Billionaire media mogul Oprah Winfrey returned to her alma mater on Saturday to deliver fiery, woke commencement remarks to Tennessee State University’s graduating class of 2023.
Winfrey, who skyrocketed to fame and fortune with the success of her 90s-area television hit, The Oprah Winfrey Show, lamented to the audience that “you are the generation that is forced to depend on body cams to obtain justice;” that they have witnessed “the death of civility;” that “history is being rewritten;” and that “children are being gunned down by military-grade assault rifles.”
She added that although some will insist it is “not actually possible to make any real difference,” that “Tennessee has a couple of ‘Justins’ just a few miles from here who would respectfully disagree.”
The Oscar-nominated actress went on to say the expelled-then-appointed State Representatives Justin Jones (D-Nashville) and Justin Pearson (D-Memphis) are “building on the legacy of giants and mentors of mine, like John Lewis, whose fight for justice started right here in Nashville, and who now speaks to us from eternity.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about how much of your lives have already been spent grappling with the extremely complex issues of our time because you are the generation that is forced to depend on body cams to obtain justice, and even then, accountability, as we’ve seen again and again, can be so hard to come by. You’ve witnessed the storming of the Capitol and the death of civility. You are acutely aware that voting rights are being gutted, women’s rights are being dismantled, books are being banned, and history is being rewritten.
The Supreme Court is being corrupted. The debt ceiling is being held hostage. The climate is changing. The LGBT+ community is under attack. The Cold War is back. The leaders are behaving like children. The children are being gunned down by military-grade assault rifles. We live on a planet where there is more than enough wrong to keep you busy trying to make things right for the rest of your natural life.
And unfortunately, you’re going to encounter people who will insist that it’s not actually possible to make any real difference. But I believe Tennessee has a couple of “Justins” just a few miles from here who would respectfully disagree. Representatives like Justin Jones and Justin J. Pearson are using their lives to prove the cynics wrong and they’re building on the legacy of giants and mentors of mine, like John Lewis, whose fight for justice started right here in Nashville, and who now speaks to us from eternity. This is what I know for sure. There will never be anything in your life as fulfilling as making a difference in somebody else’s.
Everybody here wants to see you take your integrity, your curiosity, your creativity, your guts, and this newfound education of yours, and use it to make a difference. Everybody always thinks you got to go do something big and grand. I’ll tell you where you start. You start by being good to at least one other person every single day.
Just start there. That’s how you begin to change the world, by just being good to one other person. It doesn’t matter if it’s a member of your tribe or a stranger on the street. I’m here to tell you that a little act of compassion can be a lifesaver for somebody who receives it, but also for you who offers it.
Just extend yourself in love and kindness to somebody, and as my dear friend, Maya always said, love recognizes no barriers. It jumps hurdles, it leaps fences, and it penetrates walls to arrive at its destination full of hope. And when you step out in love, you become someone’s hope. And I know that becoming hope in the world won’t always be easy.
There’ll be times when you get to your wit’s end. But there’s another old proverb that says, when you get to your wit’s end, remember that’s where God lives. I would add that when you get to your wit’s end, it’s also a good idea to remember that you’ve been there before. Because we are among the toughest, most resilient people the world has ever seen, and I’m just not talking about older generations.
Your generation has masked up and locked down for a pandemic that ravaged the world. You, my TSU friends, have trained for complicated times. And I don’t care how hard life after college gets and it’s going to get hard, we need you to dream big. We need audacious thinkers.
Use my example. I was one good TSU teacher, Mr. Cox, and one timely phone call away from a career that would absolutely change my life. That story’s not just my own. What dream are you one or two steps away from? We also need generosity of spirit. We need high standards and open minds and untamed imagination.
That’s how you make a difference in the world, using who you are and what you stand for, to make changes big and small. And there will be times when making the next right decision will be scary. I’ll tell you a secret. That’s how I’ve gotten through every challenge without being overwhelmed by asking what is the next right move.
You don’t have to know all the right moves, you just need to know the next one. And it’s ok to be scared, in fact, if you weren’t scared I’d be scared for you. But let me repeat something that the most extraordinary, certainly one of the most extraordinary men I’ve ever known said. May your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears. Let your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears.
To me, that’s a nine-word prayer, and it came from a single individual who literally changed the world by putting his own fears aside for the people of this country. Thank you, Nelson Mandela. Now you all have photos to bomb and diplomas to frame, and heels to change out of, I don’t know how you walk in them heels Trinity.
Neckties to hand to your next of kin, but I can’t just tell you what desperate shape the universe is in and send you on your way. So I’m gonna leave you with this instead. The world is weaning itself off Russian fuel. Electric cars are going mainstream across the globe. That hole we punched in the ozone layer is healing.
Ukraine is still in there fighting for us all. Finland joined NATO. COVID is currently receding and there are human beings who very quietly donate their bone marrow to strangers. And this to me signals that the United States of America may not be united, but we are not a finished product. My point is, anything is possible.
The wheels are still in spin. Saints walk among us. And as Nelson Mandela so brilliantly demonstrated, it’s better to be hopeful than fearful if for no other reason, than the fact that hope brings us one step closer to joy. And I leave you with this. You have been prayed for and paid for, not just tuition, but paid for through the sacrifices and the daily aggressions.
Through this, discriminations, the locked doors, the back doors, the barriers broken down through the humiliations, working two and three jobs, just trying to make ends meet and getting a little money so you can have something to spend at college.
Every family member from generations back who helped make this day possible, you owe them a rising. And your job is to come on up to the rising, to meet the rising of your life and know that your crown has been paid for. Put it on your head and wear it. Congratulations.
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Image “Oprah Winfrey Commencement Address 2023” by HBCUPulse.