April Ryan delivered the Bard College at Simon's Rock Commencement Address on May 19, 2018. Below is the full text of the Commencement speech.
Thank you. Good morning Bard College at Simon’s Rock. Alright, I came all the way up here this morning in liquid sunshine to greet you, this Class of 2018. I’m gonna do it again and I expect something different, OK? See, I’ll tell you what I want upfront. Good morning Bard College at Simon’s Rock. Yes, yes, give yourselves a warm round of applause because it’s a little cold.
Mr. President, thank you Ian. This is amazing. I love coming to places that I’ve never been before. I’m in Massachusetts quite a bit, but never been to this area, to one of the prettiest areas I’ve ever seen. I mean, you know it’s a wonderful area when you drive through Norman Rockwell’s hometown and they said he never painted a cell phone tower, and you can’t get cell service.
But it’s amazing to be here, and it’s amazing to be with these graduates today on this wonderful day. I mean excellence, excellence in the room, and that’s what we’re talking about moving forward in 2018. And this, I want you all to remember something. If you don’t remember anything, I want you to remember this day. This is a historic day. Yeah, we’ve got the running of the Preakness in my hometown. Yes, the second jewel of the Triple Crown. And for many of you, you were up early watching this wonderful wedding. Yes, I was screaming, we had church this morning, in England, with the queen. But the most important piece of this historic day is that you young people are graduating with a BA and an AA from Bard College at Simon’s Rock. Parents, give your kids a round of applause. Yes. Now graduates, I want you turn around and give your parents a round of applause for seeing the vision to send you at this wonderful school.
I remember when I graduated college in 1989, Morgan State University, my Fair Morgan, in Baltimore. I don’t remember the size of the class. It’s about 170-plus here; there was a lot of us there on that field. It was hot, a bee stung someone on the field next to me, another person had a bottle of champagne. I didn’t partake, but it was an interesting day, it was very interesting. It was a day of celebration. We did not realize that after that day there was a next day. We did not realize that there was a chapter that was finished and the next page was empty for the new chapter of our lives. We didn’t realize that. I remember the next day I was like, OK, well what’s next? The summer’s here, what’s next? I’m getting a job, what’s next? I had a bunch of questions about my life, questions that it seems centers around on your existence or centered around your existence here at Bard College at Simon’s Rock.
As you Rockers like to call yourselves, the question is: what’s next for you? The question is: did you figure out that during this, I guess, two years of matriculation—wow, I got a 15 year old, I should have sent her here. During this short time here, did you ask enough questions to understand that life is still going to be full of questions? And I say that because I’m that prime example. Every day I raise my hand and she sees me sitting there smackdab in the middle of the third row. Don’t get it twisted, she sees me. She’ll call everybody else. But I’ve got questions because life is still evolving and it’s still moving. There’s nothing wrong with asking a question. Yeah, they tell me I need to stop shaking my head when I ask a question, but that’s OK because something doesn’t sit well maybe. There may be a bit of dis-ease in your spirit about the answers that you get. That’s OK. It’s alright to continue to ask questions once you receive your diploma and walk into this wet grass into life. It’s OK. Questions are good because you know what, when you ask questions, particularly in my business, sometimes it evokes change.
I think about W.E.B. Du Bois. I think about a story that was given to me by the great Harry Belafonte. Some of your grandparents may know about Harry Belafonte. Some of you might if you watched the movie Carmen and some things. I’m telling you, he’s 90 years old and he’s still got it together. He’s like you, he’s got a lot of questions, but he was a man who walked with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the Civil Rights Movement. Those young people, those young people had questions. Why were things like this? They say all men are created equal, but why do I still not have my first-class citizenship. So Harry Belafonte, along with Dr. King, John Lewis, Julian Bond, and Andy Young and many others, worked to form a more perfect union. They were helping to form by their activism. And Harry Belafonte told me while he was walking and marching with Dr. King, he met people along the way like Paul Robeson. Look him up, no my mother used to say look it up. For you people who now have these things [shows cell phone], Google it.
Paul Robeson, and then the great W.E.B. Du Bois, and Harry Belafonte said to me—and think of this, Harry Belafonte is in his 90s—he was an activist before he became an entertainer, a great entertainer who traveled the world, who traveled to Cuba with Frank Sinatra—look him up too if you don’t know who he is. But Harry Belafonte talked about the condition and the spirit, and he wanted to see a world where all men were free. He’s even still behind now, at 90 years old, the women’s marches because they organize in his office to create change because they still have questions about what’s going on. So Harry Belafonte says to me, he invites me to his apartment, now I’m going to give you the timeline. It was between the election and inauguration because I’m gonna be honest with you, as a reporter who’s been covering presidents for 21 years, four presidents—three of them have called me by name, this one I don’t know what he calls me by, but—Harry Belafonte gave me some wisdom because I was looking at people and I was like what is going on; people were on the floor asking questions: why, how, what. I’m like, you did it, why you asking? People were on the floor and I was watching Twitter and I was watching Facebook, and I’m like what’s wrong? Why is everybody, I’m having questions, why is everybody acting out?
I went to a friend who was on Facebook, Christopher Darden, the former prosecutor in the O.J. Simpson trial. I went to another friend, Bob Johnson, the founder of BET. You know, Chris Darden was talking crazy, talking about “oh we shouldn’t have elected him.” And then Bob Johnson said, he said some other things, but I don’t want to give this to this crowd. Bob Johnson said “this is a time of coming together” and I still was filled with questions because people were still on the floor like they were in the fetal position. I’m like why? Questions. Seriously, some of you haven’t gotten off the floor, still in the fetal position, but I said, why are people feeling like the world has come to an end, not understanding that we the people create change?
So, I asked Kweisi Mfume, my former program director—who’s former congressman, former head of the NAACP—who said, “we’re at a crossroads.” And still I’m seeing this upset, this dis-ease in the spirit in America. I’m not knowing what’s going on, as a reporter, trying to find out, asking the questions. So I go to a man who walked with Dr. King and he invited me to his home, and Harry Belafonte said something to me because he answered my question. He said to me, he said, “April,” he said, “you’re too young to remember this”—and I am, I’m 50, but it was longer than that—he said, “I talked with Paul Robeson and W.E.B. Du Bois, and W.E.B. Du Bois said to me, he said, look, at a time such as this, where there’s great pain there’s radical activism that effectuates change.” I said OK. He answered my question. And I think about that answer and I think about you. You are the best of the best that is going out to ask questions, to agitate the system, to create change because you are a part of we the people who are forming a more perfect union.
There’s nothing wrong with asking a question even though you think you’re grown now, you got your little degree, and you walking out there in liquid sunshine on the wet grass. There’s nothing wrong with asking questions. Questions can change policy. Questions can change a dynamic. It can bring an issue to people even for your parents. It can bring something to the forefront that was never thought of before. There’s nothing wrong with asking a question. But also as you ask the question, what is going to be the end result? That’s something you got to think about. And as we look at a time such as this, what is the end result for the brightest here today at Bard College at Simon’s Rock who’s graduating the Class of 2018? What’s the end result today and what can you do?
I’m gonna challenge you, and the few minutes that I have with you, how many of you are old enough in this young group to vote? All right now. Are you registered? All right, all right, that’s done. Are you going to take your parents to the polls or make them write in come next election? Amen, all right, we’re done with that, check that off. When you ask the question, you gotta be careful. When you ask a question, you start bringing yourself into the process. And if you ask that question, if you’re in the process and you’re not doing what it takes to help make the process work, why did you go to Bard College, why did you come to Simon’s Rock, why did you rock out for these years? Why?
Nobody told me this; I don’t remember, I’m telling you, I don’t remember the person who gave my commencement address, but the time wasn’t like this. You know, when I graduated in 1989, I had, we had Ataris. I mean, the parents remember an Atari. My mother would never have given me a $500 phone—well now it’s $1,000 for an X—my mother would have never put a $500 phone in my hand, let alone to let me even see to want, but you don’t realize you are our generation that’s going to change. In here we have changemakers, we have the next president of the United States of America, we have the next head of the Fortune 500 company. You are the change agents. Young people make change.
People are asking me how in the world did these young people get activated and excited. You know, when I graduated I wasn’t socially aware, but our young people are so different today because they’ve got these little devices in their hands; they can touch the world in a moment and talk to the world in a moment. They’re engaged. And never let anyone dissuade you from wanting to change your condition and say that you can’t because I’m gonna give you an example. When these young kids at Parkland—I’m not getting into the politics of it—but when these young kids at Parkland said we’re not gonna take it anymore, people are “oh their kids.” They said, “oh their kids,” but those kids spoke and marched, and caused the White House and the NRA to take a look. You can do anything you want.
I’m gonna go back in history. Fifty-eight years ago, on February 1, traveling down the road in North Carolina, Greensboro, there were four young men who just wanted to eat. Four, ages 16 and 17 years old. They created a movement. That movement sparked change. It touched the heart. Some of these questions are not just about politics and policy, it’s about humanity. These four young people said I’m not going to take this. They decided to go into what you consider today a Target or Walmart. I got a 15 year old and a 10 year old, trust me they even teach me how to dab or whatever, and do the “Nae Nae.” Yes, I can rock out too, don’t let that CNN thing get you fooled now let me tell you.
But seriously, these young men just wanted something to eat, they wanted something to eat. They walked into the Woolworths. They couldn’t get something at the bus station or the train station. They walked into the Woolworths, a five-and-ten—it’s like a Target/Walmart now—and in that Woolworths was this black counter with white faces sitting at the table who were eating. These young people dared the system. They challenged the system. They sat at the table as police officers were walking by with billy clubs smacking in their hands, trying to scare them. They were fearless. They sat and they sat, and then others came and joined in, and then others came. The schools not far from them, like Bennett College, the all-girls college, came and they sat, and others came and civil rights leaders because the cause was worthy, because of a dis-ease in the spirit, because they had questions. Why am I not allowed to sit here because I’m hungry? Young people changed the system. Don’t ever think that your voice, that your experiences are not enough. You are more than enough. You’re a Rocker. You are a Rocker.
I also think about the current state of affairs. Who are we at a time like this? What are we at a time like this? And it makes you think about your humanity, and as you walk through these doors and grab your degree today, one thing I’m going to leave with you: find out who you are, know what you are, know what you stand on. Yeah, we can listen to DJ Khaled all day, we can listen to Bey and Jay, and I happen to like Bey and Jay—Beyoncé and Janet Jackson. I want to go to the On the Run Tour too, OK, and Jay and Janet Jackson—Jay-Z and Janet. I like that, but beyond that, who are you? What do you believe in? Kindness, truth. When you ask a question and you stand before leadership boldly, who are you?
I think about Shirley Chisholm, who said, “if you don’t have a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” Seriously, the first black woman to run for president in 1972. But when you bring that folding chair to that table to ask your question and to effectuate change, who are you? What do you stand for? Because sometimes on the table there’s a lot. You got to make sure you’re convicted and strong enough in yourself that you are not the menu on the table when you sit there. Who are you? Are you someone trustworthy? Are you a truth teller? Are you the next Oprah Winfrey, the next Bill Gates, the next Ken Chenault? Are you the next president of the United States? Are you ladies, you know, we sitting here, we don’t know, you might marry the next prince over there in England, you never know. Another American tale. But it takes honesty and knowing who you are to rise to that level that you espoused to.
I think about some of those who walked across the stage. I didn’t know that Ronan Farrow was one of your graduates. That’s amazing. Follow in the footsteps of greatness. Yeah, you can be real, you can keep it real all day, all day long, but follow always in the footsteps of greatness. And when you do that, you also have to remember not to take yourself so seriously. Laugh at yourself sometimes. Trust me, it takes laughed a lot to be in that briefing room every day. I mean, today at the Royal Wedding they put out a meme of me saying, they said, “does anyone say, what is it, does anyone have any objection to this wedding?” They put a meme of me looking around. I’m like, oh Lord. You have got to be able to laugh at yourself. Trust me, trust me, when you’re a meme every day, a viral video, you know, oh well, whatever. You got to be able to laugh at yourself. But there’s another piece. You got to also know that it’s not about you. You got to also know that whatever religion or whatever you believe in, there’s a higher power. You got to know that life does not revolve around you, but you’re helping life to revolve and evolve.
And as I take my seat, I’m so pleased and it makes me tear up whenever I do a commencement address because for me, you know, I remember, I barely remember my commencement speakers, but understanding who I was back then and the journey today, I never knew that I’d be an author, I never knew. A kid from Baltimore there but for the grace of God go I. You know, I frequented the areas where Freddie Gray was taken into custody. I came up in a middle income family, but we are part of all of Baltimore. There but for the grace of God go I. I never thought I’d question four American presidents. I could have never written my script. Be open to life. And me, a kid from Baltimore writing three books, I’m like wow. Don’t believe your press releases, but thank the higher power that he gave you the ability to do it.
But as I take my seat and I tell you I keep it real, one of the movies that I love, and I’m telling you it’s like, it’s my Bible now, Black Panther. There’s a scene in the movie, there’s a scene in the movie. Remember when T’Challa was getting beaten by the guy in the other tribe and his mother was all upset, and he was bent back? And Angela Bassett, with those beautiful silver locks, said, “Show him who you are.” I’m telling you, Simon’s Rock Rockers, if you don’t remember anything I said, you gonna remember this today. Class of 2018, show them who you are. With that, congratulations. Thank you so much.