Commencement Address at Hampshire College

Hampshire Commencement Address

I was honored to address the Hampshire College graduating class who have consistently amazed me with their activism and dedication to connecting issues on campus with broader social movements.  Below is the video and the text I drew from for my speech that I wrote with the brilliant Grace Dunham & Tina Zavitsanos!

First off, I want to thank the students of Hampshire College who have put so much of themselves into the activism here. There is a long legacy of students here challenging and questioning the role of the institution itself. And you don’t stop there; I love how you are daily dismantling the violent logics of white supremacy and settler colonialism, ableism and transphobia and anti-black racism and the gender binary that underpin the institution.

 

Like your organizing around the resources and support for the James Baldwin Scholars being threatened while millions of dollars go to building shiny new green buildings.  To me that disruption was so brilliant because it interrupted business as usual and illuminated the kind of austerity sends a message of who matters and who doesn’t and we know capitalism doesn’t only affect just our material conditions, meaning how much money goes to supporting the James Baldwin Scholars, but how we feel about ourselves as well, it affects our interior condition, leaving traces of shame and pushing us towards isolation.

 

These violences are so naturalized that they are often accompanied with the message that if you are against the natural order, if you disrupt what the college is produced in, what it reproduces, what it fails to challenge then you deserve everything coming your way.

 

So I am left in awe by your incredible response to these multilayered forms of oppression. Honestly I cannot OVERSTATE how lifted so many of us are by your work and how moved I am to be here today.

 

You have, no doubt, pushed the conversations that put me on this stage today. But my being here doesn’t at all convey the depth your work, it’s simply a reflection back, one of in many moments created by the work you’ve done, and the work you’ll continue to do. I know firsthand that being a student activist is exhausting, and often unforgiving. Most of the time in my experience what that work produces is not the material shifts we desire and students are often left with the feeling the university or college treats them like they are nobodies and that their life does not matter.  

 

Students are told again and again to be grateful to the institutions that harm them, to be grateful for the opportunities afforded them by the institutions they pay to attend – in all the many material and immaterial ways we pay –  or go into debt by attending. This relationship is precarious, and about so much more than luck or gratitude. So, to all of you who have worked to make this institution look more like the world you want to see—even as you go into emotional and material debt while doing so—I see you & I want to share debt with you.

 

In many ways, the experience of doing activist work on a college campus is not so different from the work we do outside of it on culture, on the state, trying to make them look more like those worlds we imagine. Often, we try so hard to change and reform powerful institutions–the college, the prison, the state, perhaps–that we forget they weren’t built for us in the first place. They were built to be inhospitable.

 

In 1982, the writer and activist June Jordan wrote a poem called “From Sea to Shining Sea.” It’s one of my favorite poems. The love of my life, Liz Bishop gave me this poem for my birthday when I was particularly burnt out, and it came along with some delicious ice cream.  The ice cream I digested immediately, the poem has taken much much longer. It was the kind of gift that where the generosity of it hits you in the shower years later I’m going to read you an excerpt from it:

 

The natural order is not about a good time

 

This was not a good time to be a child

 

This was not a good time to be without a job

 

This was not a good time to have a job

 

This was not a good time to be  a woman……

 

This was not a good time to be a tree

This was not a good time to be a river

This was not a good time to be found with a gun

This was not a good time to be found without one

This was not a good time to be gay

This was not a good time to be Black

This was not a good time to be a pomegranate

or an orange

This was not a good time to be against

the natural order

 

June Jordan knew that the world around her was not inhospitable by accident…it was, in actuality, built around that logic of inhospitality.

 

Often, when I’m called upon to speak in public, my role is to list the many forms of violence that intersect and collude to create this inhospitality, to ensure as Saidiya Hartman might say that no life lis lived here.

 

Because of my life, it’s my job to bear witness to this violence, and speak truths that push others to recognize and realize the extent of it.

 

Too often my role is to remind the audience that the structure of this culture is one in which certain kinds of life—black life, poor life, trans life, disabled life—is marked: marked as disposable, marked for incarceration, marked for harm and often death.

 

I’ve been reminding people of this for a long time. I spent over decade of my life writing, talking, and organizing around this violence, while also doing the work of surviving in this world. I’d be lying if I said that work wasn’t exhausting, even relentless.

 

I have lost count of how many times in the past year I’ve stood on stage and said that trans women of color and gender non conforming people of color—some I’ve known, others not—continue to be murdered or die from structural abandonment, despite the fact that there are trans people on television, in movies, and on the cover of magazines, trans friendly jails, trans friendly military. Again and again, I say that visibility and representation within institutions doesn’t get to the root causes of these harms, doesn’t bring employment, nor does it bring housing; it doesn’t end prisons, and it doesn’t end police. Just because we’re being seen, doesn’t mean we’re any safer. hypervisibility endangers us, representation is a trap.

 

I have said these truths so many times. Fighting to remind people of these realities means that, so often, I don’t have the time, the energy, or the ability to say anything else. It means being a messenger, and a harbinger. It means I have to talk about the ways we suffer, not the ways we live and dream despite, even within, that suffering. The way we make a way out of now way.

 

For many of us who do this activism that you have been doing we are often left exhausted, for me my capacity forever changed, the labor i did before i can’t anymore.You might find yourself in the same place, I’’m even more dependent on my relationships to be in the world and to reflect back who i am.

 

You might find that  while you want to be in practice around activism and organizing you need to do it in a different way. in a way that isn’t stopping a direct confrontation with the state and or doing more than you body can hold, in a way that isn’t consistently heart breaking, while still holding the power in grief and heartbreak in this work, in a way were the focus isn’t on the institution  and what it is doing to us but rather how we are making meaning together in the shadow of the institution, in the land of the nobodies.

 

That is what I want to talk about today, not just what we want to change within the institution or even what we want to dismantle but what we want to grow. This work asks us to understand that the world we want to create relies on us prefiguring it through our relationships with each other and ourselves.  Meaning if we want a world without the institutions making up the prison industrial complex we have to think not only the physical buildings making up the prison or  about how the ideologies of punishment and exile shape the world outside us but also how they take up space inside ourselves.  And to me that starts with talking about our interior condition, and it an especially good thing to do when we are exhausted from trying to change an institution.  

 

As Angela Davis recently said:

 

“I think our notions of what counts as radical have changed over time. Self-care and healing and attention to the body and the spiritual dimension—all of this is now a part of radical social justice struggles. That wasn’t the case before.

 

And I think that now we’re thinking deeply about the connection between interior life and what happens in the social world. Even those who are fighting against state violence often incorporate impulses that are based on state violence in their relations with other people.”

 

This work is relational and social rather than learned within a class, it’s the work you’ve been doing so well before we all got here today, before I was asked a few weeks ago to give this speech.

 

Being asked to give this speech today means that, at least from the perspective of the college, I’m finally a somebody— that as somebody I am enough of a body, respected enough or known enough, to be worthy of giving this speech to you all. Maybe that’s about fame, maybe that’s about clout, maybe that’s about respect. Whatever it is, I’ve spent enough of my life feeling like a nobody to feel how different it is to be called upon as a somebody. Some days it feels good to have an audience, to be shiney and be above ground. But on the days that my somebodiness is most entangled with the commodification and extraction of my life and affect and aesthetics and other labor my scarcity sets in and it feels so hard to continue to share.  Other days it feels so terrifying that my somebodiness will dissipate because I won’t be relevant and won’t be able to make an impact.  I think of the Anohni song “Why did you separate me from the earth, what did you have to gain?”

 

Capitalism cares about the individual. It wants individual figures separated from one another and from the very ground that has produced them. It likes the figure because it is easily captured, hypervisible. Like a dark mark on a light page or a bright mark on a dark page, a high contrast image, easily seen from a distance, we are told to be or become a distinguished figure separate from the ground that supports us. In art and design this is called figure-ground relations, this play between visibility and support, between form and the informal.

 

When I was in college, I was so afraid of not making an impact—of not being popular, or my teachers not thinking I was smart; of not being known by my peers, or respected. I wish these fears had gone away when I left school. But what I’ve learned is that, if anything, college is just a training ground for those fears and anxieties, which inform the world outside school as much as they do within it. As we know, we’re always moving between institutions that make us feel like we’ve gotta be the best, like we’re one step away from being a nobody. Maybe that’s college, or the company you work for; academia, or the art world; the welfare system, or public housing. All these institutions, as different as they seem, are built to make us feel less than, like we’re not enough, like we are nobody.

 

So maybe you felt like hot shit at this college; or maybe you felt like a nobody. Maybe sometimes you felt like hot shit…and other times you felt invisible…

 

I wanna say, at this college built on the premise of success–of achieving it, holding on to it, and reproducing it– that it’s okay to be nobody.

 

And in this idea of nobody, I want to first say that no one is a nobody, that everyone is valuable, and that so much violence has been done to so many through the act of deeming entire populations of people nobodies–namely black and indigenous people, queer and trans people, disabled people, and everyone living at the intersections of those experiences, has been deemed nobody. At the same time, a very small group of people (or certain specific people) have been deemed somebody—deemed of value.

 

We all know the damage that it can be to be called nobody and yet there is power in that word and in that world of no-bodies. It’s a power Denise Ferreira da Silva cites when she asks “Do we want to be somebody under the state or nobody against it?”  Another way of saying that is, do we want to be visible subjects of an inhospitable institutions earning good credit by doing actions it deems of consequence and important or do we want to go undercover, be fugitives to the insitution and its morals, unruly to its attempts at incorporation and assimilation.  Maybe, and this is one of the hardest lessons I’ve learned, sometimes we want or need to do both.

 

We run roots underground like rhizomes, like crabgrass, only to pop up aboveground to do our thing, to bring our thing to the world or to bring our thing back home—because sometimes as a nobody you’ve still got to be somebody for a moment, sometimes you’ve gotta go get that job or that degree, sometimes you are sent to do a thing, sent in the way Sylvia Rivera fought her way to speak on stage at the gay pride rally in 1973, a time when assimilation meant that the people whose life and labor was the constitutional ground on which the modern queer movement was built were made to feel exiled from that very movement.  But she was sent and got on stage and roared that she’s been trying to get up there all day for your gay brothers and your gay sisters in jail. It’s ok to be a somebody in your nobodiness!

 

Other times you’re are just sent just to do a graduation speech (lol). And being sent from nowhere, this beautiful place that is in fact everywhere, and can rise up anywhere and make somewhere the place to be—like throwing that party where everyone wants to be. But the party I come from, the parties that made me, and the party I want to be at is the one where nobodies are not just valuable but invaluable, as in non-disposable and of incalculable worth, a value that exceeds even the measure of value itself. A value that says: please don’t value me, because assigning economic value to life is one of the ways we got in this situation in the first place! Let’s make the worlds we want to actually live in; let’s let that commence.

 

There is pleasure in nobodiness. There is love, care, and laughter there. There is art, and study. There is life. There is also a great danger in need of an even greater love. So sometimes nobodiness must happen under cover. Meaning if the state, capitalism & surveillance want us to be visible somebodies, it might be a good time to be undercover nobodies.  Put another way, some of us somebodies need to remember the joy and the power of that less visible place that is actually so deeply visible to those in it and so violently hypervisible to those that seek to destroy it.

 

Maybe it’s walking home late night at night, getting off on feeling like a ghost or an apparition…dancing in a crowded room and forgetting about the line between your body and another…the writing you do that you share with no else, the songs you sing to yourself, the art your teachers don’t know about, the poetry of just having fun with your friends…or the protest you go to, the organizing you do with the workers on strike at your local grocery store, jail solidarity, the neighborhood copwatch you bake cookies for, the care collective you’re in with your disabled friends, the gardening you do with your grandma, the anonymous donation you give to your friend’s friend’s surgery who you don’t even know but you know you want to know, the extra unseen work you do on the group project so your friends can go to that party or that court hearing, just hearing someone else, being in the audience and not on stage, away from stages staging a witness, because we all need a witness sometimes. Can I get a witness? Are y’all with this?

 

These small personal acts of resistance and refusal have created space for us to come together and support one another. At a time of heightened violence, just by hanging out with each other and by taking care of each other, we are doing revolutionary work, modeling the the worlds we want to actually live in; let’s let that commence!  

 

this whole speech is about double dutching your way thru contradictions, it’s about realizing that the state or the college can trap you everywhere, the nobodies in the prison, the somebodies chasing an illusory post college dream that could never be fulfilled on a settler state built on stolen land and labor but still is trying to build green buildings. that’s why we are making a way out of now way.  which means it’s ok to be a somebody in your nobodies when you need to.  it’s ok to move contradictory. There is no such thing as political purity, and the more i spend time reflecting on what purity is and how it’s been instrumentalized the more I want to be with the other broken people.

 

Maybe it’s not the work you’re gonna get hired to do, or win an award for, or get a research grant about.

 

And, really, speaking up here about the work of the nobody is a failed attempt from the start. After all, it’s out of sight. It’s under the radar. It makes its own light. It’s not for the college, it’s not for the company, and it’s not for the state. Nobodiness is what we already have. It’s always enough.

 

With that I’m going to close with a final excerpt of June Jordan’s poem, whose double dutch skills are a model for me to attempt

 

This was not a good time to be a tree

This was not a good time to be a river

This was not a good time to be found with a gun

This was not a good time to be found without one

This was not a good time to be gay

This was not a good time to be Black

This was not a good time to be a pomegranate

or an orange

This was not a good time to be against

the natural order

 

–wait a minute–

 

Sucked by the tongue and the lips

while the teeth release the succulence

of all voluptuous disintegration

I am turning under the trees

I am trailing blood into the rivers

I am walking loud along the streets

I am digging my nails and my heels into the land

I am opening my mouth

I am just about to touch the pomegranates

piled up precarious

 

This is a good time

This is the best time

This is the only time to come together

 

Fractious

Kicking

Spilling

Burly

Whirling

Raucous

Messy

 

Free

 

Exploding like the seeds of a natural disorder

 

 

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