Commencement Address

Tracy K. Smith

Tracy K. Smith addressed the Class of 2018 at Wellesley’s 140th Commencement Exercises

Good morning and thank you.

It is my pleasure and my tremendous honor to address you as the graduating class of 2018. You belong to a remarkable generation. In my work as an educator, and my life as a citizen, I have been heartened and edified by the ways members of your generation have chosen to see and to act in the world. I am inspired by the strides you’ve taken toward fostering a more welcoming and a compassionate space for people across lines of gender identity and sexual orientation; by your willingness to engage in difficult-yet-necessary conversations about racial bias and understanding; by your studious determination to mitigate the oversights and failures of those whose delight at what they can produce, control and sell has wrought havoc upon the environment; by your willingness to advocate on behalf of those whose safety and security is threatened for any number of reasons. I’ve marveled at the empathetic genius by which you are able to embrace, employ and devise new terms for a larger, more malleable sense of selfhood; at the moral questions you pause to formulate and ponder even in the face of all the many kinds of progress you have begun to drive.

Like many people concerned by the various urgencies characterizing our time, I struggle with worry even as I strive to be an agent of thoughtful change. But I feel stronger for your example, and for the fact of your presence, your resonant voices, your nimble minds, and your huge hearts. I say all of that in order to open these remarks with my humble and sincere thanks. Thank you for finding time, amid all the many things you as college students must keep up with, for caring about the world beyond this beautiful campus. Thank you for consenting to live with the vulnerability that comes with following your convictions. Thank you for resisting the safe and self-serving choices that would facilitate rewards without struggle. Thank you for belonging to a generation that has so far proven itself unafraid of the notion of struggle. Thank you for reminding me that struggle fosters growth, and that rewards alone are a distraction from the larger work each of you—each of us—is here to do, which is to evolve in mind and spirit, and to change the lives of others for the better.

Because I am a poet, I first thought that I’d speak to you today about language. I thought I’d urge you, as you move away from this institution that places a premium upon thought and speech, upon intellectual rigor and mindful social endeavor, to hold the language that enters your ears and mind and imagination to a standard of clarity, intelligence, and integrity. I imagined I’d urge you, as I urge myself, not to allow the market for products and services, apps and devices to delimit your terms of need, discernment, wonder and worth. Not to let “rating,” “liking,” “following” and “sharing,” supersede your ability to envision, discern, imagine, empathize, interrogate and resist. I think that’s an important message, but it’s not as important as the underlying capacity that I believe animates all of the many strides your generation is already making, all of the manners of change and growth you’re already fighting to foster. So instead of language, what I want to talk about today is love.

I used to think of love as a visceral experience, something that envelops you because of the way another person makes you feel. In love, I found courage, a willingness to race forward into new places, new experiences, new risks. The world became large for me when romantic love became real, perhaps because I myself felt full with new capacities for thought and need and feeling. I wasn’t alone. The annals of popular music, archives of cinema and a great parcel of the cannon of enduring literature concern themselves with love between two people. But now, because I am a parent, perhaps, I am striving for the courage and the skill to embody another manner of love. I find myself asking what might happen if, without asking anything of you in return, I were to choose to see you, whoever you are, as another version of myself, one worthy of my acknowledgment, my concern, my devotion?

One day, walking my dog in an open stretch of land across from my house, I saw a person walking a massive dog, a breed with a thick coat of fur suggesting it had originally been bred for an arctic climate. Actually, my dog saw them first, and she went nuts, barking, spinning on her lead, exercising her utter disregard for anything other than instinct. I pulled her along, trying to remain calm, but feeling the shame that always arises in me at such times as a dog owner who lacks control of her dog, which is to say as an impostor and a bad citizen. Ignoring me, my dog somehow managed to shake her head and free herself of the leash. I’m not sure how it happened, because her collar remained clasped, but one moment the lead was taut and the next, I was holding a leash in my hand that was intact but unattached. My dog ran up to accost the other dog and its owner. I could see her circling around them, growling, barking, challenging their very right to exist in space and time. When I caught up, I was deeply ashamed. The other dog’s good behavior cast my own Coco’s in a still worse light. And it pained me to look at the other human because I knew that dosing so might embolden him to scold or even berate me. I fastened the leash back onto Coco’s collar and glanced up timidly to apologize. And the other dog owner, a youngish man with glasses, looked me in the eye and, smiling, radiating what felt to me at the time as sheer grace, said, simply, “It’s okay.”

It’s a slight story on the surface, but underneath there’s the proverbial ocean. In the week prior, my husband and I had been pressured to withdraw our young sons from a private nursery school because of their classroom-behavior--behavior that would later (but not yet, not at the time of the walk I’m remembering) align us with the many other children and their families living with autism. I felt hurt, because the situation had been handled by the nursery school with what seemed a brusque disregard for their worth; they had been observed for two short days, and rejected as problematic, un-teachable. I struggled to understand how much of the preschool director’s dismissal of their potential had to do with race. Perhaps none. But the pain I felt activated the reserve of pain that amassed over the course of my life from having been pre-emptively judged as threatening or unworthy of bother because of my race.

So when the dog owner looked at me, smiled and said “It’s okay,” he restored me, and even my sons, who weren’t even with Coco and me on the walk, to a place of innate worth. He pulled my mind from the spin-cycle of anger and hurt and powerlessness that the preschool situation had created, and sent me into my day—my life—restored. There are other, larger examples of compassionate acts, but this small scene comes to mind for me as embodying a lot of what compassion means. Another person, a stranger, treated me as I was momentarily incapable of treating myself.

I find myself thinking a lot these days about whether Love is a principle compatible with our current version of civic selfhood, or nationhood. We tend to avoid that word when we talk about politics, about demographics and policy, employing in its place a term like “tolerance.” But tolerance is meager. Tolerance means I will make space for you beside me on some kind of imaginary national bus, then slide back over so you don’t get too much of what I never stopped thinking is mine. Tolerance is the bare minimum I can muster without getting disgusted and stomping away. Tolerance is a barely-disguised foul look on my face as I glance across some line from me and us to you and them. Tolerance requires no cognitive shift. Tolerance forgives my prejudices, my innate sense of bias and authority. At best, tolerance supports the idea that your needs must be as important to you as mine are to me. But Love is a radical shift. Love tells me that your needs must be as important to me as mine are; that I can only truly honor and protect myself by honoring and protecting you. As with romantic love, that benchmark in many of our lives, compassionate civic regard—Love—assures me that giving you what you need is a way of ministering to myself, to the Us that you and I together make.

It’s a beautiful idea, I think. But it’s not simple, not sweetly pat, for in order to embrace Love, I must move past fear, past a fixation on my own claim to power or authority. In order to embrace Love, I must let go of the social or emotional avarice that says loving you will deplete me.

I think the challenge incumbent upon your generation—upon all of us really, but because of your age, perhaps you stand the best chance of meeting it—the great challenge within or beneath the challenges of climate change, of school safety, of supporting and defending one another’s mental health, the challenge of a fair and humane immigration policy, and of a host of competing urgencies—is the challenge of Loving in such a way that your sense of security, gratitude, honor, belief, joy and worth affirms and amplifies those things in others. The greatest challenge incumbent upon you is learning to love others in ways they may be incapable of loving themselves, and of trusting them—giving them the reason, the wish—to love you in kind. But I think it’s possible to meet this challenge. After all, Love is world-creating. Who hasn’t changed for love? Who hasn’t dreamt of being changed, transformed by it?

I like the ways that God’s love works in the sources of inspiration and instruction that have sustained African American life in this country for centuries. Historically, it’s been an anchor, a beacon, a promise, a belief. But God’s love isn’t an easy balm. When God appears in the old testament, he is often a source of upheaval, of troubling, he urges a plumbing of the depths, a mining of great spiritual dredge, a stirring up of the smooth surface, an animating of what might appear to be calm. I think this makes sense. Renewal often arises only after a purposeful troubling, as in the African American spiritual, “Wade in the Water,” which urges faith in the phrase: “Wade in the Water” and then promises redemptive upheaval with what follows: “God’s gonna trouble the water.”

Because I’m a poet, and because I believe poets are best when they are speaking through their poems, I want to close with a poem. But first I’ll preface it with another anecdote. Some time ago, while traveling in rural Georgia and South Carolina for research, I found myself visiting many sites that testify to the barbaric reality of slavery as one of this country’s founding institutions. I stayed in a former plantation that still sits on thousands of acres of beautiful un-redisturbed land.  I visited the unmarked site of many a long-ago slave auction. I toured, on a small boat, the former rice-growing marshland which enslaved blacks had been made to engineer and labor in order to sustain the wealth of slave-holders. I also visited two or three small praise houses where blacks met for worship and fellowship in the days of slavery, and where their descendants continue to meet for the same reasons today. On the last night of this trip, I attended a ring shout, where the deep faith and abiding courage of the enslaved was honored in song and dance. Needless to say, my heart was heavy with sorrow and disturbance, but also full of gratitude for the long and ongoing contribution African Americans have made to the principles of freedom and justice in this country. It was a complicated set of feelings, a weighty inner weather, that was bolstered by a woman who chose to see me, and to invoke the vocabulary of Love.

for the Geechee Gullah Ring Shouters

One of the women greeted me.

I love you, she said. She didn’t

Know me, but I believed her,

And a terrible new ache

Rolled over in my chest,

Like in a room where the drapes

Have been swept back. I love you,

I love you, as she continued

Down the hall past other strangers,

Each feeling pierced suddenly

By pillars of heavy light.

I love you, throughout

The performance, in every

Handclap, every stomp.

I love you in the rusted iron

Chains someone was made

To drag until love let them be

Unclasped and left empty

In the center of the ring.

I love you in the water

Where they pretended to wade,

Singing that old blood-deep song

That dragged us to those banks

And cast us in. I love you,

The angles of it scraping at

Each throat, shouldering past

The swirling dust motes

In those beams of light

That whatever we now knew

We could let ourselves feel, knew

To climb. O Woods—O Dogs—

O Tree—O Gun—O Girl, run—

O Miraculous Many Gone—

O Lord—O Lord—O Lord—

Is this love the trouble you promised?

In closing, I want to congratulate you on what you have diligently and lovingly accomplished. And I want to challenge you to take the feeling of love out of the realm of the private or intimate and allow it to drive the ways that you see and respond to strangers across all kinds of divides. I want to challenge you to trouble the notion that love is reserved for an elect few, and that the scrap of tolerance is what we will occasionally toss to the rest. In all the many things you will go on to teach one another and the world, I want you to teach the world you are right now inheriting to love itself in a way it does not yet believe that it can.