I can’t remember ever crying at a commencement speech – not one I attended and heard live and certainly not one I read after it was given.
But that changed this week when I read the commencement address given on May 22 at the University of Pennsylvania by Geoffrey Canada, president and CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone, a New York City organization devoted to breaking “the cycle of generational poverty for the thousands of children and families it serves.”
Canada’s speech is powerful in its honesty about the shape of the world today; it brought me to tears because of a personal story he tells; yet it remains hopeful because of the redemptive possibility with which it ends.
Canada begins his speech by telling the class of 2012 their graduation “is a great moment for you, and it could be a great moment for our country.”
He explains, “You are graduating at a time when our country is desperate for highly educated women and men who will fight to see through the veils of pure self-interest and half-truths to search for what is truly moral and just.”
With welcome frankness, he tells the students that while they’ve been preparing at UPenn, the country has been grappling “unsuccessfully with some very complex issues…issues that hang over our heads today like a giant leaden weight, suspended by poor logic, faulty reasoning and a degraded sense of ethics and morality.”
He ticks off the issues one by one – poverty, violence, unequal education, fear – sometimes using statistics to bolster his points.
On poverty: “Today, there are almost 45 million Americans on food stamps. There are 46 million Americans living in poverty and, even more frightening, there are over 20 million people living in extreme poverty. People who earn $10,000 per year or less die prematurely at three times the rate of those who earn more.”
On violence: “A black man in America is six times more likely to be killed than a white. We have more black men and boys killed in America today than all the lynching that happened in the South during slavery.”
Education: “A poor education guarantees that you will be trapped in a life of poverty. And what a trap. The poor fill our jails and prisons. They stumble into our emergency rooms, wheezing, limping, with blood leaking from holes never intended by God or nature. They sit in waiting rooms hoping for a sympathetic ear, which can stave off homelessness for another month, another week, another night. They stand on line for food, or clothes, or whatever is being given away for free.”
And fear: “Fear for the self is everywhere. We find it hard to care for the homeless when our mortgages are underwater. Seniors fear they can’t afford to retire, the middle class worry about going on food stamps. The poor have no job security, and too often no job. We divide ourselves by being part of the one percent, or the ninety-nine percent. The poor feel under attack, the middle class feel under attack, even the wealthy feel under attack.”
Then Canada does an amazing thing: he asks the graduates to join his team – “the team that rallies around the common good, that emphasizes self sacrifice and altruism” – but admits it’s the losing team.
The other team, Canada explains, is the winning team. It’s the one that says “every man for himself,” and “makes us turn our backs on the poor, feel no empathy.” It “feeds off of our vulnerabilities, our insecurities, our personal demons and prejudices.” “Their team is winning,” Canada says. “Our team is losing, and yet I offer you a wondrous opportunity, to join the losing team.”
He tells the group “it’s tougher than you think out there. There is evil out there. I’m not talking about some mystical, theoretical, hypothetical construct. I’m talking about the real thing: pain and suffering, despair and death.”
Then he tells the story that made me cry.
“Let me share something with you. I have this fantasy that plays out in my head. It’s based on something that occasionally happened when I was a young boy in the South Bronx. I loved playing basketball and I was fearless. I just wasn’t very good. However, I would convince my team that we could win no matter how talented the opponents were. And we would travel all over the South Bronx challenging other teams, invariably losing. But I had a brother named John, who was a great basketball player. John was just a year older than me but his skills in basketball put him in a class by himself. At 13, he was so good that he always played with the adults.
“But every now and then I would be playing and sweating under the sun on some blacktop court in some strange neighborhood in the South Bronx, my team would be losing and lo and behold, I would see a most glorious sight – this tall, thin figure loping towards the court, coming from a game somewhere else where the competition was stiffer. And my heart would soar. And I would yell, ‘Time out! Time out!’
“When questioned why I wanted a time out, I would answer, ‘I want to make a substitution.’ This was unheard of, and there would always be arguing back and forth. What usually convinced the other team to allow the substitution was their finding out that I wanted to put my brother in. After seeing the way I played, they figured, ‘Sure, let his brother play, who cares.’ And there would be jokes at my expense, and smirks and smiles. And John would come in, take over the game, and the smiles would disappear, and we would win.
“My brother died in 1972 at the age of 21 during my sophomore year at Bowdoin College. There have been many times in my life that I have fought for the right cause, but a losing cause, and I have seen the smirks and heard the snickers, and oh how I wished I could look up and see that tall, thin frame walking to my rescue.”
Canada closes his remarks with the beautiful and powerful fantasy he conjured. “One day, not too long from now, my team and I will be doing battle with the forces of darkness. They will be trying to reverse our progress, hurt our children, and destroy their souls. And it will suddenly hit me that I can do no more. The forces arrayed against us are too powerful, too mighty, defeat is at hand. And suddenly, from behind me, I will hear a mighty roar. I’ll turn around and see a most glorious sight: an army of better prepared, smarter, more powerful young warriors. They swarm past me headlong into the battle. The enemies of truth, of fairness, of liberty, of equality, are overmatched and begin to retreat. And I grab several of those young warriors and I ask ‘Who are you?’ ‘Where did you come from?’ And they say, ‘Don’t you remember us, we are from Penn, Class of 2012.’”
A great speech. A wonderful speech. A speech that made me cry. And made me want to join the losing team. I suspect it inspired a number of his listeners in the same way.