OCEAN HILL BROWNSVILLE,
I.S. 55 GRADUATION SPEECH [ 1970]
This is a poem for all the children.
Two days ago I went visiting over to the Countee Cullen School in Harlem: P.S. 194. We were having a creative writing workshop there, and one of the little girls took longer than anyone else to put something down on paper. But, finally, she wrote something that she let me read. She had written this simple sentence:
“I hope that I will live to be twelve.”
At first, her words turned my heart around with sorrow, for we know how terrifying it is to be alive, and to want to be alive, and to be Black, here, in America. But then the bravery of her words started to ring clear. Her words speak to the amazing courage of our people, and to the miraculous continuing of our life, as a people. We go on. And we go on. We go on from 1967, in Newark, New Jersey, when an unarmed, Black boy lay on the street, in sneakers face down, and dead from a policeman’s bullet—We go on to the recent victory of Kenneth Gibson, a Black man who is now the Mayor-Elect of that city. We go on. And we will go on from here. And I hope that all of you beautiful students here, this morning, about to graduate from
I.S. 55, will always hold the same brave desire as your first desire for yourselves: The desire to go on, to keep on, to move ahead, to move on up.
Last night, I was trying to think how I could share what I deeply believe with you. And the single belief I beg you to share with me is this one: That your life is the most important fact, and, also, the most important and valuable promise, on earth. Period. It is a once-only life that you have. And it is a vulnerable life that you have, subject to increasing dangers that too few of us struggle against, or even understand.
But it is this, your once-only life, that we come together, this morning, to honor and to celebrate.
Any time we come together, any time we can come together to celebrate the lives of children, the precious life of Black children, I think to myself: This is how we should start: This is how we should begin to build another way, another kind of humankind, a really new nation. We have to begin by cherishing our children.
You are bound for what they call high school. Many of us despair when we think about high school. We wonder in what sense is it higher than any other level of education? In what way does it elevate the lives of our Black children? Many of us worry about the fact that high school is where a tragic majority of Black and Puerto Rican children drop out of sight: they leave school: because what happens to them in the classroom annihilates their rightful pride, and meets their earnest, real needs with nothing more than irrelevant and contemptuous instruction.
But education must be about the truth, or we should forget about it. And I believe that the most important and the most valuable truth on earth is that we are alive, we are the living. That is to say, that we are the truth. Therefore, as you enter high school, and as you undertake different courses, I hope you will remember this truth: the truth of your absolute value as a human life. Use this truth as your rule in measuring the education offered to you. Let me urge you to examine every subject given to you for study, and every assignment demanded of you. Ask this question, again and again, and again:
How does this study,
how does this subject, relate to the truth of my life?
You may find, too often, that the answer is: either “not enough” or “not at all.” If the study and if the subjects do not positively and usefully relate to the truth of your life, then you will have to watch for the differences between knowing and believing. You will have to know a great, great deal more than you, or anyone else in his or her right mind, can or should respect or believe. But, beyond knowing much more than you believe or respect, you can, and I hope you will insist that your studies shall become Life Studies: Black Studies. Urban Studies.
Environmental Studies. The American evidence of contempt for our Afro-American lives can easily be seen when you realize that we who are Black, and we who live in urban centers of the country, and we who poison ourselves simply by breathing the air, and we who swallow soap and worms, and worse than that, when we drink a glass of water—we cannot come into any classroom and learn what we need to know. Where are the central, required courses that will teach us our real heritage of heroes and heroines, rebellion, and loving accomplishment? Where are the central, required courses that will teach us how to design and govern cities so that the cities will function as great temples of life that welcome us inside[,] that welcomes our lives? Where are the central required courses that teach us how to destroy the enemy, urban situation that threatens all life now dwelling inside our city walls? […]
For instance, most American history to date is not a history of justice, of equity and virtue; most American history is a running- wild account of winners and losers, of the crimes of dollar blood, of conquest and battles and death and slavery and arrogance and suffering.
But if you will think about it, you will see that winning battles and conquering people and enslaving human life very often have nothing whatever to do with justice or goodness. These have to do, too often, with the mere exercise of power. These things have to do, too often, with the mere survival of the powerful—at the expense of equally valuable, and important people and children who perish, because we have been less powerful.
So I say to you, let us have done with power. Let us stop supporting the old, traditional power. Let us turn away from politics, generally. Let us turn our backs on politics and power as they have been traditionally used and abused. In the place of the old power, let us reconsider that profoundly human wish, that profound firing motivation that comes from the soul. Let us resurrect the creative power of freedom. Let us work to be free from the control of strangers to our life. Let us make our lives free from the control of those who kill our children. We must have our own lives under our own control.
For we have seen what the old, traditional power means. Of all the people in the world, Black Americans, Afro-Americans, know the meaning of power: The traditional meaning of power is inhuman. It is, at all times, intrinsically opposed at least to some human life— whether it is opposed to human life in Birmingham, or in Ocean Hill, or in Harlem, or in Detroit, or in Watts, or in Memphis, or in Augusta, or in Jackson, Mississippi, or in Cambodia, or in Vietnam.
—It—the old, abusive American Power is opposed to human life. Let us have no more to do with such power. Instead, let us, take control. Let us take responsibility for the freedom and wellbeing of each other.
I am calling for our own people power.
Garbage burned in the street, a few days ago, here in Ocean Hill, because a garbage truck is a political machine. We must make ourselves into a community machine that will eliminate and throw out their political machinery.
What we have to do, right now, is to create community machines that will collect our garbage, control our schools, and patrol our streets for our safety and not our persecution. We must no longer wait for somebody to remember us and then, maybe, to send a garbage truck to pick up the garbage. We must no longer wait for somebody to maybe understand our history and then to maybe teach our children the truth. We must no longer simply tremble when we hear the gunfire of police, or state troopers, or the National Guard. We must take control. We must protect our once-only lives, we have to take apart and then replace the whole political life that has proven deadly to our own lives. We have to build a Living structure of our own true human community.
In the deepest sense, community is not political. A community is a social environment (making plain one common purpose: the happy advancement of all who live within the community.) So we are talking about parents and children, uncles and aunts, grandmothers, teachers and students who can come together as a deliberate, social community of people who shall be safe, and who shall grow strong and who shall prosper because they do truly belong to this same community. Look to the community of Fayette, Mississippi. Look to the community of Newark, New Jersey, where the people have put forward a good man, and a Black man, as mayor at least.
And to you, young graduates, I say the same: Please. Look ahead. Don’t drop out of high school. Change the high school. Make the high school your own life-preserving community. It’s your high school: people force you to sit there at least until you are 16 years old, at least. All right. Turn it around. Since you are compelled to attend high school, then compel that school to serve your life, serve to enable and to ennoble your life so that you can defend it, and so that you will have a life you can follow and share, proudly. Go through high school. Don’t turn off. Take it over: Don’t drop out. Change it. Let us insist that Life Studies, that Black Studies, that Urban Studies become the central parts of the curriculum, Right now.
For, what is the purpose of a school if it will not prepare you to live your own life of your own choosing in the community of your choice?
Let us raise up people power versus political power.
Let us build schools into our community machine that will eliminate the old political machines—those old political machines that ignore communities of people, or else burn down villages of people, or else starve families of people, or else murder the children of our communities.
It is right that we meet here, in a holy place of prayer to honor our children. We want you to know that we recognize your lives as holy lives. We consecrate our own lives to your survival and to your perpetual freedom. We pledge that we will work and pray and talk and plan together for the support of your hopes that you will live to be fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, sixty-five, and ninety-years-old:
Tell the whiplash helmets GO
and take away
that cream and orange Chevrolet stripped to inside steel and parked forever on one wheel
Set the wild dogs chewing up that pitiful capitulation plastic flower plastic draperies to dust the dirt
Break the clothesline
Topple down the clotheslinepole
O My Lives Among the Wounded Buildings should be dressed in trees and grass
I salute you, my brothers and my sisters: Be strong, Be beautiful, and BE FREE!
We salute you, the sons and the daughters of our hearts and our pride. Congratulations.