Hello, Washington University Class of 2021! You know I was hoping I could be here with all of you in person because there’s nothing I like better than the overwhelming scent of relief. However, I did visit your beautiful campus, so I’m with you in spirit.
Congratulations on graduating in the midst of one of the most challenging times in world history. Historians will be writing about this year for centuries. It will be referenced multiple times on “Jeopardy.”
I know that’s not much of a consolation for the hardships that you’ve had to endure to get here today. It wasn’t the college experience you imagined while in high school, dreaming of uncrowded classrooms and crowded parties. But learning how to endure unpredictable challenges is probably the most important lesson college can teach you. I’m not talking about just surviving, I’m talking about thriving. Surviving means that you have come through the catastrophe but you’re still relatively intact. Thriving is about learning and growing as a result of the event. That’s what graduations are all about. Celebrating those who have not just endured hard challenges but, as a result of being challenged, thrived.
The other important lesson you should have learned by now is that in life you never stop graduating. Life is an endless series of graduations, during which you feel the same anxious uncertainty, that roiling feeling in your stomach that you experience as the roller coaster goes up, up, up, anticipating curling over the top and the sudden, face-yanking plummet. Graduation is both thrilling and nerve-wracking.
But you guys are experienced graduaters. You’ve already graduated from kindergarten, elementary school, middle school, high school, and now college. Next up: first job, first house, first child. These are all moments of “graduation,” when you stand on a threshold of a new adventure, in which what lies ahead is a path that bends around into the unseen and unknown. So many doorways in life, so many paths. But they all have similar characteristics in common: they will challenge what you think you know about the world and about yourself. Each time you open that new door, you’re a different person from the last time. You’re graduating but you’re also evolving.
Most people think graduation is about looking ahead to the next step in your life. I disagree. I think it’s about looking back. Philosopher George Santayana famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” This is true whether we’re talking about avoiding war, avoiding corrupt politicians, or avoiding fashion mistakes like parachute pants or mullets. Education isn’t just about learning the facts of history, it’s about understanding what those facts mean to the future of you and your community. Understanding your personal history, your cultural history, your country’s history, your world’s history, helps you put it in perspective where you want to go, what you want to do, and, most importantly, who you want to be.
When I graduated from UCLA, I was looking ahead, but I was also looking backward. I was looking forward to playing in the NBA, but I was looking backward to my sophomore year, because what happened then made me realize what I wanted to do after I got through playing professional basketball. That year that I turned 20, Jim Brown, the Hall of Fame football player and Hollywood actor, invited me to join a group of influential Black athletes for what would become known as the Cleveland Summit. We were tasked with deciding whether to support or condemn boxing heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali in his decision to not participate in the draft as a conscientious objector.
I was the youngest member of the group. Some had been in the military and did not look sympathetically to draft dodgers. I felt overwhelmed by the responsibility. Who was I, a kid just out of my teenage years, deciding the fate of anything, let alone one of the most famous Black men in the world? Wasn’t that best left up to older, wiser people? But there I was, along with older, wiser people, listening to Ali talk about his faith, his unwillingness to kill, and his willingness to give up his title, lose millions of dollars, and face years of imprisonment. Even when the government guaranteed he wouldn’t have to go to Vietnam, that he would only do exhibition boxing, he refused. He wouldn’t allow himself to be used as a poster boy to recruit others to do what he wouldn’t do. By the time we were done grilling Ali, we all agreed that he was not just sincere, but uncommonly courageous.
For me, that was a graduation. I had been looking for some way to express my frustration at the country’s inequities, my helplessness at the injustice all around me, my anger at the physical dangers that my people and other marginalized people faced just going about their daily business. I also realized that the only reason I was part of the Cleveland Summit and given a public platform to express my opinion was because I was very good at stuffing a basketball through a hoop. So, if I wanted to continue making my life have a positive impact on my community, I would stuff more balls through more hoops than anyone else.
My retirement from the NBA was also a graduation. As with every graduation, there was that same scary feeling in my stomach of the roller coaster ratcheting slowly higher and higher. But, as with every graduation, I looked forward to the drop into the new challenges ahead. But as I looked forward to my next chapter, I also looked back over my previous chapters. I had accomplished pretty much everything I’d wanted to in basketball, but had I accomplished everything I wanted to in helping my community? Not even close.
I started writing books and documentaries to help educate Americans about overlooked Black inventors, scientists, artists, writers, musicians, athletes and war heroes. I also wrote about why they had been overlooked. Believe me, transitioning from basketball to writer was scary. I knew that some people would judge me harshly for daring to be an athlete who also had opinions, especially a Black athlete criticizing the society that had given him success. But to me, how could I call myself a success if I wasn’t helping others have a chance at success?
Shakespeare wrote, “What’s past is prologue.” Yes, the past is done — but it’s not over. History — whether it’s the world’s or your own — can be a roadmap for not only where you want to go, but for who you want to be next.
Your past is prologue, but you are the authors of your next chapter and can be whoever and whatever you choose. I hope your story will include a few pages in which you went out into the world and demanded justice, demanded fair play, demanded equality for all people. Now, that’s a successful life. And that life’s a story we’d all want to read.
Thank you so much.