by Dr. LaShawnDa Pittman
(The following is an edited transcript of the keynote address for the University of Washington’s 2020 Black Graduation given 6/20/20. A recording of the address can be seen here)
On the 155th anniversary of Juneteenth, I want to talk to you, the class of 2020, about Black Liberation.
Juneteenth is an annual holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the United States.
June 19 has been celebrated by African Americans since the late 1800s.
It’s referred to as Black Independence Day, Freedom Day, Jubilee Day, Cel-Liberation.
In a society where Black lives don’t matter what it means for us to get free means something fundamentally different than it does for our white neighbors and loved ones.
It’s fundamentally different because regardless of how hard we work, no matter how many of us do all the right things systemic racism makes it such that we don’t reap the same rewards as our white counterparts around things such as:
- educational opportunities and payoffs,
- equal treatment by the criminal and child welfare systems
- being able to get home and business loans
- to live in the neighborhoods of our choosing and to have access to the things in them that support our growth and development
- being paid the same amount for the same work
- getting work in occupations that continue to be held explicitly or implicitly for whites only
So, in that world, in that United States of America what it means for us, for you to get free is a different walk, it’s a different journey.
It isn’t fair, but for now, anyway, it is what it is.
But I believe your generation will change the game.
By demanding the changes needed to make the world just for everyone and that will ensure that the planet we inhabit is around for future generations.
So what do you need to do that? Well, you got one thing you need—you got an education which will surely help you in an economy that demands one so that you aren’t trapped in our country’s abundance of low wage service jobs.
What else do you need to get free, to make the world the one you want to be in—one where you and your family and community can thrive and not just survive.
One where Black freedom isn’t just theoretical, symbolic or experienced for short stints in the long arc of American history?
Well, based on my life experience, and based on studying, teaching, researching, and writing about Black people for decades, I think at least 6 things are critical.
Purpose is about the freedom to be who God, the ancestors, the universe made us to be and to bring our gifts to bear on the world!
So, it’s not only you figuring out what you are here to contribute but being ABLE to do so!
Sometimes I catch myself thinking about our ancestors—especially those who lived in bondage. I wonder about all the talents that they had. And I feel a pain in the pit of my stomach when I consider that they were unable to use them for themselves, their families, and their communities. I also think about all of the formerly enslaved and free Blacks who fought to free their enslaved brothers and sisters.
The bravery and the boldness it took to step into their purpose contributed to our freedom—and makes the Black graduation we are having today possible.
I think about the Black men and women who Stephanie Camp’s work has taught us—used the Civil War to get free even before Lincoln declared they were. They too stepped into their purpose.
Our liberation and YOUR liberation require that you identify, embrace and align with your purpose.
Our liberation and YOUR liberation require that you bring your gifts to bear on your life and the lives of others. I know firsthand that living in your purpose will keep your life interesting, passionate and provide an inner peace not found in any other way.
When I finished college, I had no idea how to use my own gifts and abilities to make the world I most cared about better. I had volunteered for years. I was an activist and fought to make changes I wanted to see at my university and in the Black community. But how would this translate into a career?
I asked myself one question that changed my life—What would I do if money didn’t matter?
It may seem like a lightweight question but I assert that too few people think about a future devoid of thinking about money, especially someone like me who grew up on welfare.
It is in answering that question honestly that I chose to pursue my Ph.D. in sociology rather than go to law school.
A purpose is not only given but is also created. It takes a lot of work—even when you are endowed with incredible gifts. One of my favorite songs is “Ella’s Song” by Sweet Honey in the Rock. The refrain goes:
We who believe in freedom cannot rest, we who believe in freedom can not rest until it comes.
We don’t have the luxury of resting on our laurels, of not fighting for Black lives.
Like so many of our ancestors, I have mastered perseverance— I go after my dreams, I am a visionary, I take risks, AND I fail, I fall short, I get knocked down, and I falter.
Depending on how hard the wind has been knocked out of me determines how long I stay down, but I always get back up—each and every time.
Always remember you can’t win if you don’t sometimes lose, but use the losses, the failures, the disappointments to pivot, and move forward.
No one gets degrees, starts a business, rises through the ranks of their field, and so on without putting in work, without sacrificing, without failing, without falling, and without facing and overcoming obstacles.
Perseverance is as important as smarts and who you know. And I think Black people’s very existence speaks to this—as my favorite writer Toni Morrison has said—it’s a miracle we are still here. It is Black people’s perseverance that has gotten us where we are. It will be your unwillingness to give up in the face of resistance that will take us where we need to go.
THREE: Be of service
I believe our purpose is God expressed through us.
In that sense, we are vessels for God’s work on the planet.
Look for ways to serve wherever you are—it doesn’t matter the job, it doesn’t matter the role, it doesn’t matter the circumstances, and even whether or not it’s convenient.
CARE about more than yourself.
Give a damn.
And don’t just give a damn but put your heart, soul, blood, sweat and tears into people, places, and things that you say matter to you.
That are bigger than you and if you are lucky that will live well beyond you.
Service builds camaraderie, it’s a wonderful way to surround yourself with like-minded and spirited individuals or as my friend and mentor Vicky Lawson says “fellow travelers.”
Being of service helps keep your own life in perspective when you get too wrapped up in your own problems and lose sight of the bigger picture.
We have to pour into what and who we believe in just as others have poured into us.
FOUR: Serve without being attached to the outcome
Black people know more than most what it means to be in service to, to build and contribute to something they themselves may never reap the benefits of.
Serve and focus on the intrinsic reward of giving rather than on the outcomes.
In a society that values immediate gratification, you have to trust that putting a lot of good things into the world makes the world a better place and you may not always be around to see it.
I wholeheartedly believe that this is why the world is still right side up!
I’ve come to understand that most of the important and pivotal work that fosters a caring, humane, and just society happens behind the scenes. Its work that is done by people who have not been written about in history books or talked about in the news.
Its work that is done in hard conversations and even harder action that isn’t glamourous, that doesn’t make for an interesting post on social media—this is the work that often matters most.
Some service requires a big head, but all service requires a big heart.
Service not only transforms the world, but I promise it will transform you too.
FIVE: Build a community of like-minded, like-spirited people
Spend time with and cultivate relationships with people who see you—next to love, seeing and being seen is one of the greatest gifts we can give each other.
We elevate and evolve in the face of being known and seen and gotten.
All of your relationships won’t look like this, but make sure that a significant portion of them do! Keep looking and don’t give up on finding your “fellow travelers.”
Be patient. Be open to the various forms those travelers come in. I met my best friend, a 70 something-year-old white woman in a coffee shop while in graduate school.
And Be clear that this is a lifelong endeavor as you will need to continue to cultivate relationships with people that reflect where you are at different points in your life, your social networks shouldn’t stay the same because you won’t stay the same.
SIX: Practice radical self-care
Writer and civil rights activist Audre Lorde wrote, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
Given that we have to work twice as hard to have half as much, it is imperative that you learn healthy ways to care for yourself—this includes your mental health and doing the work to make sure that you aren’t losing because you are playing a game against yourself.
Given the barrage of negative messages thrown at us, we must work vigilantly and compassionately to get and stay free within our very selves.
I wish you the class of 2020 Black liberation inside and out!
Dr. LaShawnDa Pittman is an Assistant Professor in the American Ethnic Studies Department at the University of Washington (UW). Prior to joining the faculty at UW, she was a Ford Foundation and National Science Foundation (NSF) postdoctoral fellow. She was also a visiting scholar at the Institute for Research on Poverty. Her work has been featured in City and Community; the Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences; Social Science and Medicine; and Women, Gender, and Families of Color, to name a few. In addition to the Ford Foundation and NSF, several institutions have funded Dr. Pittman’s work, including the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, Hedgebrook, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Northwestern University, Hiram College, as have several UW internal grants and fellowships. She is finishing a book, tentatively titled, “Grandmothering While Black: A Twenty-First Century Story of Love, Coercion, and Survival,” which explores how Black grandmothers manage caregiving when they are compelled to provide more care than they had anticipated. Dr. Pittman is also the creator of the first digital archive devoted to addressing the erasure and misrepresentation of Black grandmothers (http://realBlackgrandmothers.com/). The mission of Real Black Grandmothers is to create a digital archive of personal accounts, cultural artifacts, and living and oral histories that captures the remarkable and diverse experiences of Black grandmothers and their grandchildren from the past to the present.
Featured image by Susan Fried