to be as good as we can be. To fight back, but always with respect and love. To stand against injustice. To serve others.
Yes, I hope that you are able to get a job as soon as you leave here. I hope you make a good living and are able to have whatever your heart desires. And I hope that we gave you the best education we could here at Berea, an education that has outfitted you to be ready for the workforce. You have been here for an academic experience, and there is no doubt about that. But I hope that just as much as we have given you academic armor we have also given you the shields of service and compassion, two of the essential instruments needed to go through life with that conscious heart, which will open you to heartache.
Be conscious in ways that remind you of the suffering of others. Remember what Appalachian writer James Still once said: “What happens in Afghanistan, happens to me.” Because when hurt is done to one of us, it is done to the world entire. Be conscious not only of how your heart operates, but also of how your eyes see, what your mouth says, and to what your hands lend their power.
I’ve been honored that some of you out there have shared your stories with me, and I know that too many of you have felt negated because of where you’re from, or the color of your skin, or whom you love, or the way you talk, or how you believe or don’t believe. And I know how that feels. I know how it is to be called “trailer trash”, how it feels to be belittled and ridiculed because of who I am. Like many of you, I was the first person in my family to graduate from college, to come from people who couldn’t go to college because they were doing everything in their power to rise up out of poverty and give their children the things they never had themselves. Like you, I’ve had people in power assume that I am inferior. I’ve been refused service because of who I am. Shunned. Spoken to with hatred. And every day I see my people put down. I hear folks railing against those who are on or have ever been on welfare. I see the criminalization of the hoodie, the laughter at an accent that isn’t newscasterish enough, the disgusting arrogance of a rape culture out of control, the everyday homophobia. I see a country divided on issues of immigration, gender, orientation, religion, race, and much more.
And so I hope that you will not see the challenges before you as frightening or daunting. Instead, I trust that you will be able to stand for yourself and others when injustice rises up. Be revolutionary in your ways of kindness.
This does not necessarily mean that you have to be out marching in the streets. This does not mean that you have to spend all of your time arguing with people when they think differently than you. This doesn’t even mean that you have to be overtly political. What it does mean is that you must always be aware of how you are treating others and you must never stand by when another person or group is being negated. What this means, more than anything, is that you must get up everyday and think about ways you can do good. This means you must be on the lookout for ways to be of service, to not only talk the talk but also walk the walk. You can’t simply say that you’re opposed to injustice—you must be an active part of fighting it.
I am reminded here of one of my favorite things that Walt Whitman ever said. “Resist much. Obey little.” I believe this, but I believe that we must look at this saying in a complex way. This is not simply an anti-authority sentiment. Resist the urge to let the meanness that lives in all of us manifest itself. Resist the compulsion to approach situations with negativity. Resist joining in groupthink. Always, always think for yourself. Resist the urge to be silent or invisible. Because, as Harvey Milk said, “Hope will never be silent.” Do not follow the crowd. Do not allow the media to tell you how to think. Seek out knowledge. Use it, study over it, tuck it into your mind as you would a stone that you might polish into complete smoothness with your thumb. Do not obey the common thought that everything lies on the surface. Dig deeper. Think more complexly. Argue with compassion and respect. Obey no one who tries to rule you.
After years of academia I am hopeful that you know the equations and sentence structures and proper ways to cite sources. I trust that you are well-schooled in the history of your own country and our world. In your own place in the world, whether that be Appalachia or South Africa or Afghanistan or anywhere in between. I know that you have explored complex and even abstract issues like religion, philosophy, psychology. You’ve learned how to be more physically fit and to expand your brain. But in the end, truly, it all lands on the simplest thing: be kind. Be strong. Never, ever set aside your pride or dignity. Do not allow anyone to belittle you or your people or anyone else. Resist injustice. Obey that innate urge to do good. Every single day we can do something revolutionary because the most revolutionary thing of all is being the best people we can be.