The following is the Commencement speech that nobel-prize winning writer Toni Morrison gave at my university, Sarah Lawrence College, in 1993. It is my gift to you for the New Year.
"If you don't feed the poor, they will eat you. And the manner of their eating is as varied as it is ferocious. If you don't give them the help, them the courtesy, them the respect you had in becoming educated, then they will educate themselves. And the things they will teach, and the things they will learn, may destabilize all you know. And by education, I don't mean hobbling the mind, but liberating it. By education, I don't mean passing on monologues, but engaging in dialogue, listening sometimes, assuming sometimes that I have a history, that I have a language, a view, a specificity, assuming that what I know may be useful, may enhance what you know, may extend or even complete it.
My memory is as necessary to yours, as yours is to mine.
Before we look for a useable past, we ought to know all of it. Before we start reclaiming a legacy, we ought to know exactly what legacy is - all of it. And where it came from. In the business of education, there are no minorities, there is only minor thinking. Because if education requires tuition, but no meaning, it is going to be about NOTHING other than careers. If it's about NOTHING other than defining and husbanding beauty, isolating goods and making sure enrichment is the privilege of a few - then it can be stopped in the sixth grade - where everybody learned it. Or the Sixth century - where everybody had mastered it.
Well, what would it be like to live without that putrifying hatred that we have been told and taught was inevitable, natural among human beings? INEVITABLE, NATURAL, after a presence of what, five million years? After recording ourselves for four thousand years - we haven't thought of anything better than that? And which one of us was born that way? Which one of us prefers it that way? Hating or grabbing or despising. Racism is a scholarly pursuit. And it always has been. It's not gravity or the ocean tides. It's the invention of our minor thinkers. Our minor leaders. Our minor scholars. And our major entrepreneurs. And it can be uninvented. Deconstructed. It's annihilation begins with just dreaming about, visualizing it's absence. Lose it, and if it can't be lost at once or just by saying so - then BEHAVE as if it were. BEHAVE as if our free life depended on it. Because it does.
If I spend my life despising you because of your race, or your class, or your religion, then I have become your slave. If you spend yours hating me for similar reasons, it's because you have become my slave. I have your energy. I have your fear. I have your intellect. I can determine where you live. How you live. What your work is. I can determine your definition of excellence. And I can set the limits to your ability to love. Which means that I have shaped your life. That is the gift of your hatred. You are mine.
Well, now you may be asking yourselves - what is all this? I can't save the world. What about my life, you ask? I didn't come here for this. I didn't even ask to come here. I didn't ask to be born. You insisted on your life. That's why you are here. There is no other reason. It's too easy not to have been born. And now that you're here - you have to do something. Something you respect - don't you? Your parents may have wanted you. But they did not dream you up. You did that. I'm just urging you to continue the dream you started. Because dreaming is not irresponsible. It's first order - human business. It's not entertainment, you know. It's work. When Martin Luther King, Jr. said, "I have a dream," he wasn't playing. He was serious. When he imagined it, envisioned it, created it in his own mind - it began. Now - we have to dream too. And give it the heft and stretch and longevity it deserves. But don't let anybody convince you - this is the way the world IS and therefore must BE. Nobody prefers mindlessness. Appetites for self-murder can be erradicated. No addict or suicide wants to be one. Enemies, races, nations - they can live together. Anybody over eight years old has already witnessed the expedient, commecial, almost whimsical nature of national friendships.
I have seen resources commited to the disenfranchised, the discredited, the merely unlucky. And before we can reap the harvest of these resources, before legislation put in place could work, it was disassembled. That determined committment must be re-dreamed, re-thought, re-activated by me and you. Otherwise, as nationalisms and racisms solidify, as coasts and villages become and remain forces of turmoil and dispute, as eagles and doves hover over the remaining sources of the raw wealth of the earth - as guns and gold and cocaine topple grain, technology and medicine to win first place in world trade - if these things go on we will end up with a worth not worth sharing or even dreaming about.
What I mean to say is - we are already life. Chosen by ourselves - humans as far as we know - there aren't anymore - we are the moral inhabitants of the galaxy. Why trash that magnificent obligation after working so hard in the womb to assume it? You will be in positions that matter. Positions in which you can decide the nature and quality of other people's lives. Your errors may be irrevocable. So when you enter these places of trust and power - dream a little before you think and solve. So your thoughts, your solutions, your directions, your choices about who lives and who doesn't, who flourishes and who doesn't, will be worth the very sacred life that you already chose to live.
You're not helpless. And you're not heartless. And you / have / time."