Imani Perry: Graduates Have “A Great Deal to Contribute”

Editorial StaffMay 26, 202416min
1200x660 C14 Imani

Imani Perry, a 2023 MacArthur Fellow and distinguished Harvard University professor, delivered the Commencement address at Wesleyan University’s 192nd Commencement ceremony on May 26.

“You have a great deal to contribute, and I want you to make that contribution at the highest level. Do not be overly concerned about the size of your impact, whether it’s splashy or widely recognized. Rather focus on the depth of your integrity and the sincerity of your efforts,” she said.

Perry is the Henry A. Morss, Jr. and Elisabeth W. Morss Professor of Studies of Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies and African American Studies at Harvard University where she is also Carol K. Pforzheimer Professor at the Harvard Radcliffe Institute. Perry is the author of eight books, including South to America: A Journey Below the Mason Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation which received the 2022 National Book Award for Nonfiction, and other award-winning titles: Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry and May We Forever Stand: A History of the Black National Anthem. Her writing and scholarship primarily focus on the history of Black thought, art, organizing, and imagination. She is particularly concerned with the architectures of social, political and legal domination, and how communities imagine and pursue liberation. Perry earned her PhD in American Studies from Harvard University, a JD from Harvard Law School, an LLM from Georgetown University Law Center in 19th century property and contract law, and a BA from Yale University in Literature and American Studies. Perry publishes widely on art, culture, literature, and politics in publications including the New York Times, The Atlantic, Harper’s Bazaar, and Harper’s.

Good morning, let me begin by offering my congratulations to the graduates, their families and friends, my fellow honorary degree recipients, I offer my salutations to President Roth, faculty, staff, and administrators. It is my great honor and joy to be here at “Wes.” I use that abbreviation because so many of the people I love are graduates. In fact, at age 16, I was fairly confident I would earn a degree from Wesleyan, and now I’ve done so, only 30 years later than first anticipated.

As everyone gathered here knows, this is a special institution. Wesleyan is known for nurturing students with the fiercest of imaginations as well as deep conviction. Yes, it is one of the nation’s most elite institutions and provides a superior education. But it is so much more than that. Wesleyan possesses a culture that is at once intellectual and playful, and principled without pomp. The last time I was on campus, over 30 years ago, I was in my 20s, speaking at a rally for political prisoner Mumia Abu Jamal. It’s where I met alum and former colleague, and trustee Joshua Guild ’96 for the first time. And also alum Santi White ’97, known professionally as musician Santigold, and saw my high school friend, Amani Willett ’97, an extraordinary professional photographer and also a Wes alum. I can see them in my mind’s eye playing conga drums—I appreciated hearing the drums coming in this morning—and keeping the day’s program in order, which included students from multiple campuses. At any rate, I gave a speech that day, in which I talked about how children stuff precious little things in their pockets—bottle caps, pennies, colorful strings, and how we can think of that habit metaphorically: we gather bits as we move through life that we stuff in our pockets, private treasures, the value of which is not immediately apparent to others but which we turn to in times of need and curiosity.

We need stuffed pockets these days. We need precious bits to keep our minds and hearts steady.

Members of the class of 2024, you’ve been through a great deal: lockdown, periods of mass death, the anguish of war and domestic conflict. The things you hold onto through the challenges of life are important. Now of course, some of what you hold fast to is big and visible, you have college degrees and accolades and jobs and distinctions. You’ve written plays and poems, theses, and songs. Some of you have been the first in your families and others have carried on old traditions. These are the big things. But some of what you’ll take with you is more like the little precious things small children stuff into their pockets or place in little treasure chests kept in secret places. These are moments, encounters, memories. Small but immensely important. Before every heartbreak there were the preceding moments of joy. For every loss there was the brilliance of first discovery or the constancy of love preceding it. Pull these moments out of your pockets, revel in them, and stuff them back inside for the next time you need them.

Something you have learned as you’ve stepped into adulthood, is that grief and birth are both our constant life companions. Life is filled with endings as well as beginnings, delight and sorrow. There are no trouble-free seasons. We, your elders, are not always great about teaching that. Most of us want you to be always happy, hopeful, filled with bright-eyed expectation that all will be achieved as long as you work hard, and so too often we sell you a story about the kind of life you’ll live that is smoother than it could possibly be. But just as you know, Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny only exist in fiction, so too have you learned that the trouble-free life only exists in movies. Bad movies at that.

Elders, we must allow your young people this lesson. We have to be honest with them, to allow the truth of the trouble they’ve seen, without dashing—while still endorsing—their dreams. We must respect them as people who have learned tough lessons and also who came of age in world historical times. They therefore have insights that exceed most of what our own were at their age. And they may even understand some things that we don’t get or don’t want to acknowledge.

All of that to say, it is our duty to accept that there is no trouble-free season. And yet, there is certainly a joyful and meaningful journey to take if you seek it. Graduates, I encourage you to enter the next stage of your life in the Wesleyan tradition—being hell bent on making your mark on the world. Armed with a superior education and the skills and opportunities it affords, you have a great deal to contribute, and I want you to make that contribution at the highest level. Do not be overly concerned about the size of your impact, whether it’s splashy or widely recognized. Rather focus on the depth of your integrity and the sincerity of your efforts. Excellence is as excellence does. Understand that neither trying, nor doing occur without mistakes and missteps. Errors shouldn’t elicit self-loathing or shame. Know that great people are fallible, that the deepest love has moments of uncertainty, and that failure is an inevitable part of life. Be merciful to yourselves. And most of all remember that friendship is the something indispensable of a sweet life.

Your time in college has undoubtedly been complex. You’ve made friends and lost them. You’ve laughed to tears on one day and felt betrayed and lonely on others. You’ve fallen in love and had your heart broken. You’ve felt trapped and you’ve felt embraced. You’ve been homesick and also so thrilled to get away from home so you can have some freedom. Some of you are very sad about leaving and some of you can’t wait to get as far away from Middletown as possible. All of these feelings and experiences are to be expected because, unlike what people often say, college, even on a beautiful campus in the middle of New England is real life. And real life is funky and complicated, as well as beautiful. What this cocoon has provided is a microcosm of sorts, of a varied yet global community. Therefore, the lessons you have learned here have application far beyond this campus. You have crossed paths with the world in this small town on this small, elite campus. This also means that the beauty of life: how you’ve learned to find joy and with whom, can be carried everywhere you go.

Hold fast to the nurtured habit of intellectual inquiry, those late-night discussions and debates, the passionate curiosity that a new detail or approach excited in you, the power of experimentation, and especially—and I really want to emphasize this—hold onto your Wesleyan friends. While I hope you continue to build new connections over the course of your lives, there is something very special about being 50 years old and looking into the eyes of someone who you laughed with all night at 18 years old, and seeing care, love, and recognition reflected back to you. These relationships, this shared journey, can serve as anchors for the rest of your life. Cherish them.

Sometimes we think of college as just a place we pass through on our way to adulthood. But, in fact, it is a place students and alums create. Regardless of whether you loved or felt more ambivalent about Wes, you will bring it with you out into the world, and you will continue to create Wesleyan in the wider world. A university is defined by its ambassadors. Be the kind of alum that makes you proud of your alma mater. Make it what you most loved about it, and also what you most desperately hoped for but perhaps didn’t find. Make of Wes what you want for it to be for the ones who will be walking through its doors in the years to come. Wesleyan is not simply the place that will sit at the top of your resumé, you are now a part of its legacy. That’s a serious responsibility. Refuse the inclination to separate the title “Wesleyan graduate” from the other parts of you: your hometown, your culture, and so forth. Just as all of those things are part of you, all of what you are is now part of Wesleyan because you will be a living representative of this place and you have a hand in its reputation in the world.

Now about that world. It is dizzying and troubled, with an environment in crisis and catastrophes at every turn. For several generations now, people have been repeating the quotation from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.” But the undeniability of that truth has never been more clear. The truth of our bound destinies also means that it often seems our ease is tied to hardship for others. It can feel impossible to know how to proceed under such circumstances. And I am convinced that the first step is to acknowledge how we are both fallible and implicated, and the second is to make one of the most persistent questions of your entire life this: How can I be good and decent while still knowing how human and therefore imperfect I/we all are? That is maturity. Innocence is for infants and toddlers. Responsibility and ethics are the duties of adults in community with others. But I know you are prepared for the hard yet beautiful work of being in community because you learned and exercised that skill here.

As you finally pack up to leave, you’ll likely find small things. Notes, ticket stubs. Maybe locks of hair, old keys, drawings. Don’t throw it all away. Hold onto some of them. Let these artifacts be material metaphors for stuffing the sweetest part of your time here in your pockets. Carry the moments with you. Take them out when you feel confused, or upset, or unmoored or just need to reminisce. Remember what it was to become an adult in a small, sweet town in New England and in a community known for deep imagination and the fiercest of convictions. And love it all. Thank you.