Nothing can prepare you for that for which you cannot prepare….
“On Why We Cannot Have a Moment of Silence for Lt. Richard Collins, III”
American Studies and Women’s Studies, Spring 2017 Commencement Welcome Address
– Psyche Williams-Forson
We salute you graduates and we celebrate your achievements, goals, hard work, long hours, short money, worry, and relief. I know you are sitting anxiously waiting for your degree to be conferred. I am not on the program as a commencement speaker but in order for us to speak about tomorrow and the hopes and encouragements we know will come, we must first remember yesterday. At the 2016 spring commencement for Bowie State University, Senior Class President, Dawaine Cosey, urged his fellow graduates to remember that Ecclesiastical verse that says in part, better is the end of a thing than the beginning….
So, in that light, as we all stand up before you to share our thoughts and to encourage you all to be prepared to face tomorrow I want to remind you of what happened “yesterday.”
Nothing can prepare you for that for which you cannot prepare.
This morning, as many of us started out on this celebratory walk, the clouds opened over campus, making it more difficult for graduates and their families to experience graduation the way they should. Those clouds began to form in the midnight hours of Sunday morning when the incomprehensible thing occurred on this campus. It was a situation for which we can never prepare—Lt. Richard Collins, a Bowie State University student, was senselessly killed.
I was asked to offer a moment of silence, but I am not going to do that because as the daughter of a Baptist minister and a secondary school teacher, both of whom fought for the right of black and brown children to attend school in Prince Edward County during the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, I must speak on this injustice!
Instead of a moment where we hold our tongues and our thoughts and lift up our meditations and prayers in honor, I am going to speak to you and ask that you NOT TO BE SILENT… I’m going to ask you to remember and to act!
In remembering how you overcame to get to this moment, I want you to remember…
- I want you to remember the young man who will not have the opportunity to walk at his graduation ceremony or receive his diploma because he is gone.
- I want you to remember that injustice and inequity cannot be allowed to persist, no matter what, when, where or how.
- I want you to remember that what you hold in your hand when you finally receive your degree in the mail is a new hope, a new vigor, a new determination, a new opportunity to remember what you have learned in your many American Studies, U S Latina/o/x Studies, and Women’s Studies classes.
- I want you to remember your silence will not protect you, in the words of African American feminist, lesbian, activist Audre Lorde.
- I want you to remember the times you wanted to quit and didn’t, the times you wanted to give up and didn’t, and I want you to remember that you are here for such a time as this because you have work to do in this world.
- I want you to remember that you must use the critical thinking skills with which we taught and challenged you and not be silent about the monumental tasks that are before you to help make this a just society.
- I want you to remember that you can push past discouragement, disappointment, and debilitation to affect change because someone else did not get this opportunity.
- I want you to remember your privilege and walk forward in your purpose.
- I honor you today by reminding you that it must not and cannot be about a moment of silence but about raising our voices, our fists, and our minds in resisting the beckoning call to normalize black violence.
- I want you not to be silent in your alumni stance but rather to put pen and voice to fighting for your alma mater to make changes so that no one is struck down for the color of their skin on a campus that prides and privileges itself on intellectual and personal freedom.
- I want you to remember each August and January when you saw little money in your bank account, as you waited for those funds to emerge and ask yourself as you look forward – what will I do with this vast opportunity I have been given?
- I want you to remember, class of 2017, this day, not just for what you have already accomplished but for that which you have yet to do—that which others will never get a chance to experience. This day and this celebration is forever intertwined with that of Lt Collins, and so as we celebrate you, we celebrate him and rather than be silent I encourage you to follow the lead of those of us in American Studies, USLT, and Women’s Studies whose life’s work is to educate and to motivate, all while raising our individual and collective voices in the search for equity and justice.
- I want you to remember that even in our search for liberty and justice for all, we support all who are affected by this kind of hate-filled violence.
I want you this day, as we gather here to celebrate you to remember it is not just about you. I want you to gather up and let your opposition be heard against such crimes at UMD and elsewhere. Because until one of us is free, none of us is free.
In closing, I borrow again from Mr. Cosey and add to it to my own salvo of commencement—
Today, we honor you… But we do not honor you just for tomorrow for what you will do and what you will accomplish but today, we honor the toil, the sweat, the tears—all of which is evidence, “etched in history, forever in time as proof of what you are capable of doing…”
And with that evidence, we honor you today knowing what you can do and must do to effect change in this place, this locale, this state, this nation, this universe. Go forward and gather up!
Know, 2017 graduating classes of American, USLT, and Women’s Studies, the struggle continues.