**I was asked to be the Keynote speaker at the 2016 First World Graduation at my alma mater, SUNY New Paltz. The theme was “Back Excellence.” Below is a revised version of my commencement address:
Before I jump into today’s theme of “Black Excellence” – I feel like it’s important that I tell you a little bit about myself. The four years I spent here at SUNY New Paltz, when I walked down those stairs on Graduation Day and when I gave my speech, at this very podium, as President of the Student Association, I was not the same person that stands before you today.
Granted, none of us is the same person that we were five years ago, but I went through such an identity metamorphosis that I felt compelled to change my name legally and I share that with you because it is a major component of who I am and why I feel comfortable speaking on Black Excellence.
I was born Jennifer Sanchez to two Dominican immigrant parents. I never saw myself as Black. Spanish was my first language. There is a home video of my pretend playing with some pots and pans pre-public school talking about making “caine,” replacing the trill r with an “ay” that is typical of campesinas. I grew up in an eclectic neighborhood in Queens but our dead-end block was like little DR. Despite the fact that I looked ethnically ambiguous, often being confused for Middle Eastern, no one could strip me of my Dominican pride. I really thought I knew who I was.
When I got to New Paltz, I was, and I say this jokingly and endearingly, “bullied” into the Scholar’s Mentorship Program (SMP) by the late Margaret Wade-Lewis, one of the founders of the New Paltz Black Studies department and a woman who did not take no for an answer.
I have always been a driven person, so I came in with a plan, and extra courses like those required in the SMP program were not a part of my plan. But she had a quiet relentless way about her that captured me like the silk of a spider’s web. It was in that mandatory introductory class that Karanja Carroll came and spoke to us about race and identity in the United States. My interest was sparked. I took one course, and then another and eventually graduated with a double major, the second in Black Studies.
These names, by the way, are important. Keeping history alive through the chronicling of the past is essential to survival and success.
I had never before heard that my ancestors were actually a mix of African, Indigenous and likely white Spaniards, considering where in the Island my family is from. And all I could think about as I was learning my history were all the kids in my neighborhood who didn’t have the same access as me and would never learn about the African diaspora, about the origins in their bloodlines.
I was one of the few on my dead-end block to make it through high school, let alone past high school. It’s devastating that people of color do not learn about their history unless they have intentional adults in their lives or they have the opportunity to be exposed to an education like the one New Paltz has built with the Black Studies program.
Our history matters – and we benefit from learning it. How can we be expected to move forward if we have never learned of the history and legacy of success of people that look like us? A recent study found that high schoolers in San Francisco who enrolled in ethnic studies performed better in classes than those who didn’t. Knowing your history and discovering who you are is a precursor to excellence.
I remember my father once telling me that the textbooks in the Dominican Republic actually tried to break down the ancestry of Dominicans by percentage. And I remember the numbers being something ludicrous …. Dominicans are 90 percent Spanish and 10% indigenous…allegedly. No trace of Africa.
If you look at my grandparents, my mom’s mom looks like a Native American and my mom’s dad looks like an African. Don’t tell him that though. The worst thing you could do in D.R. is call a Dominican a Haitian.
The misrepresentation of identity in the Dominican Republic is what fuels the hate crimes towards Haitians. Colorism has been deeply and intentionally embedded into the culture of the Island by individuals who benefited from this separation.
Once I started to learn about my history and my culture I became obsessed with learning more. I wrote my Seminar thesis on the political tension between Latinos and Blacks. I spent countless hours trying to understand how one Island, my parent’s Island, could have become so divided.
In my transition between undergrad and graduate school, I started reading about the importance of names in Yoruba culture. I read about how children were given a name upon being born and a second name, a heavenly name, as the elders saw their characteristics develop.
I was not content with Jennifer, meaning fair-skinned in Welsh. In a world that was already trying to socialize me to “mejorar la raza” by lightening it, I did not want whiteness to be my name or my destiny.
It was a long process, but I chose Nia, Swahili for purpose and Ita, Taino for thirst. I chose these two names to represent the parts of my culture that are not represented in mainstream or widely acknowledged in my parent’s island of origin. I also believe that God has a purpose in my life that will require a continuous search for truth and wisdom.I kept Jennifer because, well, Sankofa. You cannot move forward without first looking back.
Changing my name did not remedy all my problems. I continued to struggle with race and identity.
I was especially taken aback in graduate school when a traditionally Black or “African-American” woman told me that she did not consider me Black. It hurt me to feel that rejection. Here I was not “Spanish” enough for the Dominicans because of my progressive perspective and now not “Black” enough either.
I can now better understand that yes, we do not live the same narrative. The world sees us differently whether or not we both acknowledge the Africa in our roots. My light skin and “good hair” affords me a privilege and it is my responsibility to acknowledge that. I also understand that her perception of me has nothing to do with me, and everything to do with her. It doesn’t matter if I call myself Afro-Indigena, Afro-Latina, Afro-Carribean, Dominican American, or Black. I have learned not to give anyone the power to define who I am.
Identity is a tricky thing and this socially constructed categorization of race is something you will not only continue to see as you go on into the workforce and for others post-graduate degrees, but this socially constructed concept will shape how people see you. You will have to be proactive and intentional about establishing your presence in spite of other’s pre and often misconceived notions.
Nowadays, I try to think less about how people see me and try to focus more on living an authentic life. In order to live this authentic life, I am always searching, reading, writing, observing and investigating the world and what role I play in it. That search will be my life’s work and it will never end. That is Black Excellence. I am Black Excellence and all of you are Black Excellence.
Black Excellence is more than a lyric Jay-Z spits or a saying we can wear on a t-shirt. It’s a paradigm we need to live intentionally. And there are three commitments I want to advise you to take as you enter the world outside of undergrad in order to continue to achieve and maintain Black Excellence.
- Find your passion and be intentional about it.
Find your passion and practice concisely articulating that passion. The moment you have to be reminded to do something, to go to practice or go to work, that is when you know it is not your passion. It’s not your passion! So many of us choose our path out of fear disguised as practicality. We are constantly advised by others to choose something practical, something safe – often because they do not want to see us fail.
Here’s the reality – the more you fail and recover and improve, the better you are as a person. Failure is inevitable, whether you’re doing what you love or not. If that’s the case, you might as well take a stab at doing something you love.
But don’t stab at it blindly. Strategically approach your passion with research and an unstoppable work ethic. Wake up early, go to bed late. Eat, sleep and dream your passion until you’ve found a way to make it your own. That’s what you do… Let me tell you what not to do.
Don’t get stuck on a corporate plantation. Don’t wake up every Monday morning with dread and angst about the upcoming week. Don’t get a J.O.B. Do ya’ll know what a J.O.B. is?Don’t worry, I’ll wait…A J.O.B. is enslavement — an acronym that stands for ‘Just Over Broke.’ You don’t ever want to work a J.O.B. You want to have a career that empowers you and your community mentally, financially, and spiritually.
In order to achieve that career, that dream, planning is necessary. Failing to plan is planning to fail. I can’t urge you enough. Research! Research! Research! A little knowledge, a little power. A lot of knowledge, the world is ours.
- Stay “woke”
Let me define some terminology before I continue on here. According to Dictionary.com, “woke” is the past tense of “wake” — as in, someone who is past the process of waking up. They’re done with it. They’ve moved on. They’ve evolved from, you know, being asleep and hitting the snooze button 15 times. And frankly, that’s a pretty accurate description of how “woke” is currently being used as an adjective.
Urban Dictionary defines “woke” as being aware, and “knowing what’s going on in the community.” It also mentions its specific ties to racism and social injustice. To use “woke” accurately in a sentence, you’d need to reference someone who is thinking for themselves, who sees the ways in which racism, sexism and classism affect how we live our lives on a daily basis.
After graduating from New Paltz, there was, what felt like to me, a surge of violence against the Black community. Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner and Sandra Bland are just a few of the names that come to mind. It was countless.Every time I turned on the TV or looked through my social media feed, another Black person dead, murdered. If I was still in undergrad, I would have organized an event to address these atrocities. Instead, I started to mute these stories. They hurt too much and hit too close to home. I didn’t know what to do so I pressed the snooze button, over and over again.And then I started reading again, exercising my brain. I started by subscribing to different e-mail subscriptions. I got daily updates that shed some light on everything from pop culture to police relations in America from a perspective that resonated with me. I was reminded of my responsibility to remain educated on what was happening around me.
I find it fascinating that 85% of white people that are killed in America each year are murdered by other white people, yet we never hear the term white on white crime. “Black on Black crime” is a term coined specifically for Black people to experience feelings of self-hatred and disunity. It’s a divide and conquer tactic, very similar to the one employed in Haiti and the Dominican Republic. This is not a coincidence, history repeats itself. This is why it’s so important to be aware, to be awake, to stay woke.
There will be numerous sources in this world trying to erase or manipulate your narrative on both macro and micro levels. Your narrative is too important to be erased. In the same spirit that I encouraged you to research, I encourage you to investigate the world. Don’t be so quick to take things at face value, scrutinize everything and be vigilant. Recognizing those people or circumstances that try to define you or your Blackness, wherever in the Diaspora it lies, is the only way to remain whole in this world.
- Know yourself.
I had a great conversation with an old friend recently about how she feels as a queer woman of color in a predominantly white workplace. She explained to me that she was keenly aware of how she presented herself to her colleagues. How could she not be? As the only Black woman, everything she does and says will often be the interpreted as the “Black perspective.” Now if you add in her sexual orientation, anyone can understand why she might think twice before engaging in certain ways.
This is not uncommon. You may find yourself in a work environment where you are, shocker I know, once again the minority…sometimes in more ways that one. When this happens, you may default to a certain vernacular or way of behaving in order to survive. Don’t forget who you are and where you come from.
I speak Spanish and English. I also speak Dominican, a very distinct dialect of Spanish that obliterates r’s and s’s. I speak a different Spanish at work than I do at home. I also speak New York. I speak Queens. I speak with my hands, a lot. The other day my husband joked that I don’t speak proper English despite my profession as a speech pathologist after I told him “I be feelin a type of way.” I even speak a little creole, mwen pale Creole un pitit.
The takeaway here is you are eloquent in many different languages and dictions, not only when you are speaking college-educated English. You are eloquent in creole, patwah, Brooklyn, even fraternity/sorority dialects. As you leave this place, remember to always embrace every aspect of your identity in the diaspora.
Three commitments. Find your passion and be intentional about it, stay woke and know yourself. These three commitments are going to require a deliberate commitment on your end. They are not objectives on a checklist that you can complete and move on. They require continual growth.
I will leave you with one more anecdote. In a recent commencement speech at Tuskagee University, Michelle Obama addressed the questions, comments, and conversations surrounding the elections leading up to her becoming the first African American First Lady. She acknowledged that most of these conversations and speculations were based on the fear and misconceptions of others. From racist illustrations in magazines to references of the First Lady as “Obama’s Baby Mama” she made one important realization that helped her through it all. She declared, “I realized that if i wanted to keep my sanity, and not let others define me, there was only one thing I could do, and that was to have faith in God’s plan for me. I had to ignore all of the noise and be true to myself and the rest would work itself out.”
Be true to yourself. Investigate what an authentic life looks like for you, it won’t be the same for any two people. If you don’t define yourself for yourself, you will be crunched into other people’s opinions of you and you will lose yourself.
In order to know yourself well enough to create the rules you live by, both professionally and personally, you will need to continue your education. Your learning, your growth, your search can’t stop today. Stay woke, be intentional, be passionate, be curious, be YOU!
***This is essay 45 in the #52essays2017 challenge created by Vanessa Mártir.