“Education must not simply teach work. It must teach life.” — W.E.B. Du Bois
This time of year brings great pride and congratulations for graduates at all levels, from high school to doctorates. But the most important degree I can recommend is a Ph.D. in common sense, with a concentration in thriving and surviving in 21st century America.
Common sense is genius wrapped in work clothes. And to achieve it, we must learn four lessons.
First lesson: Don’t ever forget from whence you came. Along the long journey of life, one need only recognize that as graduates of 2018, you’re standing on the shoulders of those who came before. As you celebrate your success after many years of hard work, financial sacrifice, long nights — in many cases working and going to school at the same time — there are many out there from your hometowns and neighborhoods, maybe in your own family, who will not have the opportunities you have today. This nation has too many children who are born into and grow up in poverty. This nation has a problem of mass incarceration. This nation still has too much gun violence. To whom much is given, much is expected, demanded and required. Go back to your high school, to your community, to the young people, and let them see your success. Let them hear your story. Let them understand what you had to do to get to today.
Lesson two: Pursue excellence in every instance. It is still an unfortunate fact that to be Black, you’ve got to be better. Your grandmother and mother will tell you that time and again. But you can be the best. Say no to mediocrity. Say no to half-stepping. Say no to foot-dragging. Be excellent. And remember, excellence is not perfection. No one is perfect. What excellence means is the pursuit of perfection and the faith that in all of our endeavors, you have given everything that God has given you to accomplish to achieve and to pursue your goals and your dreams.
Lesson three: In this nation today, racism is real. But you are not going to let racism break your spirit. Whether it’s Starbucks or Waffle House. Whether it’s Trayvon Martin or Michael Brown or Eric Garner. Whether it’s a student taking a nap from studying too hard in a student lounge at Yale university. Implicit and explicit bias is still a part of American life. It’s in the criminal justice system, where people of color who serve longer sentence than white men who commit same crimes. It’s in the scourge of hate crimes that have spiked over the last two years. It’s in the leaders talking about building walls when we should be talking about building bridges.
Racism is real. But you’re not going to let it break your spirit. Frederick Douglass didn’t let racism break his spirit, and he didn’t let Lincoln’s hand shake when he signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Racism didn’t break the spirit of Harriet Tubman, who carried members of her family through the back woods on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, time and time again, to freedom. Racism didn’t break the spirit of Thurgood Marshall in 1954 when he persuaded the Supreme Court to declare unanimously that that school segregation is unconstitutional. Racism didn’t break the spirit of Booker T. Washington or W.E.B. DuBois. Remember that Rosa sat so Martin could march, so Barack could run, and Barack won so you can soar.
Finally, America respects economic power and political power. Now that you have a college degree, it’s time for you to build your assets. Building assets means investing in things that appreciate in value. Yes, you need a car but even the fanciest car doesn’t appreciate in value. Fancy handbags and fancy shoes don’t appreciate in value. Glam and glitter do not appreciate in value. Real estate does. Stock portfolios do. I know many of you are saddled with student loan debt. But don’t ever think any dime you invested in yourself was a dime wasted. If it is within your vision for yourself and the skill set that God has given you, build a business. Hire more people. Grow that business and sell that business and build a new business. Economic power is what we need.
This nation understands political power. We shirk our duty and our responsibility when an election comes and we don’t vote. We surrender our power to others when an election comes and we don’t vote. We need to send a message to the people who lead this country that we do not want a divided America. We do not want an America of walls; we want an America of bridges. We do not want an America of hate; we want an America of cooperation and an America of love. We want an America where everyone, regardless of race, creed, color, religion, orientation, or national origin is respected and honored as one of God’s children. that’s the America we want.
Of all the honors I’ve been humbled to receive in my life, and all the things I’ve learned from attending great institutions, the most important degree I got is the Ph.D. in common sense I got from my mama. It came from these four lessons: Remember from whence you came. Pursue excellence. Racism is real but will not defeat us. And America respects economic power and political power and while we do not worship it, and we will build it each and every day of our lives.
Congratulations to the class of 2018!
Morial is president of the National Urban League.