Editor’s note: Pierce Freelon ’02 delivered this speech during the 177th Commencement exercises on May 26, 2018.
Seniors, what up?
It is so nice to be back here at Williston. Just a little back story: I was really nervous about delivering this speech today. I’ve given a lot of speeches, but this is probably the most nervous I’ve been, being back here on this campus and I didn’t actually have anything prepared until yesterday. I wrote it in my journal, so we’re just going to read from my journal if that’s cool, alright?
So, this is my entry from Friday, May 25th 2018: “Tomorrow I will deliver the commencement speech at my alma mater, Williston Northampton. Yesterday Headmaster Bob Hill called me. He wanted to see a copy of my speech. I didn’t have one because I’m writing it on the plane right now.” So, my first message to the Willie graduating class of 2018 is: It’s okay to procrastinate. You can still be successful. And I’m like 90 percent sure this will be the best speech you’ll hear all day. So.
Now let me tell you why I have this confidence. I’m confident because, like you, I’m a Wildcat. I’ve been trained by one of the elite institutions in the world, I’ve sung with the Caterwaulers. Any Caterwaulers out there? That’s the male singing group for those of you who don’t know. I was the lead in the school play. We did Guys and Dolls my senior year. Actually, our whole football team was a part of that play production, so that was really exciting. But more importantly, this is where I learned to write, this is where I learned to do public speaking, it’s where I learned to think. I was nurtured by a community of educators and coaches and friends whose impact and words of wisdom have lasted a lifetime. Well, I haven’t been alive for a whole lifetime, I’m only 34, but it’s been good for like 15, 16 years.
So, I want to tell you about one of the people who have shaped my life and inspired me on my journey. Her name is Sherrie-Ann Gordon. She was a senior at Williston when I was a sophomore. She was a graceful, intelligent, warm and hilarious black woman and one of the only black women in my life at the time. I don’t know what it’s like now, but when I was a student here there were virtually no adults of African descent on this campus at all. No faculty, coaches, staff, not even a groundskeeper who looked like me. And don’t get me wrong, I had wonderful mentors. I just reconnected with Coach Conroy and Mister Gunn, people who have really shaped my confidence and are still a part of my life in my mind often today. But it could be also incredibly isolating and frustrating, especially the first time, for example, I heard a racial slur in the locker room, or when I had to argue with the seniors in Ford Hall about the confederate flag they had hanging in their dorm. But we as a community, we had Sherrie. She always had a loving smile and a compliment and good advice and good vibes. And when I was sad, she would lend me her Miseducation of Lauren Hill CD. Y’all do know what a CD is, right? Okay, just making sure y’all knew about CDs.
So, I’m going to jump off script for a second; don’t be scared. Yesterday I’d written my speech on the plane, I landed and then I called some alums, some friends of mine; my roommate Sadiki and my sister Mya and my friend Kia, who are all like doctors and working for big PR firms, so your future is bright. And I read them my speech and they were like: “You’ve got to tell them the story about Sherrie and water polo!” So, here’s a brief story about Sherrie: When Sherrie came to Williston she could not swim. That’s a stereotype for black people. We don’t like getting our hair wet, we don’t, we can’t swim. And it’s one that’s not true, but it happened to be true for her. Not only did she teach herself to swim here at Williston, but by the time she was a senior she was the captain of the water polo team. And for those of you who’ve ever played water polo, you know that’s not just doggie paddle, you’ve got to tread water, it takes a lot of swimming ability to be able to do that. So that epitomizes for me what Sherrie was about. When she did something she did it well; she went in and she held nothing back. So, I think that’s the lesson for y’all, is you find what your passion, what your interest is and if you’re going to do something, do it like a Wildcat; go hard.
Now back to my journal: Sherrie didn’t just except the status quo, she disrupted it. Here in 1999, here at Williston we did not recognize Martin Luther King Jr. Day. It was just a regular day with regular classes. We recognized it, but we didn’t get class off. So, Sherrie helped us organize a strike. She was the president of a student group called the A4s, African American Awareness Association, and we called this emergency meeting to discuss institutional racism. To be honest, some of us were just trying to get out of class, but we were like: “Yeah, we’re going to talk about this big topic.” And you know it was an important meeting because we blocked off the whole top section of the Stu-Bop.
There were three issues on the table. Not only was there no black faculty here, not only did we not recognize Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, but they banned doo-rags in the school dress code. Some of you might not know what a doo-rag is; forgive me. A doo-rag is like a silky velvet massage for your scalp. It helps us get waves in our hair. When they came for the doo-rags we were like: “That’s it. We’re walking out of class!” So, it was noon on Martin Luther King Jr. day in 1999, we all stood up in our class, we walked out, we met over there at the lion (Is the lion still there? Yeah, there’s the lion.) and we did a march. We marched through campus, we marched in downtown Easthampton, there was like one CVS there at the time, it was very small. Then we came back to the Stu-Bop. While all our peers were in class we played spades and listened to Outkast all day, and it was cool. But Sherrie wasn’t there just for the leisure of it. She had a list of demands. She helped us think through a process and we came up with a list of demands. One of the main demands was for Williston to do more to attract talented faculty and staff to the campus, to do some aggressive recruiting; to reach into their networks and their pocketbooks to just do better, for us. But not just black students, but for all students; for queer students, Latinx, Muslim and Arab students. You know, more diversity, more community, more mentors, more different stripes of Wildcats. And we got what we demanded. The Head of School convened a search panel of students and parents and faculty to attract and seek out diverse teachers and families to join our community. And it wasn’t immediate. It wasn’t overnight. It took about two years, but finally we made some progress and scored some hires, so shouts out to Williston to do the work to meet the demands of the students. We identified a problem, they listened, they heard us, and they addressed it. We didn’t actually hire that faculty member until after I graduated, which was a full three years after Sherrie left, but the seeds that she planted had finally produced fruit. So, this is my advice for you: As you go out into this world I want you to be like Sherrie. Remember her. What is the thing in the world that you want to change? What is the paradigm that you are going to shift? Seriously, take a minute. Think about it. Maybe it’s something big, like ending poverty or global warming. Maybe it’s something personal like sharing a playlist with a classmate or leading a protest at your university or your workplace. But I encourage you all to take a good look at this world, and in the words of the great science writer Octavia Butler, “Shape change.” Shape change.
Ever since I left campus that’s what I’ve tried to do. Last year in my home town of Durham, NC, I ran for mayor, and that’s what I was trying to do with that campaign was shape change. In Durham I run a community center called Blackspace where we teach kids things like coding and beat making and 3D printing; we are shaping change in their lives. As a filmmaker I was just, maybe about a month ago, in NY at the Tribeca Film Festival premiering an animated film about the construction of race. It’s called The History of White People in America, and it was really cool because Whoopie Goldberg had selected our film out of five thousand films to be included in the Tribeca Film Festival. I wrote and co-directed this film that is shaping people’s consciousness around the construction of race. So, my question for y’all as seniors: What is your story? What is your film? What is your big idea? What is your verse? What goes on your canvas? This should be the central question which will guide you over the next five to ten years.
Sherrie helped put me on this path and trajectory. I’ve toured around the world. I’m a hip-hop artist. I’ve been to places like The Democratic Republic of Congo, Panama, Senegal. I’ve rocked stages in Ethiopia, Fiji, Kenya, Brazil and the Dominican Republic. I’ve even won an Emmy Award for this work. But, do you want to know the first stage I ever rapped on? It’s that one (pointing). Right over there. Right here on this campus. It was for Sherrie’s senior project. She asked me to write a rap over an instrumental of this Toni Braxton song He Wasn’t Man Enough. You shouldn’t remember it; it’s insignificant. What’s important is that she saw something in me and gave me the opportunity to develop my confidence in my sauce. Y’all ever heard of sauce before? Clearly, I have the sauce now, but she helped me develop the recipe for the sauce.
I want to say, about Sherrie, she passed away in 2015 from cancer. Yesterday, when I was on the plane and writing and thinking about her, my wife this morning she was like “That’s so depressing. How are you going to end on that note?” I was like “Actually, I don’t feel one hint of sadness right now.” I didn’t yesterday, and I don’t in this moment, because she lived a full life. She never took one moment for granted and she embodied the spirit of a Wildcat; she was resilient and brilliant and creative and warm and loving.
This is another side story: She used to always say namaste. That was how she greeted people when she saw them on campus, just to give you an idea of the type of person she was.
So, as you go out into the world I want you to consider this: What are you going to paint on your canvas? This world is a canvas. Paint something beautiful, something meaningful and something fulfilling like Sherrie did.
I want to close with that first moment. I mentioned my first hip-hop performance ever was right here on this campus. I was a sophomore. Where my sophomores at? Somewhere. Okay, there you are in the back. So, I was your age and she was sitting where the seniors are sitting and she put on the Toni Braxton beat and she had written this chorus that I want to see if we can sing together. So (gesturing) this half of the room, y’all are going to say: “Williston is like paint on a pallet.” Alright? Let me hear y’all: Williston is like paint on a pallet (audience repeats). Okay, now (gesturing to the other side of the room) y’all have the hard part: “Any picture that you want, I’m telling you that you can have it” (audience repeats). Okay. Close enough (laughter).
So, I’m going to do it twice, and I want to hear if y’all can do it without me.
(Speaker) “Williston is like paint on a pallet; any picture that you want I’m telling you that you can have it. Hey, Williston is like paint on a pallet; any picture that you want I’m telling you that you can have it.”
(Audience) “Williston is like paint on a pallet; any picture that you want I’m telling you that you can have it. Williston is like paint on a pallet; any picture that you want I’m telling you that you can have it.”
Give yourselves a big round of applause!
So that was it. Williston is like paint on a pallet and you can paint whatever picture you want, because you were nurtured here in this wonderful, beautiful environment. So, go forth; paint.