Toni Morrison's Commencement Address to Rutgers University Class of 2011


I was so taken by Toni Morrison's call for an examination of America's current social justice failings in her commencement speech to Rutgers University graduating class of 2011 last Sunday, that I had to sit down and write down every word as best I could. You can watch her speech here, but if you want to see the poetic beauty of her indignation and, finally, the hope she extends to the graduates,  you can follow along below.

Toni Morrison's Address to Rutgers University Graduating Class of 2011

This ceremony is known as commencement. Those of you who are graduating as well as relatives, parents, friends, understand that this moment is also the end—the end of a definitive college experience. But it’s not called termination. To commence is to begin— to start something new, to enter new terrain, to launch a career begun here at Rutgers.

Now, I don’t intend to dismiss the past in pushing you toward the future; neither your recent years here nor the chaos of the world my generation has left you, I can’t dismiss that. We’ve left you a world in which the Earth itself seems to be literally breaking apart. Whether dancing to music none of us can hear, distant populations willing to shed red, red blood rather than cower to corrupt dictatorships. Employment is strangely scarce while money rushes—as no river does—up, against gravity.

This is a world where political discourse mimics a Punch & Judy Show. And, like that ancient puppet show put on for the masses, it exchanges intelligible language for hits and screams.

“We got it!” / No you don’t.

“Get the government off our backs!” / Government must have our backs.

“Women must be free!” / No, women must be directed.

The chaos, as always, is self-contradictory. But we can savor the confusion as the excitement of the new—the post post-modern; the liberation of the body and the psyche as opportunities for the accumulation of more knowledge and we can meet disorder with our own humanity.

Rutgers has offered you instruments, strategies of critical thought, contact with fresh ideas to inform your choices and shape your life, but the narrative of a worthy life is yours to write. I have often wished that Jefferson had not used that phrase, “the pursuit of happiness”, as the third right—although I understand in the first draft was “life, liberty and the pursuit of property.” Of course, I would have been one of those properties one had the right to pursue, so I suppose happiness is an ethical improvement over a life devoted to the acquisition of land; acquisition of resources; acquisition of slaves. Still, I would rather he had written life, liberty and the pursuit of meaningfulness or integrity or truth.

I know that happiness has been the real, if covert, goal of your labors here. I know that it informs your choice of companions, the profession you will enter, but I urge you, please don’t settle for happiness. It’s not good enough. Of course, you deserve it. But if that is all you have in mind—happiness—I want to suggest to you that personal success devoid of meaningfulness, free of a steady commitment to social justice, that’s more than a barren life, it is a trivial one. It's looking good instead of doing good.

There is serious work, truly serious work, for you to do. I know you have been blasted with media designed to change you from citizens to consumers, and most recently, simply tax payers; from a community of engaged civic life, to individuals with hundreds of electronic friends; from a yearning for maturity to a desire for eternal childhood. That’s the media’s role. But I tell you, no generation, least of all mine, has a complete grip on the imagination and goals of subsequent generations; not if you refuse to let it be so. You don’t have to accept media or even scholarly labels for yourself: Generation A, B, C, X, Y, [majority], minority, red state, blue state; this social past or that one. Every true heroine breaks free from his or her class—upper, middle, and lower—in order to serve a wider world.

Of course, you’re general and you have to function as a group sometimes. But you are also singular. You are a citizen in society and a person like no other on the planet. No one has the exact memory that you have.

[/col_two][col_two last="true"]So far, no one has your genetic duplicate. These are not paralyzing clashes. They represent the range and the depth of human life. What is now the limit of human endeavor is not the limit of intelligent endeavor. And what is now known is not at all what you are capable of knowing. There is much serious, hard and ennobling work to do. And, bit-by-bit, step-by-step, you can change things—the things that need changing.

Just think of it. A century from now, its quite possible that people 100, 200, 300 years from now will be stunned by the things that were taken for granted in 2011 America. They might laugh or shake their heads and wonder with dismay at our notions of progress, justice and the value of work and of life.

“What?!” they might exclaim, “You mean to tell me that people back then had to borrow money, work several jobs, save in order to pay for their own education? An education that is the wealth of the nation? I don’t believe you. I don’t believe you.”

“How could a wealthy nation put the financial burden of improving the level of its own citizens in the market place?”

“I know they sold water back then, but did they also require them to pay for clean air?”

“Are you telling me that illness incurred huge personal debt? And that companies were so beholden to profit for their own lives that they could no longer afford health benefits for the lives of their employees?”

That children, little children, were put in school environments so dangerous no adult would willing choose to enter them? And, they actually multiplied that danger by allowing them to pack heat in the halls, classrooms and playgrounds?

"That females were believed to be too stupid to manage their very own bodies?

"You mean whole families lived in tunnels and cardboard boxes on toxic wasteland? That nations watched dead bodies, broken by broken levees, lying on lawns and boulevards providing food for starving dogs?"

Well, perhaps, these people a hundred or more years from now will gasp—recoil as they see that the language at the feet of the Statue of Liberty has been paved over and they discover the dark history of the 21st century. Well maybe not. Maybe not. Perhaps by that time, generations descended from you, taught by you, inspired by you, will have imagined and forged a world worthy of you.

Your education has prepared you for such a leap of imagination and such daring. Rutgers has already offered you opportunities for reflection, innovation—an activity that do gesture toward that world. It’s already given you the tools to refine your response to contemporary chaos, to modern unease. You are your own stories, and therefore, free to imagine what it takes to remain human with no resources. What it feels like to be a human without domination over others; without fear of others unlike you; without rehearsing and reinventing the hatred learned in the sandbox. Although you don’t have complete control of the story of your life, you can still create that story. Although you will never fully know or successfully manipulate all of the characters who surface or disrupt your plot, you can respect the ones you can’t avoid by paying them close attention and doing them justice. The plot you choose may change or even elude you, but being your own story means you can control the theme. It also means you can invent the language to say who you are and how you mean in this world.

Well it's true. I am myself a storyteller, and therefore, an optimist—a firm believer in the ethical bend of the human heart; a believer in the mind’s appetite for truth and its disgust with fraud and selfishness. From my point of view, your life is already a miracle of chance waiting for you to shape its destiny. From my point of view, your life is already artful—waiting, just waiting, for you to make it art.

Congratulations and blessings classes 2011. Thank you.

--Toni Morrison, Sunday May 15, 2011, Rutgers University