Toni Morrison found the right words by speaking the wrong ones
“I was very anxious about having to figure out something to say to this particular class,” says Toni Morrison at the start of her commencement speech for Wellesley College’s class of 2004.
These are surprising words from the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the Nobel Prize in Literature. Toni Morrison is, after all, a woman celebrated for her ability to craft “something to say,” the author of sprawling tales exploring everything from the legacy of slavery, to the lives of Black Americans, to the complexities of motherhood.
But commencement speeches are unique undertakings, even for literary giants who have broached far more complex topics. These speeches have to resonate with hundreds, sometimes thousands, of students’ college experiences. Speakers must command attention during long ceremonies and strike the balance between thought-provoking and outrageous, reflective and sappy.
Morrison’s speech meets these challenges by breaking all the rules.
Instead of concealing her original anxiety about speaking, Morrison leans into honesty. The first 15 minutes of her 22-minute speech detail all the advice she could have given but decided against.
She tells her audience that there will be “no happy talk about the future.” In fact, she is not certain that the future exists, and if it does, it certainly does not belong to the Class of 2004. “It is not yours for the taking,” she warns. “The future is also what other people make of it, how other people will participate in it and impinge on your experience of it.”
The past isn’t right, either. “The past is already in debt to the mismanaged present,” she pronounces. And Morrison reminds us that the past doesn’t stay still: “The past is already changing as it is being reexamined, as it is being listened to for deeper resonances,” she says.
Finally, Morrison dismisses the often-repeated platitude that college is the best time of graduates’ lives. “If it’s true that this is the best time of your life,” she tells her audience of over 500 graduating students, “then you have my condolences. Because you’ll want to remain here, stuck in these so-called best years, never maturing, wanting only to look, to feel and be the adolescent that whole industries are devoted to forcing you to remain.”
Filling a commencement speech with “anti-advice” is a risky move. But it’s an unconventional choice fitting of Morrison. After all, her novels force us to confront our assumptions about other people and to realize that the past and present aren’t so separate after all.
“Her plots are dreamlike and nonlinear, spooling backward and forward in time as though characters bring the entire weight of history to bear on their every act,” wrote the New York Times.
Commencement speeches are also stories about time: the trepidation about the future, the sorrow of endings, the significance of a single day memorialized with diplomas and photographs and gowns.
And right now, time is stranger than ever for college graduates. A year ago, I graduated over a computer screen, oceans apart from the friends with whom I’d envisioned celebrating. My peers watched job offers vanish and family members become ill. For the first time, some of us realized that no matter how hard we try, we cannot plot out the future.
In this moment, we can learn from Morrison’s commencement speech. She is not cheerily optimistic; there is no call to action to save the world.
Instead, Morrison honors her listeners by telling them the truth. The future will be hard. You will not be able to fully control your circumstances or your path. But you do have a voice, and that voice is uniquely yours.
“Nobody has the exact memory that you have. What is now known is not all what you are capable of knowing. You are your own stories and therefore free to imagine and experience what it means to be human without wealth. What it feels like to be human without domination over others, without reckless arrogance, without fear of others unlike you, without rotating, rehearsing and reinventing the hatreds you learned in the sandbox. And although you don’t have complete control over the narrative (no author does, I can tell you), you could nevertheless create it.”
By saving her advice for the end, Morrison plays a great rhetorical game. She begins with the wrong answers, the common commencement advice that promises to know the future. She takes her audience through uncertainty and even worry. Then, finally, she reveals the way out: creating our own stories. Her speech mirrors her message — that sometimes, to find the right words, or the right path, we have to experience what doesn’t work first. That even when we can’t rely on the future or fully understand the past, we are still the authors of our own lives.
Morrison reminds us that we have the power to tell stories. And like so many great storytellers, she leaves us with hope.
— Caitlyn Jordan (WWW intern)
In “Orations Worth Ovations,” professional speechwriters analyze great speeches (real or fictional, historic or personal) and explain what makes them so good.
Watch Toni Morrison’s 2004 commencement address at Wellesley College here.
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