|Friday, September 25, 2009
Mr. President and distinguished Deans of the University; members of the Faculty, staff, ladies, gentlemen, family, friends, and above all, students of this historic centre of academic excellence in this nation’s capital; I greet you as my country’s Head of Government, as a veteran medical practitioner, a proud alumnus of Howard University and a graduate of the classes of 1968 and 1972.
I am extremely grateful for the honour of addressing this student body and awed by the task of setting the tone for this academic year. It is not something I take lightly; I have pondered my theme and content long and hard. I tried in my preparation for today to find a challenge that would transcend the cliché; that would stand apart from the norm; that would resonate beyond today; and that would be worth remembering.
The reflection in which I have been engaged has caused me to determine that the best message I can leave with you today is an expression that you may have heard under different circumstances: “Someone is sitting in my seat”.
Someone is sitting in my seat -- Today I use that phrase to trace a journey and to inspire to endless possibilities.
Forty-five years ago, almost to the day, I sat in one of these seats here in Cramton Auditorium and listened to the wise words of Dr. James Nabrit, who was the President of Howard at the time. And, after a journey that would include pre-med, medical school, post-graduate medical training, medical practice for thirty-five years and ultimately public service in my native Bermuda which culminated in my holding its highest elected office, I am back where it all began. That has been my journey from my seat in this auditorium. What will your journey be? That is the question I want to leave with you today.
Permit me to pause and acknowledge, Mr. President, that in today’s audience are my wife, Wanda, my aunt, sister, two brothers, my niece Dr. Kim Montgomery who is Director of Psychology testing here at Howard and close friends who were delighted to come and share the honour of this momentous occasion with me. In addition, Mr. President, there are two young men who may be here today simply because they like the family scholarship they receive each semester and have no intention of losing it by being absent when their old man speaks on their college campus. My sons, Donovan and Trey are here. They have grown up to my preaching the virtues of a Howard University experience -- Yes, a Howard University experience and not a Howard University education. There is a distinct difference. It is that difference that saw my sons reject the opportunity to attend other universities and to show the good sense to come to the Mecca!
So it is with the Class of 2013. The promise of an experience versus just an education is what has made your choice the right one.
My own experience at Howard and the experience of countless others tells me that my contention is correct. The history of Howard and the enormous contributions of its alumni to the United States and the world, manifests itself daily as doctors, lawyers, political leaders, scientists, judges, actors, filmmakers and businesspeople write a global story fueled by their Howard experience. Every single one of them at some time sat in a seat in this place. That seat has many qualities. But, I want to focus on three of them. It is a seat of REFLECTION; it is a seat of PREPARATION; and it is a seat of COMMITMENT.
Why is it a seat of reflection? As you sit today or any day, allow yourself to marvel at the unlikely story that is the African American experience. Moreover, allow yourself to marvel at the integral part Howard University has played in that story. Not only is someone sitting in MY seat, but someone is sitting in the seat of the 1st African-American Justice of the Supreme Court, Thurgood Marshall; the 1st African-American US Senator, Ed Brooke; the first African-American Governor since Reconstruction, Doug Wilder; the world-renowned, Grammy-award winning opera star Jessye Norman; the Former Mayor of Atlanta and 1st African-American Ambassador to the UN, Andrew Young; and the 1st African-American woman to win a Nobel Prize in Literature who also won a Pulitzer prize, Toni Morrison. Someone is sitting in the seat of Sharon Pratt Kelley, former Mayor of this venerable City, Vernon Jordan, Elijah Cummings, Roberta Flack, Ossie Davis, Phylicia Rashad, Debbi Allen, Richard Smallwood, and Fredricka Whitfield. Someone is sitting in Taraji Henson’s seat…and yes, P. Diddy’s. Someone is sitting in my seat.
As you reflect, the strains of our national anthem will echo in the distance: “Stony the road we trod, bitter the chastening rod, felt in the days when hope unborn had died. Yet with a steady beat have not our weary feet come to the place for which our fathers died”. It is a seat of reflection on a glorious past, of which each and every one of us should be justifiably proud. It is a seat of reflection on our rich and powerful legacy. It is a seat of reflection on our blood lines that infuse us with intelligence, strength and promise.
As it was for me and for so many others, your seat is also a seat of preparation. The Howard experience prepares women and men to meet the challenges of this complex world. Education is available all over the country and the world but the Howard experience is provided to few.
The seat of preparation demands of the student an openness to receive instruction and of the professor a passion to impart knowledge.
Do more than pass. Aim for more than academic success. The benefit of a Howard experience demands of you a spirit of preparation founded in the knowledge that you inherit one of the richest histories of academia in the country and indeed the world. Prepare! Be ready for your journey!
Reflect, to enhance your consciousness of the glorious legacy of the seat in which you sit. Prepare, to ensure that the Howard experience does right by you and you by it. Prepare, so that you will continue the tradition of the Howard legacy and contribute to a glorious future.
But recognize that that seat, my seat, your seat, is a seat of commitment.
It is a seat of commitment because long after you no longer assemble in Cramton Auditorium, long after 2013 when Commencement is but a memory, the Howard Experience will have implanted in you a quest for greatness and a commitment to all the ideals and ideas that dwell in the ethos of this centre of learning.
It is a commitment that feeds a vast network of brothers and sisters around the world whose sole connection is the Experience. It is a commitment that opens doors of employment opportunity and economic empowerment because it demands that Howard’s women and men be loyal and show goodwill one to another, as members of a family.
Meanwhile, not far from where we now sit, a Black man and woman occupy a residence built by slaves. They now set the tone for everything in this country from fashion to speech. Neither of them has the benefit of the Howard Experience, but they’ve done well in spite of this. I mention the President of the United States and the First Lady because their story speaks to the elements I have highlighted today – reflection, preparation, commitment, and a focused determination to accomplish the prize of all prizes – the White House.
Now, as you reflect, and get ready to prepare and commit to the incredible legacy of the Howard Experience, the burning question for you, Class of 2013, is what will your journey be? How will you get from where you are sitting to where I am standing?
As I say that, I am not talking about your becoming leader of Bermuda, this country, or any country. I am talking about living your dream…fulfilling your life’s ambition…for when I sat where you sit, I dreamt of the day I would return to Bermuda and lead my country. Leadership of my country was one of my defining goals and ambitions, and through the grace of God, I have achieved it.
What is your defining goal? What is your ambition? How will you use what you learn from the Howard experience to stand where you want to stand in the world? What allows some of us to get where we want to go, when others fall by the wayside? The answer, my friends, is simple, but difficult. It is easy to say, but complicated to do over a life span. You must keep your eye on your prize, and as our forefathers would say “don’t let nobody or no thing turn you around.”
You must stay focused. Don’t get confused. Young ladies, don’t come here to Howard and look at these handsome, fly boys (including my sons) and be distracted from your plan. Multi-task!!! Look at them…hang out with them, but do your work at the same time. On a very serious note, consider raising the cost of your companionship – you can change the world. And, if you ever have to make a choice between the social and the academic, choose the academic. It will serve you better and longer.
Young men…Who would blame you if you spent most of your time with this endless array of smart beautiful women, and shirked the responsibility of getting your education? I would, and so would your parents and the generations of men and women who gave up their lives so that you might have an education to be able to better provide for your families. You must stay focused. Don’t get confused.
What will happen if any of you get seduced by the lure of parties, drinks, and drugs? You will fail. Let me repeat…you will fail. You will fail yourselves, your parents and the other people who sacrificed to put you here, and you will fail the legacy of Howard University. You will fail me, and you cannot, you will not, use my seat for failure.
More than anything else, my seat…your seat must inspire confidence -- the confidence that will make you walk upright; that will encourage you to challenge the status quo; that will give you the fortitude to embrace change; and, finally, that will make you believe in the greatness of your people.
Class of 2013, the baton – my seat – has been passed to you. What will your journey be? Will you stand where I stand? Will you live your dream?
The answer lies in what you do with that simple chair in which you are sitting. When you leave here today, ask yourself who sat there before you. Was it one of the familiar names I mentioned?
If you imagine and look closely enough at your seat, you will see blood there, you will see sweat, you will see tears, you will see fear and you will see courage and conviction in the face of all that. You will see that it is a seat of reflection, or preparation, and of commitment.
Give your seat the honor it deserves, and the passion it requires. As you continue your journey to your dream, to your life’s ambition, I want you to feel the gentle but unrelenting pressure of those of us who sat before you.
We demand that you stand longer than we sat and run faster than we walked.
We demand that you respect us, and each other and this great institution we entrust to your care.
We demand that you live up to the limitless possibilities within you. Resolve this day that you will use your seat to claim the rich legacy of the Howard experience… Live your dream!