I delivered the keynote address to the 2016 graduating class of Brownsville Academy High School. BAHS was featured on the news a few years ago for the innovative art program.
BAHS is also a “last chance” high school, or “over-age, under-credited” high school. The students are typically aged 17-21. They’re not ready to graduate high school, but oftentimes, they’re too old to remain in a traditional high school.
At the last minute, I decided to include some current events.
Good afternoon Brownsville Academy High School—administration, staff, teachers, parents, family members, schoolmates, and class of 2016.
Thank you Ms. Warren for inviting me to deliver this keynote address to what I know is a group of incredibly hard-working, determined, and brilliant young people. It is truly an honor.
Of course, in trying to come up with the words that I hope will inspire and launch you into your lives as independent young adults, I was at a complete loss. What could I possibly say that you don’t already know? You, Class of 2016, are children of the information age. The answers to every possible question that you can think of is at the tip of your fingers, on your smart phones. The world is literally in the palm of your hands.
In fact, you can probably Google me now and know that I am an author, a writer, a mom, an educator, as well as an immigrant. This is the image that I’ve presented to the world, complete with carefully chosen Instagram selfies with the right filters, and hashtags, and cutesy posts.
But what you won’t find on Google or Facebook or Twitter are the quiet, dark corners of my true self that I keep hidden from the world. I know Brownsville very well (Brownsville/East New York/Bushwick in the 80s that is, in the midst of the crack epidemic and the unprecedented violence that swept the whole city at that time). This is where I grew up after coming from Haiti. I know very well Sutter Avenue, and Crescent Street, and Bushwick and Knickerbocker Avenues, and shopping for school on Pitkin. I know Pink Houses and that diner on Linden Boulevard that’s been there for decades. This is where I was made—the ‘hood. I was part of it, but not of it. So this speech won’t be about how “I made it out.” I didn’t escape anything. I took it with me, and I keep it in the corner where it’s dark and where the sun has already set.
We all have those parts of ourselves where the sun has already set—parts of ourselves where it’s forever night, and they only exist in the realm of dreams or nightmares.
However, here in the sunlight, you are shining bright and are full of hope and energy. And you are still here, in Brownsville, East New York, East Flatbush, Crown Heights. These places you call home are not dark corners. This is where the sun shines for you and over you.
But again, this speech will not be about where I’m from or where you live and how far you have to go. This speech will be about sunshines, and sunrises, and sunsets.
So this takes me to a very recent event in the news that reminds me of an old saying, “The sun never sets on the British Empire.”
Some of you may or may not know, or may not even care, that United Kingdom, or Great Britain, has recently voted to secede from the European Union. If this was a History class, I’d ask you when in our American history has the word “seceded” ever come up? The Civil War? That war about slavery? Yep, that’s right.
But again, what does this have to do you with you? This is Brownsville, after all, a little forgotten corner of Brooklyn in the midst of gentrification under the guise of “urban renewal”, a fast-changing skyline, rising costs of living, closing schools, crime, underemployment, police brutality, and gun violence. Who cares what the British are doing, right?
But, unfortunately, I have to and already am delivering this speech in English. A majority of you can only understand me in…English. All of you had to read and write and understand your teachers in English in order to pass your classes and graduate. You have to fill out forms for college or jobs, and interview in…English.
I’m sure throughout your years here at Brownsville Academy, you were taught to think critically, to question everything, not just the stuff in books or what you have to learn in order to past tests, but to question your life choices, the world, and even the things that you think have absolutely nothing to do with you. So let’s think critically for a second about how it is that you and whoever you are as a young person in this school, in this neighborhood, in this Brooklyn, in this New York, in these United States, came to speak in English and use it as your primary language?
I’m sure even your dreams are in English. This ceremony is English. You walked to the song “Pomp and Circumstance” which is…English. Your graduation gowns, the way you wear a tie and shirt, the way you learned your alphabet, and math, and science, and what was taught to you as your history… English. If you’re from the Jamaica, or Trinidad or Guyana, or West Africa—Nigeria, Ghana, Liberia…ENGLISH.
So yeah, England was such a powerful force in World History, that it still affects you today, even as you sit here in this forgotten dark corner of Brownsville, Brooklyn.
I challenge you, Class of 2016, to think for a moment that maybe this has been the problem all along. That the sun never set on the British Empire. This English that has been so pervasive in your life (without your knowing) has been placed in the spotlight, in the sun. So much so that you have been taught to tuck away parts of yourselves into a corner—the real you, the “keep it a hundred” you.
The parts of you that found it hard to pay attention, to follow through, to set goals, to achieve them. The parts of you that take the English language and twist and turn it into something of your own making—the “On fleek,” and the “It’s lit,” or whatever you all say these days. The music that you make—the Drake, the Khalifa, the Future, the trap, the bass, the rhythm, Milly Rock on every block, the Waka Flaka, and Fetty Wap. All’a that. These have always been your fight against the Empire and it’s never-ending spotlight on your life, your sense of history, and sense of self.
Think, for a moment, Class of 2016, who are you stripped away of this English, of this Pomp and Circumstance, of these gowns and shirts and ties and sleek hair and high heels? What is the language you speak when you can’t quite capture those fancy English words just right? What have you created to take its place? What is the garb you wear when the world tells you that you are unrefined, unpolished, stripped away of English regalia—the caps, gowns, scepters, and crowns?
Your clothes, your slang, the way you rock your hair, your dances, are the many ways in which your true selves are creeping out of dark corners so that you, all of you, can shine in the sunlight, too.
You are trying to remember who are you are. You are trying to cast a light on what you’ve been taught is dark, hopeless—that place of nightmares where dreams don’t come true.
As I look out before me, I see a sea of brown faces. The world tells you that you are you are black. You are African American. You are African descents. Africa used to be called the “Dark Continent”—a forgotten corner of the world. Africa is where the British made most of their riches alongside their colonies in the Caribbean and even here in America. The Empires stole the African sunshine—from as far east as Kenya to as far west as Senegal—and stuffed it into a dark corner of the world.
And here in America, is where a new world was built in the shadows of the British Empire whose dominating sunshine lingered over slavery and segregation and racial violence and urban poverty and violence. Here is where the children of those dark corners still speak in English and have to fight everyday to remember the language that they lost, the music thrown overboard on slave ships, and the forgotten songs.
So now, I wonder, if the sun has finally set on the British Empire. What, Class of 2016, will you create in the world that will help you remember who you really are? In whatever career path you choose, what will you do to remember what you have lost? How will you pull your true self out of the dark corners where the sun has already set so that it can shine and cast a golden light on everything that you do?
Every mistake, every wrong turn on the road, every tragedy, every setback, pull them out of the corner and let them see the light of day. Take them with you and carry them on your back, or hold them high above your head. Tell your story. Don’t hide it. Take it with you on your journey. Let the world know that you have put up a fight against the mighty empires that were determined to mute your sunshine—violence, poverty, underfunded schools, unsafe communities, poor choices. This is the only way that you can truly shine. This is the only way that dreams will come true. Be your full brilliant self away from sunsets and dark corners. Shine bright like the greatest star of them all. Become the sun. Because you have always been the sun, hanging high over the Empires, because you and your history have always been the source for greatness. You will never set and you should never settle for anything less.
Shine bright class of 2016. Onward and beyond. All the way up!