African American Academic Network (AAAN)

Convocation Address 2011

"The World Bends to Righteous Endeavor"


Philip M. Royster
Professor of African-­-American Studies (Retired)
Professor of English (Retired)
Director, African-­-American Cultural Center (Retired)
Coordinator, Faculty Institute (Retired)
University of Illinois at Chicago

Phillip M. RoysterTo Chancellor Paula Allen-­-Meares, Vice Chancellor Barbara Henley, Associate Vice Chancellor W. Clarke Douglas, Director Carlotta Johnson-­- McGowan, Associate Director Vance Pierce, the rest of the honored podium guests, the faculty, staff, administrators, and African American graduates of the Class of 2011, along with their family members and friends:

It is an honor and a privilege to speak to you tonight, but it is a short privilege. I've been given ten minutes of this honor, so let's get started. I'm going to read to you what I have to say. Although I greatly admire those who can memorize their talks, like many of the speakers at the Open Mics hosted by Mojo's Pen, nevertheless my memory is of the sort that it took two months routine for me to remember how to get back to an office I once had in BSB.

We are here because this night is a night of celebration and you are the ones we are celebrating. Congratulations to you all; and congratulations to your family members and friends who have supported you throughout your journey to this occasion.

The University of Illinois at Chicago promotes itself as a world-­-class university, and indeed it is. You can be proud to be graduating from it. As you know, sometimes UIC has been called Harvard on Halsted.

One evening many years ago, a dinner was held at the Harvard in Cambridge in honor of one of its most illustrious presidents, Charles W. Eliot, during which he was regaled by toasts from his colleagues. One of the professors stood up and said with enthusiasm, "Since you became president, Harvard has become a storehouse of knowledge." Eliot maintained his seat but was quick to respond, "What you say is true, but I can claim little credit for it. It is simply that the freshmen bring so much in and the seniors take so little away!"

Of course we can agree that Eliot's quip would not be accurate with regards to the graduates here tonight. We know that you are taking away not merely knowledge imparted by our dedicated faculty and your diligent studiousness, but many of you are also taking with you the beginnings of judiciousness and we might even say some sprouts of wisdom. And there is little in this world more important than the fact that your education has contributed to the carving of your character and the flourishing of your dreams and schemes for your future. Your future is our future, and it is of this that I wish to speak tonight.

On the 8th of January 2008, in Nashua, New Hampshire on the night of the primary presidential election, candidate Barack Obama gave a speech that he entitled "Yes We Can," and in that speech he explained that "Yes we can" was "a simple creed that sums up the spirit of a people." With this creed and this speech, our president was signifying, playing with the Nomo power of language to create reality and to communicate on multiple levels simultaneously, as African Americans are prone to do. President Obama's "Yes We can" conveyed the complexity of the experiences and goals of black folk, while inviting the rest of America and ultimately the world to share in a fundamental value that permeates black cultures throughout the United States.

President Obama's creed "Yes we can" prodded black folk in his audience to remember all the ways we have taught each other for several hundred years that yes we can and yes we will defeat racism and discrimination. President Obama's "Yes we can" serves as a notification to all those who believe in our inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, notification that his campaign and his presidency are signs that it is time to get on board the freedom train. President Obama's creed "Yes we can" confronted all the nay-­-sayers who for centuries have done all they could to steal the sweat and shackle the dreams of black folk and other exploited peoples in these United States and around the world. To all those trying to tell black folk, "No you can't," President Obama replied, "Yes we can." He was speaking for you, he was speaking for me, he was speaking for all those ready to get on the good foot, as our old folk would say. President Obama's yes we can was a signal to the world that black folk are seizing their rightful inheritance: to provide visionary, inspired, and informed leadership not merely to the nation of their origins but also to the world, of which they are exemplary citizens.

President's Obama's "Yes we can" is an answer to a query our old folk and our ancestors have been posing to us for several centuries now. Those old folk are looking for us, for each of you graduating tonight and for me too. They've been watching us with vigilance since we were children, and one of their chief questions has been and remains, "Are you the one? Or one of the ones, who'll help bring about our liberation, as a people, one of the ones who will help us repossess our birthright?" You who are participating in this graduation ceremony tonight are already answering them: "Yes, I am the one, or one of the ones, and, you better believe it, 'Yes, we can'."

Make no mistake: the goal is to find professional employment, raise family, build community, achieve success, but each of us is also capable of exerting visionary, inspired leadership in whatever we pursue, leadership that will transform the world or some part of it, and that's also what our president means when he says, "Yes we can."

Moreover, our old folk knew something else they wanted to convey to us: "Yes we did." Since the beginnings of our sojourn in the Americas, there have been black folk who have used their abilities to prevail: whether it was Du Sable or Dunbar, Douglass or Dubois, Sojourner Truth or Rosa Parks, Nat Turner or James Farmer, Mary McLeod Bethune or Madame C. J. Walker, Alice Walker or Fannie Lou Hamer, Bernard Shaw or Dr. Terry Mason.

For all too long our enemies, who also are the enemies of humanity, told us and the world that we had no culture or no culture worth attending to, no accomplishments, nothing to be proud of. But today the cultures and the histories of the cultures of black folk, especially the cultures of black folk in the New World, have spread from nation to nation throughout the world, not only our musics and our religions, but also our arts and our aesthetics, our politics and our moral sensibilities, our scholarship and our inventions. Since the last half of the last century, we have been changing the institutions of America, providing leadership to other constituencies to rise up and bring about their own New Worlds. We have changed American higher education, democratizing its curriculum and faculty and administrative leadership. We have changed American corporate and advertising cultures. We have changed the American communications media, integrating its talent and democratizing its content. We have changed the American entertainment media. Will Smith is Hollywood's leading leading man. We have changed the American sports industry. Basketball. Though the name is the same the game is different since black folk hit the floor. They treated the basketball court as if it were the Savoy Ballroom. And football has never been the same since we got a chance to clutch the pill and truck the field. We have changed the American jurisprudence system. Thurgood Marshall was the first to penetrate what had been an elite bastion of white male privilege, the Supreme Court. He paved the way for all the others who are different who have followed. We have moved on to Madison Avenue's advertising row and into the financial districts of LaSalle Street and Wall Street. We can board the Endeavor and join the shuttle astronaut, Mae Jemison, hurtling through space. She was tough enough to inform us that the civil rights movement was a call to action and that "[t]he best way to make dreams come true is to wake up."

And this great legacy from our past can also be said of you tonight: With regards to your academic achievement that we are now celebrating, you can affirm with confidence: "Yes we did."

So we have much to celebrate and be thankful for tonight. We are thankful for the heroes and heroines of our past and our present. We are thankful for you. But we are looking for something more from you, a commitment we would like for you to make before you leave the building tonight, if you have not already done so. That commitment is "Yes we will." That's your theme for tonight. It is what I want you to promise to do for yourselves, for all of us, and especially for me. For when I look at you tonight, as we celebrate your marvelous accomplishment of graduating from this world-class institution of higher education, the University of Illinois at Chicago, I look at you through the eyes of the world; I look at you on behalf of the peoples of the world. If you make a promise to me, and to all of those standing behind me; you'll be making a promise to your family and friends in this audience; you'll be making a promise to all the people in the world. And I want you to promise, "Yes we will." If you keep this promise to me, you'll be keeping your promise to our world, "Yes we will."

And what is that commitment we ask of you? What can you do to serve your people? What will serve your people and the rest of humankind, simultaneously?

Pursue your dreams, with enthusiasm and diligence! Staying on the good foot! Follow your heart with inspiration and perspiration! Listening to your conscience all the time! Let no one nor anything stand in your way; not even your self. If what has happened to me happens to you, days will come when all you will have will be your willingness to fall back on your own backbone and stand straight alone. And remember that I told you this tonight, if nothing else: the world bends to righteous endeavor.

The challenges before us are globally vast and sobering. Climate change, education, health care and disease, poverty, war. Racism, sexism, homophobia, heterosexism. I could go on, but you already know the litany.

Look around you now, those you see, or others like you, will be your colleagues or competitors in the future. You will need to learn to stand together in solidarity with each other. When you challenge each other, you will need to understand the role of the loyal opposition in any successful institution or nation. You will need to learn to discern the difference between the invidious disagreement of crabs and the principled opposition of colleagues.

Eschew the crabs; embrace the colleagues.

If you do these things well, we may someday say of you what the great 20th century English poet, Stephen Spender said:

"I think continually of those who were truly great.
. . .
The names of those who in their lives fought for life,
Who wore at their hearts the fire's center.
Born of the sun, they traveled a short while towards the sun,
And left the vivid air signed with their honor."

Black man and black woman, I celebrate you.

And again, remember my theme:

The world bends to righteous endeavor.

Celebration House II
St. Charles, Illinois
6 May 2011