2009 Gary Roosevelt High School Commencement Address

Following is the commencement address I gave for my high school alma mater -- Gary Roosevelt High School -- on June 3rd. As I was an active campaigner and freelance journalist following the campaign who was present at both the DNC and the inauguration, there was plenty of political content. Note that a sitting U.S. President actually got more cheers than a celebrity among a younger audience! That by itself was exciting. But I really wanted to help them understand that despite the positive changes in the current political landscape, they will need to be prepared for the inevitable backlash (i.e., the Limbaugh, Hannity, Beck references).



Thank you. Dr. Moore, Principal Wright, members of the school board, teachers, parents, family, friends, and members of the Gary Roosevelt class of 2009. I am humbled and honored to speak to all of you today.

Before I begin my brief remarks, I'd like to pause and paraphrase a memorable opening line. It was election night -- November 4, 2008. You remember. When our newly elected President Barack Obama started by saying, "If there is anybody out there, who still doubts, wonders, questions..." Well, I say tonight: If there is anybody out there who questions the quality of education imparted at Gary Roosevelt, who wonders if they are committed at 25th and Harrison, who doubts the spirit of the mighty, mighty panthers -- the class of 2009 is your answer!

The Valedictorian and Salutatorian speeches were just a sample of the excellence we have come to expect of Roosevelt graduates over the years. Please give them another round of applause for their accomplishments and their remarks. And I'd like to give my own special thanks to Principal Wright for that wonderful introduction as well. I'll have to admit, I was a little embarrassed by all she mentioned -- but she read it just like I wrote it!

Seriously, I want to begin by thanking God for allowing me to stand before you healthy and content 25 years after my high school graduation. And let me express my deepest gratitude to you for the privilege of addressing you on such a special occasion. I've been asked to speak to you on your chosen class theme: determination is the fuel that produces results. Let me state at the onset that your selection of this particular theme gives me another reason to be proud that in a few short minutes you will become my fellow alumni. Your theme says you realize that you will be tested in the years ahead, and that it will take fortitude to reach your goals. It is a theme appropriate for those beginning the road to success.

Years ago, before I even finished my junior high years, my father -- who was not originally from Indiana -- asked his fellow workers in the steel mill, he asked our pediatrician, he asked our pastor, he asked our junior high and grade school teachers: "Which high school should my children attend?" And to a person they replied, "Gary Roosevelt." So -- at the risk of insulting our gracious host -- we traveled by bus from the West Side area to 25th and Harrison, where we donned the black and gold!

You see, my parents were determined that we would receive a good education -- not only academically, but culturally as well. We were sent to Gary Roosevelt because of its tradition of developing leaders who remain committed to the larger African-American community long after graduation. Avery Brooks, William Marshall, Lee Calhoun, the Tatum family, the Taliaferro family, Ronald Sullivan, and now you, are a part of this history.

When my father and mother arrived in Gary from the South in the mid 1960's, it was a turbulent time in America. The Vietnam War was at its height, and due to the mandatory draft, African Americans were dying at twice the rate of others involved in the conflict. Racism was rampant and legal through enforcement of Jim Crow laws; and those who spoke out against either the war or racism were killed. Medgar Evers, John Kennedy, Malcolm X, Dr. King, Robert Kennedy. All five killed within a five year period. Can you imagine what it must have been like to live, study, work during that period?

I hear you, I hear you. Who wants to hear all of that, we're here for a celebration, right? You say we are in a new age Dr. Patterson. This is the age of LeBron James [improvise Kobe], Tiger Woods, and Oprah. We have an African-American president, a beautiful and equally intelligent First Lady, Beyonce is with Jay Z, and Rihanna has come to her senses and left Chris Brown! All is good with the world! This is a new day; and you know what -- I agree with you. Times have changed.

But because of these changes you will need to be all the more determined in the future. Some conservatives are already declaring this the "post-racial era." They say there is no more discrimination and racism is a thing of the past. Conservative commentators like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Glen Beck, so twisted by their dislike for an African-American president that they are openly rooting for America to fail, are holding hands and singing not "We shall overcome, " but "We have overcome." As if they had anything to do with it.

Class, they are counting on you to be so excited by the fact that the first president your generation had the opportunity to vote for is African-American, that you won't notice that plans are already underway to end the means by which it became possible. "Who needs affirmative action or civil rights laws, " goes the argument. "There's an African-American president -- how can there still be racism in America?"

As you succeed you will be lulled into forgetting these facts. They will come as your friends while you're playing a round of golf, admiring their beautiful home, or sitting on their boat watching the sunset, they'll offer you a cigar and say, "You know Bob, you are not like the others, " or..."You speak so well. " They'll tell you that the best way to help others of your background is to be harder on them, to "make them earn it" by not taking the extra time to help them that someone took with you; anything to get you to buy into the "I got mine, now you get yours" attitude. And then I want you to pause and remember how you got to wherever you are at the time; you can start by remembering how you got here.

You got here partially by your own determination -- yes, and we are here to celebrate you for that tonight. That is why you are wearing the Kente cloth which adorns our robes tonight. It is a royal and sacred cloth worn only in times of extreme importance. You have completed 12 years of rigorous training and, having successfully cleared all of the academic hurdles placed before you, have earned our respect and congratulations. Tonight we celebrate you and your accomplishments up to this point.

But as you look at your Kente cloth, know that it is not a simple design. It is native to the country of Ghana where it is known as nwentoma -- their word for "woven cloth." In the 12th century the Akan people created it out of silk strips, interwoven with meticulous care. Legend has it that kente was first made by two friends who went hunting in a forest and found a spider making a web. The friends stood and watched the spider for two days before returning home and recreating what they had seen. Each design has a meaning, and weaving the designs with different colors can modify the meanings.

According to the griots (African storytellers or historians) there are two meanings which are most popular among the cloth's designs. The first is: I alone did not cause it to happen. Repeat that with me: I alone did not cause it to happen. In addition to your hard work, remember that you are here, now, and wherever you may land positively in the future because of your parents, relatives, friends, and guardians who provided the love, support, shelter, food, and clothes you are wearing beneath your robes. You are here because somewhere someone was determined that you would have what you needed to make it to this moment; and because you have made it you should take the time to salute them now.

Yes, so remember first that: I alone did not cause this to happen.

The second most popular meaning among the cloth's designs is: The extended family is a force. Repeat that with me: The extended family is a force.

In addition to the base design of the cloth which represents you, in addition to the familial thread running through it which you have just recognized, there are also additional threads which you can only recognize if you look really closely, if you're really paying attention. Sometimes you can't see it at all but you know it must be there because of the cloth's enhanced strength. This represents your teachers, school staff, coaches, people who are quietly praying for you; those whom you may not see everyday because they don't work just with you. These are the people -- believe it or not -- whose words and lessons will echo in your mind long after you've left Roosevelt's halls for the last time. And again, because you have made it, you should take the time to salute them now. (Pause)

For me it was Mrs. Nevils, my sophomore year English teacher who nurtured my interest in reading and writing by giving me a stack of books to take home and read in my spare time. It was also my football coaches Coach Taliaferro, Coach Price, Coach Rogers, who decided to reward a scrawny little 5 foot 2, 100 lb guy for working hard in practice by giving him a spot on the varsity roster. They believed in me and because they took the time to help me, I have dedicated my life to helping children and adolescents as well. So remember that: The extended family is a force. And help others overcome obstacles you may have experienced as well.

You see, there is nothing special about me which allows me to stand before you today. I was born and raised in Gary just like most of you. My father worked in the steel mills like a lot of your parents or grandparents, and because he had five children to feed, we often did not have money left over for a lot more. I've taken food stamps to the grocery store. In fact, you can't find me in my high school yearbook the year I graduated because my father had been laid off that year, and we couldn't afford to buy me a suit coat for the picture; and I was too proud to wear the one my classmate tried to lend me. I lost friends to drugs and violence - just like you. I walked the same halls, took the same rickety bus to school as you, and I sat through a commencement address waiting my opportunity to flub "Roosevelt, Dearly Loved" -- just like you!

And I have a confession to make, for all the accolades Principal Wright was so nice to include in her wonderful introduction -- what you didn't hear was that I was an honor graduate of Gary Roosevelt; because I graduated with a 2.63 GPA. Now there's nothing wrong with that by itself. What is wrong about it is that I didn't live up to my potential in high school. I was mediocre, because mediocrity to me is not living up to your potential.

So I sat right where most of you are sitting now and I made a promise to myself. I said - I will never be mediocre again. I will never perform to less than my full potential again! Mediocrity wasn't born in me -- and it wasn't born in you!

So now class after 12 years, this is your time.

If you are determined to reach your full potential -- say, "This is OUR TIME!"

If you are grateful for your family's support and you're ready to stand up as an example for your siblings, cousins, nieces and nephews -- say, "This is OUR TIME!"

If you understand that you are a part of a larger community that is counting on you to remember where you came from and to help others like you -- say, "This is OUR TIME!"

If you are ready to walk across this stage and begin the journey of growth towards becoming the men and women God has called you to be -- say, "This is OUR TIME!"

Congratulations Gary Roosevelt Class of 2009! This is YOUR TIME! God bless you, God bless you all! Be safe, class! God bless you all!