Thank you very much. President Tatum, thank you for that warm introduction, and thank you for this tremendous honor. It’s a privilege to share the podium with you and my friend and role model Marian Wright Edelman. What incredibly inspiring leaders you are.
Now, I believe that a good commencement speech should be like a good commencement speaker: short. This is really your day to celebrate with loved ones, and you must be pretty warm in those robes. So I’ll make a deal with you: the more clapping I hear, the shorter the speech. Deal? (Laughter) You’re gonna make a liar out of me.
I want to start with the parents and grandparents in the audience today. My kids are still several years away from this, so I can only begin to imagine the depths of your pride in these tremendous young women. You have raised them, nurtured them, and let them make their own way in the world. Today marks a milestone for you too. You’ll miss hearing their tales of campus life and the excitement in their voices as they describe their studies and discoveries. But I’m pretty sure you won’t miss the tuition bills—that’s what someone I know calls change you can believe in. Parents, grandparents, families, friends—thank you for your countless silent sacrifices and your boundless support of these young women. And congratulations to you as well on reaching this blessed day.
I would be remiss if I did not take a moment to recall the sad and senseless loss this close-knit community suffered last fall. On behalf of President and Mrs. Obama, let me convey our deepest condolences to the loved ones and friends of Jasmine Lynn and to the entire Spelman family. Jasmine loved this place, and her friends here loved her back. We will never know what mark she would have made in our world. We just know that all of us have lost something unique and precious. Our joy is tempered by sorrow at her absence.
Now, young women, it is you I have come to talk to today. You are graduating at a truly amazing moment—a moment of perhaps unprecedented opportunity and challenge—a time of change so rapid that it can make us rub our eyes in disbelief.
Eras of change often cause us to cherish the values that do not change, to reaffirm the principles that define who we are as a people and a nation. This is such a moment when we are called again to test the founding proposition of our republic: that all men—and yes, all women—are truly created equal, and endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights. Those words still sound the great American chord. Those words are still our creed and our calling. Those words are still America’s harbor and America’s horizon.
You can no more separate the concept of equality from America than you can have strong bones without healthy marrow. The question for us today is not whether we have heard the promise of equality but whether we are serious about realizing it—not whether we acknowledge the great philosophical truth that runs through the Declaration of Independence, the Gettysburg Address, and Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech but whether, finally, we are willing to work together to make that truth fully manifest, at home and abroad.
I hope we are, because I believe we must. The pursuit of genuine equality has been the animating theme of many of our best leaders’ most worthy labors. My own passion is to give sinew and strength to the deeply American proposition that we are each human beings of equal worth, equal dignity, and equal consequence, who thus must enjoy equal rights.
If we genuinely believe this, then we are obliged to ensure that no one is left to languish in violence, poverty, and despair. People can’t be truly equal if they live in fear or famine. People can’t be equal if they lack cover from the elements or access to health care or medicine to protect their families from treatable killers, whether diabetes, TB, or HIV/AIDS. People can’t be equal if they are unable to send their kids to a decent school or any school at all. People can’t be equal if they are unable to speak freely, to trust in the rule of law, and to find shelter beneath the shade of durable democracy. People can’t be equal if their leaders are corrupt or care more about their grip on power than about delivering for their citizens.
Human beings around the world share common dreams—dreams of freedom, prosperity, and security. So being serious about equality means striving to realize those shared hopes that unite ordinary people across our interconnected world. Being serious about equality means helping forgotten communities and fragile states build their capacity to deliver greater opportunity to their citizens. Being serious about equality means ensuring that people everywhere—from Harlem to Harare—can contribute to the full extent of their talents. This isn’t asking for the moon. It’s asking for decency and dignity.
For it is America’s founding premise and promise that, in a moral sense, all our fates are bound together. And it is America’s modern course and urgent challenge to work with partners old and new to help create a world that raises us all up.
Now, America is an inspiring model of equality and justice for many in the world, but it is not nearly a perfect one. We still have miles to go. But the struggle only makes the promise matter more.
Equality, in this deeply American sense, doesn’t mean that we all get to the same place. The race will have winners and losers, but we should all start out of the blocks at the same time. Talent should win out, but everyone should be able to rise as far as their merit will take them. America doesn’t mean equality of outcome, but it does mean equality of opportunity. America doesn’t guarantee you a result, but it should guarantee you a fair shot—and whether you succeed or fail or wind up somewhere in between should be up to you.
I don’t quite know how my parents did it, but growing up in the 1960s and ’70s, it never really occurred to me that my race or gender would somehow deny me the chance to make my own mark. I grew up with permission to dream to be whatever I set out to be.
That’s not something to take for granted. Like President Obama, I am among the first generation of African Americans whose dreams were not immediately bounded by legalized segregation and institutionalized Jim Crow. The President has spoken of mine and his as the Joshua generation—the generation that came after the Moses generation of the great civil rights leaders, of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Ralph Abernathy, Dr. Dorothy Height, John Lewis, the young Marian Wright Edelman, Thurgood Marshall, and so many more. Mine is the generation that did not just see the Promised Land from a mountaintop but instead was privileged to cross over Jordan and make our way into a land changed forever by those who came before.
Those of us from the Joshua generation have faced hurdles, but they were nothing like the poll tax or the dogs of Birmingham. I still got called the N-word, but it happened rarely enough to be jolting. More typically, my experience entailed being discounted by some of my classmates’ parents, who reassured themselves that I got into top colleges more because of my race than my abilities. Growing up, my generation did indeed clash with the narrow-minded, the intolerant, and the bigoted. But our ability to follow our hearts was not so constrained by the racism that was once carved into the body of American law, and our ability to dream was not as stifled by a psychology of oppression.
The journey is not over. But we’ve come far.
Graduates, you won’t have it easy. But you will have it better.
I know this must feel like a precarious time to leave college. Many of you may not be sure what your first jobs or next steps will be. Most of you surely worry that your ambitions may be shackled by an economy that is still climbing out of a deep hole and that has left far too many people across the country hurting. No one can promise that all will turn out right for each of you. But I can tell you that each one of you holds a winning hand.
I can tell you that all of us here are so proud of you. We believe in you. So don’t lower your sights. Don’t you dare settle for second-best. Yes, you’ll face obstacles. Yes, these are challenging times. But the plain fact of history is that no generation of African-American women has ever had more opportunity than you do. So what we expect of you is not excuses. It is, simply put, excellence.
So set high goals, show some hustle, stand up for yourself, prepare better than anyone else, learn from everyone else—and when you get knocked down, pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and get back in the game. A Spelman woman should come to play. She should come to compete. And she should compete to win.
That’s because we need you to make your mark. We need you to become lawyers who will deepen and widen our liberties in an era of change and challenge. We need you to become engineers and scientists who will cure modern-day plagues and save our warming Earth. We need you to become business leaders and innovators who will create prosperity that works for all Americans. We need you to become teachers and professors who will instill a love of citizenship and learning in the next generation. We need you to become doctors and ministers who will bring health to wounded bodies and strength to suffering souls. And we need one of you to become the first African American woman President of the United States.
But always remember that with greater opportunity comes greater responsibility. All of us who cheer so hard for you also expect you to give back—to continue the legacy of local, national, and global service that is the Spelman way. We are confident that you will all play your part in what President Obama calls “a new era of responsibility”—that you will embrace your duties to your cities and communities, to your country and the world we share.
And remember this too: the spirit is not fulfilled by work alone. In this life, we give both our labor and our love. If you are fortunate, you will find great meaning in your work. But take it from someone who’s wound up with a pretty good gig: there’s more to life than time at the office—even if that office happens to be oval.
So let me conclude with six quick personal lessons from my experience.
To begin with: put family first. Family is the foundation that makes everything else worthwhile. Tall trees need deep roots. Tending to family means that, when times get hard, you rise to it. Both of my parents have been struck by serious illnesses over the past few months—and my brother and I have taken care of them first and foremost. My colleagues were tremendous about stepping in for me in the halls of the UN, but nobody could step in for me at the hospital. There’s usually somebody else who can do your job, but there’s nobody else who can be a strong and loving daughter. Some corners you just can’t cut.
Second, in your focus on career, do not sell short the fulfillment of starting a family, if that is what you wish. I am honestly not sure when I would have finally gotten around to deciding that it was the right time to have kids. But luckily, when I was 31 years old and working crazy hours at the National Security Council at the White House, I got pregnant. My husband and I had not exactly planned to have kids just yet, but we knew we wanted a family. When my son was a mere three months old, I started working at the State Department. I was not only the youngest Assistant Secretary of State but I was also a breastfeeding mother. I’m the first to admit that this felt crazy at times, and the balancing act is never ever easy. But my two kids are the most wonderful things that have ever happened to me. So if you want a family, get yourself launched, find a worthy partner, build a support network, put some money in the bank—and then get going.
Third, follow your passion. Focus on what truly inspires you and fires you up. It’s hard to be great at something that you don’t love doing. And if you haven’t quite found your calling, try something else. When I was your age, I figured I’d become a public interest lawyer and then go into politics. I started studying foreign policy as a way to round myself out, not to find a career path—and then I got hooked. Sometimes it’s the calls we don’t expect that become a life’s calling.
Fourth, bring others with you. If you’re lucky, you’ll have mentors who will help you along the way. You pay them back by extending your hand to others coming up behind you. As one of my most valued mentors and friends, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, often says, “There’s a special place in hell reserved for women who don’t help other women.”
Fifth, make a real difference. There’s nothing wrong with comfort, but you should be about more than money. You should be about getting meaningful things done—about making lasting change in people’s lives. I know it may not seem this way to you now, but life really is short, and we have urgent problems to deal with. Don’t take things for granted. Give back—to your communities, to Spelman, to those less fortunate than you, to our country, to people around the world grappling with poverty, conflict, and disease.
Finally, be true to yourself and your values. Ambition is fine, but you should never want something so badly that you do something you don’t believe in to get it. There’s no point in service, if you’re not always trying to do the right thing. If you act with integrity, you won’t always win—but you’re likely to earn the respect of others, and you’ll always respect yourself.
In conclusion, graduates, I hope you will take this magnificent day as a moment to reflect—to think about what your accomplishments mean to your family, and to think of the lines you will add to the American story.
Ultimately, America is what we make of it. I love our great country not because it is perfect but because it is perfectible. I love America not just for the genius of its creation but also for the glory of its ongoing maturation. The American idea is not rooted in complacency or callousness. It is rooted in the belief that we can be better together and do more together. It is rooted in energy. It is rooted in daring. And it is rooted in hope.
As I look out at you, I see more than the Class of 2010. I see another generation taking its place in the world. I see the generation after Joshua. You grew up in a country that has knocked down the legal walls that once would have held you back, in a society that isn’t yet free of the heavy hand of past injustice but is itself a powerful engine of change. So, if the Joshua generation was about coming into a brave new world, perhaps your generation will be about blazing paths along new frontiers. If the Joshua generation was about coming into the land, perhaps your generation will be about making it a truly blessed place—a story of how young people born into times of great promise shouldered their responsibilities and built mighty towers.
But that is your story to write, not mine. I know you will write it well.
Graduates, congratulations. I wish you great luck and good fortune. Thank you so much for allowing me to share in this wonderful day. God bless you all.
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