J. Williams' Commencement Address
to the Wellesley College Class of 2005
you so much. Thank you, Diana. Thank you, students. Thank you,
my friends and fellow trustee members. Thank you, faculty. I
thank particularly the committee of students that selected me
and greeted me so very warmly last night, and this morning delivered
me this green feather boa, by police escort no less, just before
the procession. It is such an honor to be here. I tremendously
wish to address you today.
I realized actually
only last night that my class color was green as well and that
somewhere in my possession I still have a small
green beanie, with ’73 written across the top, made of felt
with a small elliptical bill, sort of like Hughie, Dewey and Louie’s.
I was trying to find it to wear today, but as someone observed,
it’s the thought that counts, and in this case the thought
of the beanie is much, much better than the thought of me actually
wearing the beanie.
Anyway I am really so
grateful for the gift of the opportunity to speak to you today.
It is such a particular delight to be here
because I missed my own graduation from Wellesley, Class of 1973.
I had an opportunity to travel with friends, so I threw my love
beads and Afro-pick, all the novels of Hermann Hesse, and an extra
pair of bell bottoms into my macrame satchel and took off, for
Copenhagen, I think. Copenhagen was “in” in those those
days. The word “in” was in in those days.
It was a different era.
It was the era of Woodstock and Watergate and Kent State and
the Vietnam War and as I recall, the Beatles
were still together. There were no sororities at Wellesley, no
ROTC, which I gather there is today. It was a time when tradition
was being challenged, and indeed there were a lot of traditions
that needed to be challenged—first and foremost were those
beanies! My little challenge was not going to graduation, and I
suppose it was a small thing as personal declarations of independence
go, but it disappointed my parents. In fact, when my diploma was
mailed to our house, I recall my father taking it hostage, grumbling
something about how he’d earned it. I don’t recall
his giving it back until I invited my parents to my law school
graduation and all was forgiven.
My parents are not here
today, but I am lucky that they are both still with us and doing
relatively well, if just a bit too frail
to travel—my father’s 90 and my mother is 87. So I’m
very lucky. They are here in spirit and their spirit is strong.
I feel them here, their pride, then and now. Being here now is
the complete fulfillment of what my parents wished for me, for
the graduate I was then and now, a little over 30 years ago to
this moment. This moment embodies my parents’ dreams, and
I thank you for allowing me to put a little kick in their golden
years by coming full circle this way.
But of course, more
importantly this moment is the fulfillment of your dreams. It
is a moment to celebrate your accomplishments,
the culmination of your hard work. Perhaps this is something that
can only be truly appreciated in hindsight, for I don’t think
I appreciated it when I was in your position. But it is a good
moment, let me assure you, to really wallow in all the love of
your families, to take stock of the generosity and encouragement
and support and pride from your parents and siblings and the extended
family gathered here. This is a passage. But it is toward a new
level of independence. Here is the point at which you really and
truly enter adulthood.
And the exuberant power
of this moment is your grounding for the future, a source to
draw upon. At the commencement dinner last
night, one of my fellow trustees was saying that she loves graduation
because she’s not otherwise around young people very much
of the time and your energy is so contagious. And I was saying
that I love graduation because I AM around young people all the
time, but they’re all seventh graders, and when I come to
graduation, it gives me hope. I feel this lovely sense of culmination
and possibility, and as the mother and parent I have become, and
although my child is only 12, the sense of generation is what keeps
us all alive and hopeful and participatory in making this the best
world we know how.
And so, as your official graduation fairy, I have three little
wishes or blessings or visions for you:
one that is shaped by thoughts of my parents; one that is shaped
by my own thoughts, the lessons learned in my own life that I offer
you for what they’re worth; and the third one that is shaped
by thoughts of this rare and gracious community that is Wellesley
College, shaped by my impressions of you, this exciting group of
young people, and the shape of the future you shall mold.
First, as for my parents. I think that the most sustaining gift
they gave me and that I want to pass on to you is a sense of the
long view. They have lived long lives and filled my head with stories
that go back the better part of a century.
My father has more of an engineering bent of mind, and he filled
me with technological memories: all the way from the world of steamboats
and automobiles that had to be cranked, to teaching me how to fix
my computer. From wire recordings to digital recordings; from Morse
code and tube radios to Tivo; from Underwood typewriters to data
key punch to instant messaging. He inspires me through miraculous
inventions in recent human history, and I cannot imagine what miracles
lie in store for you.
My mother gives me more
family history and social memory. She lived through the influenza
outbreak when she was very young. She
lived through the Harlem Renaissance. She had pneumonia before
antibiotics. She lived through the Depression, the advent of the
New Deal, of the rise of fascism and World War II, of McCarthyism,
and Civil Rights—all the way through September 11 to the
present moment. She is a woman who, alive and well at this very
moment, knew, spoke to, grew up around people who had been born
So that’s all—the long view. So much change in the
course of a lifespan. It gives me courage somehow, and I offer
it to you as that: a cultivated respect for the long view, for
history, for memory, that will sustain you, it will inform you,
it will allow you to move gracefully and optimistically through
time rather than always trying to look backward or resist change
or look for guarantees or stop motion, or resist what is inevitable—the
simple march of time, the change of circumstances.
Secondly, a wish from me from the span of my life, from my Wellesley
graduation until yours. It fills me with a sense of not just how
much has changed, but of how much work went into that change and
how much participation in the world around you makes a difference.
How resolve can really work a revolution. The graduation speaker
for my year, 1973, was New York Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm,
a woman of opinion, tenacity, and utter fearlessness. Perhaps it
is hard to remember what she represented: a black person and a
woman person who had political power. And there had been virtually
none of those in our history to that moment. Her subject was the
necessity for the passage of an Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution.
In her campaign for
the ERA, Chisholm reported that among all employed women, only,
and I quote here, “670 are medical
and health care workers, college teachers or other professional
workers; 570 of American women are managers, officials or proprietors.”
That was startling to
me, as I read this now, it almost sounded wrong—until I remembered that when I started teaching in
1980, there were only six women of color teaching in any American
law school, in any capacity, including the historically black ones,
and even at that almost invisible level, lots of people were saying
that that was a revolution. So when I was your age, women were
legally paid less than men for doing the same work; they received
longer prison sentences for the same crimes—by act of law;
they could be barred from working overtime when men were not (they
were too delicate); women jurors were routinely struck as too inherently
sympathetic or not logical. In law school, I remember that killing
a woman in the heat of passion was justification for homicide,
but not the reverse.
For a long time, after
I graduated from law school, there was really only bad news about
the Equal Rights Amendment. I was easy
to be pessimistic. Indeed, ultimately it did not pass. But through
the coordinated efforts of women all across America, at the local
and national level, in ever-growing numbers and within the public
and private sector, statutes were passed. Things did change. It
is not nirvana today, not heaven yet. But it has changed. Women
are only 1.8 percent of the Fortune 500’s CEOs.
So things have changed AND there has been backsliding on all aspects
of civil rights AND you have your work cut out for you.
But you know that—you are bombarded daily with news of global
crisis and ecological devastation and weak job markets and political
corruption. You are bombarded with this sense of a world moving
at breathless pace. This sense that nothing we are seeing has EVER
happened before. The sense that contemporary demagogues are the
worst who ever declaimed, today’s religious zealots more
insistently zealous than any in history, today’s heathens
more heathenish, today’s plagues more deadly, today’s
puritans more hypocritical, our libertines more seductive, our
children more brash, our elders more long-lived, but arterio-sclerotic.
A word of advice: Don’t
let the news of the day paralyze you as though these were the
worst of times. They may not be the
best of times, but the planet earth has seen it all before and
your calm, well-educated engagement is part of what will steer
our fate. As old structures crumble, you may have to invent your
own jobs, and you will do that by identifying the chasms of need
that are created by those societal shifts. You will surprise yourselves.
Another word of advice: You know right now that you among the
most privileged people on the planet. Know too that this is a fragile
sense sometimes, and that there are people who will do their best
to assure you that you are not important or powerful. Do not allow
yourselves to be sidetracked by the barrage of backlash against
everything and from all directions that seems to fill the air these
days. Do not be disempowered by a season of great meanspiritedness.
Have faith in yourselves.
Be kind to yourselves. Draw on the thoughtfulness and relative
peace that you have had in your times here. It is
a community I did not fully appreciate again until I left this
place; but that community is also something which you will always
have access to in one way or another, so don’t forget about
Everytime spring comes,
I think of that cover of The New Yorker, my favorite of all New
Yorker covers, the one that appears every
February. It is of a monacled gentleman who is employing his eyeglass
to make a very thorough inspection, if somewhat more intellectual-than-necessary
inspection, of a butterfly. And I am struck by the sense of contrast
with that image by another cover in The New Yorker magazine, one
that appeared only a few weeks ago—and that was of a dour
rather doughy bespectacled businessman seated on a park bench,
the little white earbuds of his iPod stoppering his ears, his face
blank, his eyes glazed over and inscrutable. All around his impassive
bulk, spring was bursting. A delirious robin was singing its heart
out on the blossom-laden bough just above his head, but he remained
transfixed, locked in his own dialed-up, downloaded interior world.
Don’t be like that man. Snatch out those earbuds, hear the
music, smell the coffee, pick up your monacle, and look at the
butterflies. Don’t be unaware of what’s around you.
Shirley Chisholm wouldn’t have been here on this podium
if it hadn’t been for the work of the civil rights movement.
I wouldn’t be here if it hadn’t been for the work of
the Shirley Chisholms. And we would not be here now enjoying the
progress of the last 30 years of so-called piggy-back movements
of civil rights—not just women’s rights, but elderly,
Americans with disabilities, gay and lesbian, Latina and Asian
rights, immigrants’ rights—and now we have to merge
into a whole new range of anti-immigration, anti-Semitic, anti-Arab,
profiling, to new and intimate degrees of identity stealing.
We would not be configured
as we are now however, if it weren’t
for these generations engaged before us—those who saw the
strength in even the most distractive moments, their participation
and their resolve. I think this notion of generation, this notion
of generation in which I have some faith, of time unfolding in
ways that are both random, yet within our control, is something
we should hang on to.
We must always
prepare ourselves for glorious serendipity. I was visiting Atlanta
and I visited Margaret Mitchell's house.
In the basement there is a 1939 photo of the premiere of Gone
With The Wind. In that photo, Vivian Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara
and Clark Gable as Rhett, all of the characters, the white characters,
the cast of Gone With The Wind are standing on the steps
of the model of Tara and then seated, literally subservient at
are all the cast that played slaves. And what’s interesting
about this photo is that at Vivian Leigh’s right foot, sitting
cross-legged, is a ten-year-old Martin Luther King. Now, this has
to be one of the more weird historic conjunctions I’ve ever
come across in my life, and I don’t know how well known it
is. I started to write a little bit about it. But it was fascinating
to me how much that photograph I think encapsulated something like
a seed of possibility.
Certainly I think Gone
With The Wind is one of most regressive
bits of happy slave propaganda ever perpetuated. However, looking
at that photo, looking at the link over time of who those people
represented in that photograph became, Margaret Mitchell was the
daughter of a Catholic suffragette. Although this clearly was not
her strong point at one point in her life, later she made the link
with the civil rights movement. Much less known about her is the
fact that she actually worked very hard in civil rights in the
city of Atlanta, worked very hard to integrate the police department
in Atlanta and provided scholarships for African-American medical
When I look at that photo, I see a young Martin Luther King waiting
for his cue in the wings, and when I look out at you, I see a picture
frozen at a political moment of great precariousness, perhaps all
of us feel that, but I look at you, all of you, about to walk out
from the wings onto a real stage and it gives me great gladness.
My final wish for you
is that you go your way again with optimism and resilience. It
has taken that surely for you to have gotten
this far, yes, perhaps with too many all-nighters, but now is the
time you will begin to figure out how to use your Wellesley education,
how to let it out, and employ it in creative lifelong ways. You’ve
been pumped full of information and options. Now this is the turning
point, when all of your life’s effort, in addition to your
sainted parents pumping you up and perhaps paying out—now
is the time in life when you can exhale and really enjoy career
or work or graduate school. Whatever you do next will be entirely
your own, so embark upon this next phase with patience and as much
lightheartedness as you can possibly summon.
Day before yesterday, I found myself in a taxi inching up the
Henry Hudson Parkway in a cab through absolutely terrible traffic,
a major bottleneck, caused by that avalanche you may have heard
about, of several tons of earth that had spewed onto the roadway
when a wall collapsed. There was only a single lane open. The cabdriver
was cursing New York, cursing New York roads, cursing New York
drivers, and cursing the road-hogging tendencies of all cabbies
other than himself.
“Well,” I interjected, “really it’s remarkable
that they’ve cleared even one lane given how immense the
avalanche. We’re lucky to be moving at all.” He stopped
cursing for a minute and he looked at me in the rear view mirror,
sighed loudly, and inquired, “Excuse me, miss, but you, you
are a lady of the eternally filled plate?”
I had no idea what he was talking about. The eternally filled
plate? I wondered what had brought this on. Was it some less-than-subtle
reference to my middle-aged girth? Was it some weird fetishistic
proposition? Some mystical invocation of the economies of abundance?
“Uh, well...I like a good lamb chop as much as the next
person,” I volunteered cautiously. “Lamb chops,” he
said enthusiastically. “Yes, that is what I mean.” Then
gesturing at the creeping traffic, he said, “I see a big
empty plate. You, miss, see a beautiful platter of lamb chops.” And
with that the light dawned. Yes indeed, I saw the cup—and
it was, just as he had said, half full. And indeed when traffic
started moving only seconds later, you could say that my cup runneth
over, with mead and with birdsong and lamb chops.
Now to tell you the
truth it isn’t very often that anyone
calls me an optimist. It’s a part of myself I keep under
wraps lest it spoil my reputation. I believe in realistic pessimism
and situational grumpiness and, as Rachel said, wise trouble. But
the encounter with the cabbie was one that moves me to irrational
cheerfulness every time I think about it.
And perhaps that’s
the most succinct of the injunctions I can offer you: a good
dose of irrational cheerfulness as the
root of all resilience. I will end with that.
Go forth and live happily and well, as might true ladies, or real
women, of the eternally full plate.
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