I wish my momma could have heard that. Thank you, Dean Walton. What a journey. It is amazing to see you in this space doing what I have always known you were called to do. But I’m going to leave that alone.
Thank you, President Wente, for having me here. Thank you to the members of the dais, the Board of Trustees, to this magnificent choir, to the mighty Class of 2022. I’m delighted to be here with you. It is an honor.
You know these occasions, especially in dark times like our own, offer us a moment to exhale and to take in the significance of our journey up to now, to recognize fully all that we have done to make this moment possible and to acknowledge f those who have loved us at every step along the way. So let’s give your parents and loved ones a round of applause.
It is one of those moments when the bewildering nature of time itself comes into view. One wonders, “Where did time go?” It wasn’t too long ago that you were wide-eyed freshmen and women, yes? Trying to figure out your majors and the social scene at Wake Forest. And with the blink of an eye, after tomorrow, you will face the world as graduates of this illustrious institution.
Behind you are moments of love and heartbreak, times of unbridled joy and sadness. Think of what you have experienced in classrooms and in labs and in studios over these years. You have grown so much.
And in front of you lie your dreams and aspirations, possibilities unimagined yet hoped for. I must admit though, I’m feeling a bit old these days, especially today. Time presses in on you in unexpected ways. Former students become deans and towering figures in their own right and you’re left to marvel at their accomplishments and their brilliance. Learning from them becomes a kind of selfish pleasure, a delight, really. An indication that the tradition carries on. One day, you are a young upstart, an enfant terrible. The next, you are an aging figure.
You are at the beginning of your journey. Buckle up and enjoy the ride because time is relentless in its pursuits.
I found myself thinking about the scriptural passage that was read this morning. I’m not a preacher like Dean Walton – he knows my general disposition toward such matters – but I couldn’t help but think about verse 28: “Then afterward, I will pour out my spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy. Your old men will dream dreams. Your young men will see visions.”
I’ll say something later about dreams and visions, but I’m curious about the somewhat awkward beginning of the sentence: “Then afterward. Then afterward ..” The words are spoken against the backdrop of a plague of locusts and in its wake was devastation, loss and unimaginable grief. How does one trust these words? Even if they are the words of God, how does one trust these words after the experiences of a plague? Do you simply leave behind the horrors and terrors of the past, full of spirit, and dream? Do you leave behind what you know in the marrow of your bones and simply envision a new world? I don’t think so.
The words, “Then, Afterward” do not imply a kind of forgetfulness. Remember that “and” is not a negating conjunction, right? Our action, after all, our actions, after all, brought the plague upon us in the first place. The power of the spirit in this instance does not wipe away the lessons learned. In fact, the past out to inform our dreams and our visions.
I’m reminded of a moment from William Faulkner’s “A Requiem for a Nun.” “The past is never dead,” he wrote. “It’s not even past.” Those old men and women who will dream dreams alongside those young men and women who will see visions must carry forward the lessons of the past and imagine a new world. There cannot be a complete break because we carry the wounds and terror in us.
Walk with me. Here, I’m in somewhat of a quarrel with Ralph Waldo Emerson. We didn’t plan this.
In the introduction to his wonderful book “Nature,” which I love, Emerson declares with a hint of disdain that “our age is retrospective. It builds the sepulchers of the fathers, it writes biographies, histories, criticism. The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face-to-face. We, through their eyes, why should not we not enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should we grope among the dry bones of the past or put the living generation into masquerade and out of its faded wardrobes? There are new lands, new men and new thoughts. Let us demand our own works and laws and worship.”
Emerson laments how the past has us by the throats. How, in this instance, the Old World suffocates our current imaginings. How we are mere imitators of the true men and women of the age. He longs for an original relation to the world, an ongoing revelation.
I must admit – especially in my younger years – that I found this vision really compelling. We are more than epigani, indeed more than sacks and stomachs for the past. You have something to say to this world, and it’s not a mere echo of what has already been said.
Each of you is unprecedented. There has never been anyone who walked the planet like you. The future awaits. The past all too often shackles our feet to the ground, but I’ve come to learn that this is a bit overstated. Then afterward – as you tell, that’s the title of my talk – then afterward requires something of you and me, an acknowledgement of the past that colors our current actions, Dean Walton, a recognition that we are not unfettered, that our inheritance affects how we dream and how we envision – especially when plagues and sorrow reside in our very core.
Dreams and visions untethered to the life lived all too often end up repeating the horrors or simply creating new ones.
Are y’all all right? Good? I know you’re ready to get out of here. You’re ready to turn that tassel and throw that hat. But wait a little bit. Yours is not a world solely defined by the events of the past. Your life is more than living in the wake of the afterlives of past evils. But you cannot be solely concerned with the future as if the past is not present in your current living. If you do, hubris will hollow out your dreams. Hubris will hollow out your dreams. The world as it ought to be must be imagined close to the ground in the world as it is. The world as it ought to be must be imagined close to the ground in the world as it is.
Now, all of this is a bit abstract. You must imagine a new world because the one that awaits you is broken. Then afterward, …
Now I know that over the past four years, you have done some amazing things. Many of you have been brilliant and many of you not so much. Some of you are graduating Summa Cum Laude and some of you are graduating “Thank you, Lordy.” Right?
You have made friendships that will last a lifetime. You have cultivated habits that will guide you through life. You have dared to risk your way to higher forms of excellences. And now you are here in the fullness of your accomplishments. You can smile the brightest of smiles because you have made the people who love you so proud.
But you have also witnessed the ugliness of America’s underbelly as old antagonisms threaten to end the republic. You saw on January 6, Americans shouting, “Stop the steal” as they attempted to sack the Capitol.
You see states across the country passing laws to limit who can vote and to legislate themselves the authority to reject electoral outcomes. Nullification isn’t a relic of the past.
You see the Court threatening the rights of women and trying to control their bodies.
You also hear the cries of those who cling to a version of American history that looks away from our national sins. You have seen – just yesterday – nor some Baby Boomer but an 18-year-old, fully armed, snuff out the life of a 77-year-old woman who had dedicated her ministry to feeding the hungry. For what?
We see these folk who don’t want to confront our history because Americans prefer their illusions neat and tidy. We must remain innocent.
You have experienced – you – the unprecedented. You have experienced the horror of an unimaginable pandemic that has left more than 1 million of our fellows dead. A pandemic that disrupted every aspect of our lives. This isn’t an abstraction. These were people we loved. Mothers and fathers and uncles and aunts and brothers and sisters and friends. And we saw a country so selfish – so selfish – that we couldn’t muster the will to respond appropriately.
This is the world that has shaped you. A world full of joy and profound sadness. A world that all too often suffocates dreams and demands that you play by the rules. All of this you cannot ignore.
And I pray that you do not resign yourself to the world as it is. No, in the full light of a country drowning in its past and present, we are told, “I will pour out my spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions.” Why should we believe it? On what grounds should we believe? In this time of storm and stress, the imagination is the battlefield. To quote Ralph Waldo Emerson again – we didn’t plan it – “God speaks to our through our imaginations.” And if that’s true, then what is the devil doing?
The imagination is the battlefield. We must imagine the world as it ought to be in the full light of what we have done and who we have become. Tomorrow, you will leave this place. You might be stepping a little high because of some drink you might be drinking, but you’re going to leave this place. You will step into a world that is fraught and vexed, a world of greed and selfishness, a world of grievance and resentment and a country that stands on the precipice.
And whether it is fair to you or not, the fate of the republic rests in your hands. It does. And you must dream dreams and see visions. You must imagine a new America, but that will require of you a confrontation with the ugliness of who we are, rooted in what we have done. And that confrontation will finally – if it happens – free us to imagine a genuinely just America.
I’m coming home. I just have a few more things to say. You must dream. You have to. There’s too much at stake in these dark days. We have lost sight – if we ever could see it – of our obligations to each other. We retreat to our ideological silos and choose a kind of vicious parochialism that corrodes the soul. We have to dream and see visions. We have to. Even as that funded experience of the past orients us to the current conditions of now orients us to imagining the future, we still must dream in light of the plagues, in spite of the locusts, in spite of the wounds that we carry with us.
In a commencement address in 1984 at Sarah Lawrence College, the late Toni Morrison told the graduates to “dream the world as it ought to be, to imagine that no one should die because they can’t afford health care, to imagine that every child, no matter the color of their skin or their ZIP code, should get a quality education, to imagine that every human being should be accorded dignity and standing and should be treated equally under the law, that no one should be seen as disposable.”
These are not the musings of radical mad men or women; this kind of world is possible, I believe. Morrison would go on to say that it’s not only possible; it’s necessary. And why is it necessary? Because if you don’t feed the hungry, they will eat you.
Did you hear me? I feel like I’m standing like my momma. Let me change.
“If you don’t feed the hungry, they will eat you,” she said.
I’m sorry to place this burden on your shoulders, but this is your inheritance. This is the world that awaits you. You – each of you, unprecedented though you may be – you are so needed today. And I pray that you, full of spirit, will imagine and give birth to a new America, a new way of living together.
You know, I run my mouth on television all the time and I often find myself these days reaching for help, trying to find resources, trying to find a way to beat back the panic, trying to find a way to beat back the despair, to respond to what feels like cascading crises that are overwhelming.
And I wanted to say something to you. I really wanted to bring my heart to you, to offer you some kind of advice as you face the life that is yours, to offer you hope amid the storms. And you know, ironically, I reached for William Faulkner. Faulkner didn’t really like people like me. But I reached for Faulkner’s Nobel lecture. It came to mind and I said, “Let me go back to this.” And here’s the line for you. He said, “I declined to accept the end of men.”
Faulkner declared, “I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure, that when the last ding-dong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then, there will still be one more sound, that of his puny, inexhaustible voice still talking.”
“I refuse to accept this,” Faulkner said. “I believe that man will not merely endure; he will prevail. He is immortal not because he is alone among creatures and has an inexhaustible voice but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.”
But if this is to be so, Faulkner suggested, we must not forget. We must not forget “the problems of the human heart,” as he put it. We must not forget the fears that drive us to idols and to the illusions of safety. We must not forget Then Afterward.
We mustn’t forget Then Afterward.
If we do, as he wrote, “we grieve on universal bones, leaving no scars. Our imaginations become surfaced and barren. If we do, we write not of the heart but of the glands.”
We mustn’t forget. Each of you is called to bear witness, to dream and to see visions, to risk everything right now in this moment to make America new.
You are called to be that inexhaustible voice, to exhibit that spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. You, the mighty Class of 2022, are the dream warriors in the Then Afterward.
Go out and fight for the world as it ought to be and live up to your alma mater’s motto. Do so for humanity itself. Thank you and congratulations.