Sankofa, Survival, and Science Fiction: A Graduation Speech

This keynote speech was delivered at the Portland State University Multicultural Graduation Speech, June 12, 2015 in Portland, Oregon.

It is such a privilege to be at this year’s Portland State University Multicultural Graduation — I look forward to this graduation every day, to celebrate the amazing accomplishments of our students of color. I am so honored to be the keynote speaker, and to have been chosen by the student leaders to do so. Yall know the Cultural Resource Center student leaders are phenomenal, so this is definitely an honor!

This is such an incredibly important time for each of us here — students obviously, but also parents, friends, family, faculty, and staff. It makes me so happy to see so many brilliant students I’ve had the opportunity to get to know graduating here today. This is a time to celebrate the immense amount of work and sacrifice and dedication that got each of you graduating here.

As a former Portland State student and graduate, I have literally sat where at least one of you is sitting right now. I’ve known the unbounded joy of having made it through, of getting not only the tassel but the cloth stole with the Adinkra symbols on them.

Walidah Imarisha with PSU graduate Mariah Leewright

I was lucky enough that after a number of years (y’all don’t need to know how many), I returned to Portland State as faculty, to teach in the Black Studies Department. I have gotten to see first hand, from the other side of the classroom, the struggles students — especially first generation college students, students from oppressed and marginalized communities — go through to get these degrees.

This multicultural graduation is a time for us to intone the words of Black feminist poet Audre Lorde, in her poem “A Litany for Survival:”

For all of us

this instant and this triumph.

We were never meant

to survive.

Celebrate your resilience, your determination, your strength, your bright shining heart, which has carried you here.

This multicultural graduation is also a time for us to remind ourselves that survival is only the first step. It’s absolutely an important one — we must survive if we are to achieve anything else. But to just survive is to be stagnant. Everything that is living must grow. If something does not grow, it is dead.

Luckily, life is tenacious. It takes root under the most adverse of conditions. Flourishes against all odds. Like Tupac Shakur’s rose that grew through concrete, I have been privileged to watch so many students blossom under adversity and hardship. I have watched students live out the defiant wisdom emblazoned on a student protestor’s banner in Mexico:

This graduation signifies an end, the culmination of all that you have accomplished, all you have grown, in this phase of your academic career, your life. And it is a moment of marvel, of wonder…

I just have to warn y’all right now, the rest of this speech is going to get a little nerdy. All right, a lot nerdy. I’m a huge science fiction fan. Not just because I like the idea of alien planets and light speed travel. Science fiction is the only literary genre that not only allows us to discard everything we think we know, but demands it of us. Science fiction challenges us to use our imaginations, to question everything that is “real,” to envision the impossible. It tells us we have the right to dream.

And that is what I hope each of you claim here today. The right to dream. Because yes, we are at an end, AND we know that every end is a beginning.

This moment, this multicultural graduation, is an incredibly unique moment. It is really a science fiction moment. One that highlights so clearly how the past, present, and future exist as one. We are actually, right now, defying the traditional notions of time. We are time traveling at this very moment!

Stay with me on this.

There is a West African Adinkra symbol called Sankofa. It has different variations, but one of them is a symbol of a bird whose face is turned behind it but its body is moving forward. It means, “Return and get it.”

The idea Sankofa embodies is that the past is what carries us forward. The past is not dead and gone but walks with us as we move through life. Y’all, this is what quantum physicists are just beginning to tell us now — that our notions of time as an absolute, a linear straight line, are wrong. Communities of color have always grasped what science is now saying — the past is never really past. What those who came before survived, what they protected, what they grew in hostile soil — that is as present as the air we are all breathing. All moments of time live as one. Right now, your past sits next to you, the present is holding your hand, while the future opens the door for you to walk through.

And you are the culmination of so many dreams. Each and every single one of you. Not just one generation of dreams. Multitudes, stretching back decades, centuries, millennia. Each of us that come from communities with historic institutional oppression, we are walking science fiction.

Someone was told the world that would create you was impossible, was just a fantasy. That world was science fiction. And that someone, many someones, defied that idea. They dreamed you up, and then bent reality, re-envisioned all of existence, to create you. I’ve edited an anthology of radical visionary science fiction called Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories From Social Justice Movements, and my co-editor adrienne maree brown and I are both Black women. We think of our Black ancestors in chains, who had no reason to think that an end to chattel slavery was possible. Who were, in fact, told by everything in society that it was a complete impossibility, utterly unrealistic. Nothing but a dream.

And those enslaved Black folks closed their eyes and unshackled their imaginations. They dreamed a forbidden world, and then they rewrote the whole of history to bring us into existence. They knew the truth those in power worked so hard to keep from them: that once our imaginations are unshackled, liberation is limitless.

All of our ancestors, our elders from oppressed communities, sculpted the future for us, out of us. Sculpted us as the future. They did not do this in isolation. They used culture, communal knowledge and history, ways of being and knowing. They planted the seeds of resilience in soil meant to be graves. We are, each of us, a living changing embodiment of cultures of resistance made flesh.

Our ancestors did this communally, coming together to breathe life into the future. Each of their roles was a vital, irreplaceable piece of a collective whole. Just as your graduation now came about from a community of effort reaching from the present, from the people sitting right next to you, and back into the past. Reaching through you and your own incredible efforts that have brought you to this moment.

On an episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (yes, I just went there), Captain Benjamin Sisko was told, “You are the dreamer and the dream.”

Being the culmination of your ancestors’, your family’s, your community’s dreams — that is not a passive thing. They struggled and fought, they bled and died for the right to even believe each of you could exist. They carved out for you the right, the responsibility, and the immense privilege to continue this unbroken lineage of imagining new more just worlds. They claimed for you the space to do the hard difficult and inspiring work of pulling those new worlds out of dreams and into reality.

You are their dream. And you are the dreamer of new incredible dreams they could not have even imagined.

So as you move forward in your life, I encourage each and every one of you to take dreaming incredibly seriously. To conceive your futures thoughtfully, with purpose. To ask yourselves what do you want to add to this lineage of freedom visions you are inextricably a part of.

And I ask of you; don’t limit yourself. Dream as many dreams as you can. And please don’t start with the question, “What is realistic?” If our ancestors had started with that question, none of us would exist. Because every real substantive social change that has ever occurred was considered to be utterly unrealistic at that time it happened.

So don’t start with what you are being told by others is realistic or possible. Start with the questions, “What is the world I want to live in? And who do I want to be in that world?” Then put in the glorious work to give those dreams voice and legs.

Poet Mark Gonzales wrote:

“Look up. See that shining brilliance defying gravity? Take note of how they float free. For those are not only stars. They are our relatives.”

That isn’t just beautiful poetics; physics has proven it to be true. (I told y’all it was going to get real nerdy). We are, you and me and everyone, stardust. We are made of the same material as the lights humans have seen sparkling in the night sky for eons.

The stars have always meant so much for humanity. They are how we understood our lives. How we knew when to plant, when to harvest, when to seek warmer environs. And for many, in my case specifically for enslaved Black folks, they shone literally as beacons of freedom.

The North Star led countless runaway escaped Black folks to the north, to freedom. Through untold horrors and physical hardships, the North Star was companion, confidant, and guide to liberation.

Scientists believe that before the big bang, we were all part of one infinitely dense mass. I don’t just mean all of us in this room, or even on this planet. I mean everything. Everything in the universe was once one, until that massive explosion. That means we are connected to each other, to everything on this planet, to those stars, to this infinite ever-expanding universe.

That means we carry all the positive elements, all the beauty, all the potential of every comet we have seen streak across the night sky, every star we have ever wished on, every sun that has warmed our skin.

My hope for each of you as you reach this end that is not just an end but also a beginning, is that you will be limitless like the universe, life-sustaining like this earth we call ours. That you will be visionary like your ancestors before you.

I hope you will each be courageous enough to follow your own North Star to freedom, and shine just as brightly. That you can illuminate the path for those not even born yet, who will be the culmination of your dreams. Live brightly, and light the way for your own walking science fiction.

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