I hope you’re all going to wander off the beaten career path and help redefine success in 21st Century America and our world. Asking not how much can I get, but how much can I do without and share. And think not how can I find myself, how can I lose myself in service to others.
Black church and community members were watchful extended parents. They reported on me when I did wrong and applauded when I did well. And they were very clear what doing well meant: it meant being helpful to others, achieving in school, and reading. I figured out as a very young child that the only time that Daddy wouldn’t give us chores is when we were reading...so I read a lot.
…and while life was often hard and resources scarce, we always knew who we were and that the measure of or worth was inside our heads and hearts and not outside in personal possessions and ambitions. I was taught that the world had a lot of problems, but I could struggle and change them, that those of us with intellectual and immaterial gifts brought the privilege and responsibility of haring with others who are less fortunate. And that service is the rent you pay for living and the very purpose for life and not something you do in your spare time.
…giving up was not a part of the childhood lexicon. You got up every morning and did what you had to do and you got up every time you fell down and you tried as many times as you had to until you got it done right. My elders valued family life and family rituals and tried to be and expose us to positive role models. And role models were of two kinds: those who achieved in the outside world - they would drive us a 100 miles or 200 miles to hear great speakers or singers so that we would know that the world was accepting to it, and role models that didn’t have much formal education or money, but who taught us by the very special grace of their lives.
…I was 14 the night Daddy died. He had holes in his shoes, but he had two children who had graduated from college…and a vision that he was able to convey to me even dying in an ambulance: that I, a young black girl, could be and do anything, that race and gender are shadows, and character, self-discipline, determination, attitude and will are the substance of life. And I want to convey that same vision to you today. As you graduate into an ethically polluted nation: where instant sex without responsibility, instant gratification without effort, instant solutions without sacrifice, getting rather than giving and hoarding rather than sharing are the too frequent signals of our mass media, popular culture and political life. The standard of success for too many Americans has become personal greed rather than common good...The standard for striving and achievement has become getting by rather than making an extra effort or helping others. Truth telling and moral example have become devalued commodities. And nowhere is paralysis of public and private conscious more evident than in the neglect and abandonment of millions of our shrinking pool of children whose futures will determine our nation’s ability to compete and lead in a new era.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the great Protestant theologian who died opposing Hitler’s Holocaust said, “the test of the morality of a society is how it treats its children.” Well America is flunking Bonhoeffer’s test: every 36 seconds one of our children is abused or neglected, every 41 seconds one of our children is born into poverty most of their parents work, every 59 seconds one of our children is born without health insurance, and every 60 seconds an American teenager has a baby, every 3 hours an American child or teen is killed by firearms, we’ve lost 90,000 children to gunfire since 1979, far more than we lost in American battle casualties. I think we have lost our sense of what is important as a people because too many of our young people from all races and income groups are growing up unable to handle life in hard places, without hope and without steady compasses to navigate a world that is reinventing itself at an unpredictable pace both technologically and politically. My generation learned that if we wanted to accomplish anything we would have to get off the dime, your generation must learn to get off the paradigm. Over and over and to be flexible and smart about it, but despite this dazzling change I believe that there are some enduring values…and that it is the responsibility of every adult, parent teacher, religious leader and professional to make sure that young people hear what we have learned from life that helped us survive and succeed.
Six Lessons for Life
The first lesson that I keep telling over and over again to our young people and to ourselves: there is no free lunch in life. Please don’t feel entitled to anything you don’t sweat and struggle for. Frederick Douglass, the great abolitionist, reminded us that “ many women may not get all they pay for in this world but they will certainly pay for all they get.” …You’ve got to work your way up hard and continuously and I know I don’t have to say this: don’t be lazy, do your homework, pay attention to detail, take great care and pride in your work as your faculty has taught you, don’t assume a door is closed push on it, don’t assume if it was closed yesterday that it is closed today, and don’t ever stop learning and improving your mind, if you do you’re going to be left behind.
The second lesson is: to assign yourself. My Daddy couldn’t stand to see us unengaged in constructive work. And he used to ask us when we had come home from school: did the teacher give you any homework? If we’d say no, he’d say: well assign yourself some. Don’t wait around for your boss or your friends or teachers to direct you to so what you’re able to figure out and do for yourself. And don’t do just as little as you can to get by. And as you grow up and become citizens…please don’t be a political bystander and grumbler. I really hope every one of you will register to vote and vote every time. A democracy is not a spectator sport. And if you see a need please don’t ask: “why somebody doesn’t do something” ask “why don’t I do something?” Initiative and persistence are still the non-magic carpets to success for most of us.
The third quick lesson: never work just for money. Money alone won’t save your soul or build a decent family life or help you sleep at night. We’re the richest nation on Earth, with the highest number of imprisoned people in the world. Our drug addictions and child poverty are among the highest in the industrialized world. So don’t ever confuse wealth or fame with character. And don’t tolerate or condone moral corruption, whatever it is and whether it is found in high or low places. Be honest and demand that those who represent you be honest. And don’t ever confuse morality with legality. Dr. Martin Luther King told us, “everything Hitler did in Nazi Germany was legal, but it was not moral.” Don’t give anybody the proxy for your conscience.
The fourth lesson: don’t be afraid of taking risks or of being criticized. An anonymous saying is, “ if you don’t want to be criticized, don’t do anything, don’t say anything and don’t be anything.” Don’t be afraid of failing, it is the way you learn to do things right. Don’t be afraid of falling down, just keep getting up. And don’t wait for everybody to come along to get something done. It’s always a few people who get things done and keep things going. Our country and our world desperately need more wise and courageous shepherds, and fewer sheep, who do not borrow from integrity to fund expediency.
Fifth lesson: listen to the sound of the genuine in yourself. “Small,” Einstein said, “is the number of them who see with their own eyes and feel with their own heart.” Try to be one of them. There is something in every one of you that waits and listens for the sound of the genuine in ourselves. And it is the only true guide we will ever have, if you cannot hear it in yourself, you will spend all of your life on the end of strings that somebody else pulls. Today there are just so many noises and so many competing pulls on us. I hope that you’ll find ways and times and spaces to be silent to listen to yourselves and to listen for other people.
Last lesson: never think life is not worth living or that you can’t make a difference. Never give up. I don’t care how hard it gets and it will get very hard sometimes. An old proverb says, “when you get to your wit’s end that’s where God lives. Harriet Beecher Stowe said, “when you get into a tight place and you think that everything goes against you, until it seems that you can’t have another minute, never give up then, for that is just the place and the time when you will see the tide turn.” So I hope when you get discouraged and afraid that you will hang in with life and remember and imagine and keep striving to build a new world. As Shel Silverstein said, “ Listen to the mustn’ts, child/ listen to the don’ts/ listen to the shouldn’ts, the impossibles, the won’ts/ but then listen to the never haves and listen close to me/ anything can happen, child/ anything can be”
And as you leave this wonderful school, I hope you will dream a new world, I hope you will believe you can achieve it, I hope you will have faith in yourself, I hope you will struggle to make sure that this is a world where every child can succeed as you have. Godspeed to each of you. Thank you.
Neither the Catt Center nor Iowa State University is affiliated with any individual in the Archives or any political party. Inclusion in the Archives is not an endorsement by the center or the university.