President Lee Pelton talks about Sheldon Brown ’14, left, during his Valedictory Address Sunday, May 12. Photo/Derek Palmer
The following is a message to this year’s graduates from Sheldon Brown ’14, an actor whom President Lee Pelton presented with a Creative Courage Award last month, and recognized in his Valedictory Address at Sunday’s Commencement Ceremony.
“It”: A crucial or climactic point. Used in a sentence, “This is it.”
These are the words that formed in my mind as I experienced one of the most traumatic moments of my life. A little over a year ago, I was walking home late at night after a party and was shot in a drive-by shooting in Chicago. I admit sharing this story is not easy. Not just because of the trauma that is inherent in an event of this kind, but because oftentimes, trauma and tragedy are seen as synonymous with people of color.
We are often praised for overcoming adversity, overcoming tragedy, overcoming trauma. However, no one adequately grasps the innate power amongst us Black and Brown folk to simply overcome. You see, we will often come up against incredible odds. We live in a time where our capacity to love is being challenged. Our ability to live freely, and richly, and fully is constantly under siege. And it is easy to face these odds and believe we’ve reached the brink.
“The end.” The “This is it” moment.
I am here as living testimony that when you believe you’ve reached the brink, you plant firmly your heels into the ground, you brace yourself, and you get ready to take off! It is time to ascend to new heights, to leave the things that bind us on the ground. It is time to learn, and to grow, and to love. To take each crucial and climactic point of our lives as not the end of a journey, but a wake-up call to take action and create a new beginning. We must create the change we want to see in our lives and in this world.
To the mothers who not only brought each and every one of us into this world, but bear the yoke of rearing, teaching, molding, and loving, we honor you. And to our Black and Brown mothers who do all these things despite the systemic oppressive structures that seek to hinder or take away the lives of the children they brought into this world: We praise your strength.
I was raised by a Southern Black grandmother. She was my mama and my daddy, a woman who believed that onions and Robitussin could cure all illnesses. She was a strong Black woman. Emphasis on the strong. Emphasis on the Black. She didn’t make it to see me walk across the stage. But her teachings allowed me to walk across the stage, and for the second time on Sunday.
My grandmother, my mama, was the daughter of a sharecropper. She raised six kids and eight grandkids, and through all of this, the one word she instilled in me through the 26 years of my existence was not “tragedy,” or “trauma,” or “adversity.” It was “strength.”
We, especially my Black and Brown brothers and sisters, are not defined by our setbacks, our hardships, our struggles. We are defined by our power. We are the walking embodiment of power beyond measure. We are the walking embodiment of beauty that has not and cannot be defined. Do not let anyone tell you how far you can go. A year ago, I could not walk, but today I am proclaiming that you cannot let anyone tell you, “This is it.” Not even yourself.
The one lesson that has helped me since I graduated was discovering the one thing that I can offer to this world. What’s helped me even more was discovering that there was more than one thing I can offer. I challenge you to look around, find what is missing, and seek to fill in those gaps. We are of a unique generation in which many of the jobs and wonders we will inherit have not been created. They have not been dreamed. My words to you: Dream big!
Find within yourselves the unique skills, drive, and leadership that distinguishes you from amongst the masses. You all have it, that one quality, that one gift. In fact, you have more. Discovering these gifts means you must learn how to have patience. You cannot compare yourself to your peers. We all have our individual paths to walk.
Don’t distract yourself by investing in someone else’s before you invest in your own. You must learn how to fail and grow from your failures, grow from your struggles. It is inevitable that we will run into walls on our way to success, but those who learn from their mistakes and turn their pitfalls into launching pads are always bound for greatness.
I feel called to urge you all to do something of extreme importance. Mobilize. The world is depending on you. We have no time to waste. There are powers putting in overtime to restrict our rights, our resources, our voices. We are counting on you to lead us to where we should be. Some of the most revolutionary movements began with young people, whether it be a 26-year-old preacher who led the Civil Rights Movement, or the three young Black women who formed Black Lives Matter, or the voices of Parkland High School and students all across this nation fighting to put an end to gun violence. Change begins with you.
Nina Turner, a former state senator, says in order to be successful in life, you need the three bones: the wishbone, the jawbone, and the backbone. The wishbone will keep you hoping and praying, because hope is the motivator, but the dream is the driver. The jawbone will give you courage to speak truth to power, lift your voice; it should matter that you’re in the room, and that you’re in that space with that voice. The most important bone, the supercalifragilisticexpialidocious bone — the backbone – will give you courage to stand through all of your trials and tribulations.
Which leads me to plant an idea to conquer those trials with something that I believe is truly radical – love. This time last year, I was two weeks out of the hospital. I could barely walk. I lost over 30 pounds. I had several tubes and bags going in and out of me. I was filled with grief, pity, and at times, hate for the person who meant me harm. I was broken, looking for something that would bring me peace.
My Emerson people, that one thing was love. Learning to love myself, and love myself fiercely. And more importantly, learning to love even those who have brought me pain. I press all of you — the hope of this school, the hope of this country, our hope in this world – to work endlessly to love yourselves and share that love with everyone you meet. Because as RuPaul says, “If you can’t love yourself, how the hell you gonna love somebody else, can I get an amen?”
This is not an easy task. Learning to love means you must learn to embrace. Embracing is a two-step method. First, you must acknowledge the circumstances and differences that shape who we are, and then you must be able to reach beyond those differences to find common ground. Because regardless of where we come from, or how we look, or what we worship, or who we choose to love, our hearts beat as one. We bleed the same color and we all call this planet home. And a house divided amongst itself cannot stand. Our differences should not keep us from loving one another.
We are at a crucial and climactic point in our lives. This is it. But I trust there is nothing to fear. You are our future leaders, teachers, innovators, storytellers, communicators, authors – the very fruit of our ancestors’ wildest dreams. I wish you all nothing but greatness, with no doubt that wish will come true.