Michael Wimberly Addresses the Class of 2021
Faculty Speaker Michael Wimberly addressed the Class of 2021 at Bennington College's 86th Commencement.
Perform “Lamban” on Djembe – Jaliah (song)
The drum speaks! Drumming has been used to call people together for millennium. Today is one of those ceremonious days!
Greetings President Walker, Provost and Associate Dean, John Bullock, distinguished members of the Board of Trustee’s, Faculty, Parents, Staff, and to the Graduating Class of 2021.
Let me begin by sharing a quote from Emeritus Professor Milford Graves, may he rest in peace. “Look at the room downstairs, look at the garden outside, don't try to analyze it, just take it in.” I would not be here at Bennington if it weren’t for Professor Graves advising to the music faculty that they should consider Michael Wimberly as a possible replacement after he retires. If you knew the man, you’d know, no one could ever truly replace Professor Graves, but I stand on his shoulders as I try not to analyze, but simply take in these vast rooms, gardens, landscapes, and community.
Ritual… Ritual…Ritual… we are partaking in a ritual today! If you haven’t had time to think about what this day means because you’ve been wrapped up in the end of term exams, projects, papers, parties, or other sundry end of term items and events… fret not. I am here to remind you of the importance and legacy of this ceremonious day. This is a Ritual. It’s been performed in a number of ways over centuries around the world. I am speaking about the initiation of the Rite of Passage, a tried-and-true ritual that marks a new beginning, a self-evaluation and reflection on how you have prepared yourself for moving Onward & Upward in life.
Students before me! You are officially graduating from Bennington College! It has taken 4 years for most of you, and just a little longer for some others. You know who you are. It’s not a bad thing. One size does not fit all. It took me 6 years to get through undergrad, with a term of straight F’s, which I’ll talk about a little later. The reality is…you have arrived!
Let’s embrace this moment of accomplishment, this achievement, this milestone, this ritual…it is victorious! So let me hear a round of applause!
In the words of Drake… “We started from the bottom now we’re here. We started from the bottom now the whole teams here.” 2X
I want to share with you today that YOU are a part of Bennington College’s history in a way that we could never have foreseen, predicted, or imagined. Graduation in the midst of a global pandemic? Over 3 million perished with over 155 million affected by this virus globally, and it’s still here. It’s truly incomprehensible! But I firmly believe the education that you have acquired and cultivated here at Bennington has prepared you for the uncertainty and the incomprehensible that you may encounter on your journey ahead.
This past year has been a year of loss, fear, anxiety, and uncertainty not only here in our Bennington community, but in communities around the world. We’ve witnessed second waves of this virus infecting communities that have prematurely lifted masks, social distancing, and refusals to get vaccinated, there is still the possibility of catching this virus even if vaccinated, so we must proceed mindfully.
While reflecting on this past year, I began to recall my own anxiety from the uncertainty of not knowing if our jobs here at this school were going to survive. Not knowing how my family would sustain itself if all of our resources were depleted. Uncertainty!
Before the vaccines, I’m sure many of you imagined the idea of not knowing if you’ll be able to have dinner or celebrate with your family and friends on special occasions like today. The aching desire to see their faces and smiles while embracing their long overdue hugs, all the while not knowing if you’re asymptomatic or positive with the virus, and possibly spreading it to your family and friends! Or, the uncertainty of not knowing if you’ll ever see a loved one who catches the virus and needs a ventilator to live. I had several friends pass away from this virus, and I’m here to tell you I am a survivor of this virus. This has truly been a year of uncertainty for many of us.
The uncertainty of not knowing the outcome of a presidential election plagued by deceit and untruths that magnified the inherent division of our country, which unveiled itself through an insurrection on our capital on the 6th of January.
The uncertainty of not knowing if your son or daughter, sister or brother, friend or lover of color will stay alive if pulled over by the police. Or if you’ll be attacked or abused with racial slurs, or even killed if you are Asian or from the AAPI community.
But now we know the outcome of an officer on trial for the murder of George Floyd, which sparked a worldwide movement for racial justice and police reform. Now we know the outcome of the presidential election. Now we are beginning to see the effects of the Covid vaccines and their efficacy fighting this unseen pathogen. That’s the light that we must attract. That’s the light that we must gravitate towards. Speaking Truth to Power! Yes, this has been a year of uncertainty, but let’s not allow the adverse aspects define us. This past year should define us as a resilient and loving people! We have that within us…let’s gravitate towards that! Even Albert Einstein said “The measure of intelligence is the ability to change.” How has this year of uncertainty changed you? Changed us?
Many years ago, I was in an acting troupe performing a dramatic play all over New York State called “Journey to Freedom”. It featured monologs by Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Ida B. Wells, and other strong black women and men of great importance. In the play, I portrayed Malcom X, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the great orator and abolitionist Frederick Douglass. He gave a speech in 1857 that touched on how greatness is born from uncertain conditions and struggle.
He stated “Without struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, want crops without plowing up the ground. Rain without thunder and lighting, and the ocean without the awful sound of its many waters.” He concluded by saying “Power concedes nothing without demand. It never did and it never will.”
This year of uncertainty has amplified the demand for justice! For Climate Change! For access to affordable education and healthcare! For a better quality of life for all humanity! How will you apply what you’ve learned to address a demand of this nature during uncertain times?
In the 4 years that you’ve attended Bennington, you have been in preparation for uncertainty whether you are aware of it or not. You have prepared for uncertainty by registering for classes that you thought were one thing, and it turned out to be something completely different. It either informed you that you made the right choice. Or, it informed you that you made the wrong choice and you need to find that drop form as fast as possible!
You have prepared yourself for uncertainty through the creation of your Plan.
When I was 8 years old, I wrote in big letters on a piece of paper my Plan. I know this because it’s framed and hanging on a wall in my mother’s house. My Plan mentioned my interest in flying, metallurgy, and earning a master’s degree in music. I don’t recall why I wrote that at that age. I was interested in flying and studied books on airplanes, but never flew in a plane until I went away to college where a friend asked me if I’d like to go skydiving. That was my first time in a plane. It was a great experience. There were 4 of us, and the pilot in a little Cessna airplane. I was excited watching the landscape below get smaller and smaller. It was beautiful. There was one guy who lost his breakfast, but I didn’t pay that any mind. When it was my turn to get into position to jump. I didn’t hesitate! It was a static line jump, which means I didn’t have to pull the cord, it was connected to the plane. I floated for 1 1,000, 2, 1000, 3, 1000 and boom. The parachute opened up. It was the quietest and most peaceful moment I had ever experienced in my life at that time. After that jump, I became VP of the skydiving club, and we recruited 15 or 20 other students, which meant my second jump was free.
Getting back to my Plan. I don’t know why I put metallurgy on my list. Perhaps that was a supporting focus to bring more breadth and depth to my experience. Not that this has anything to do with metallurgy, but I did manage to disassemble lots of metal things like the toaster, lawnmower, record player, washing machine, television, in an attempt to figure out how things worked. My sisters had a saying in our house that everything I touched turned to butter.
The next item on my Plan was music. I don’t really know why. I liked music, but I was not studying music, and I certainly did not understand what getting a master’s degree in music was. I did, however, go on to accomplish that part of my Plan.
What I didn’t understand was the power of thought or suggestion, and the power of programing your mind to attract what you need, and sometimes what you don’t need.
“Mind Power” my mother would sometimes say during her Age of Aquarius, Black Power Revolutionary, Love, Light, and acquiring real-estate days. She was fascinated with the idea of the power of thought and how you can attract what you need. There’s no scientific evidence of this to my knowledge, but I have personally experienced moments in my life where I attracted and received exactly what I needed. Sometimes with an outcome greater than what I could possibly have imagined.
In a sense, you’ve done the same thing… You have prepared yourself for uncertainty through the creation of your Plan.
Do you remember figuring out your Plan? Your Plan titles? And exactly what that should be?
Writing incessant revisions that made you probe your inner most thoughts while wrestling with ‘The What’, and ‘The Why’ of your life’s direction and purpose, and perhaps even your existence. At least, that’s what your advisor wanted you to do. Some of you shifted away from what you thought was your primary focus to falling in love with your supporting focus.
Regardless, you found – or attracted - your passion. Now, some of that passion was discovered before you arrived here…and some of it during your FWT, some of it during Museum Term, or Away Term, which gave you an opportunity to explore areas of interest which blossomed into new pathways and new directions. New directions that you are about to embark on in the next chapter of your life.
So, uncertainty has its purpose! There’s even a principle of uncertainty in quantum mechanics called the Uncertainty Principle by Heisenberg.
The ‘Uncertainty Principle’ is a principle that the momentum and position of a particle cannot both be precisely determined at the same time, but you can increase your prediction of the position by increasing your range of values. In other words, studying broadly increases the probability of you being prepared to take on uncertainty.
Now what does studying broadly look like here at Bennington? Well, if you’ve taken a poetry or LIT class with Anastas, Boully, Dumanis, Williams, or Gonzalez. Perhaps you learned something about color theory in painting with Mary Lum, or J Blackwell that helped you connect and place in conversation something that Paul Voice spoke about in philosophy, or Mirka spoke about in anthropology, and you connected all of that with a script you explored in theater with Kirk, or Dina, and movement with Sgorbati, or Demanyanko in a dance class while creating a composition you were working on in Allen Shawn’s class, then you funneled that through Brian Michael Murphy’s Hip Hop Archeology, and threw in for good measure some of Hugh’s or Tim’s physics with my Sun Ra class, well now you’ve expanded out into the cosmos where anything is possible! Any and everything is possible because that’s what can happen when you study broadly using the uncertainty principle at Bennington! And while you’re out there in the stratosphere…you discovered your voice, your passion, and it was clear!
I’d like to share with you two life lessons that I hope you’ll remember, or at least entertain you. I graduated from a small high school in the 11 th grade, which gives the impression that I had it together. Good kid, smart kid, talented kid. I got into a University and became a social security number in a 250-seat classroom. You know how it is here, 25 or 30 students in a classroom is considered large. It was a whole new experience for me. By the end of the spring term, I got four F’s!!! And one of my sisters brought home four A’s! Dropping a class was an extraneous idea to me. I couldn’t comprehend it. We never did that in high school. I just wanted to follow my passion of playing music in a band! However, the lesson from getting straight F’s did not define me. Don’t let stumbles or others define you.
I took a risk decades later with some friends and created a desert business that was based on something I enjoyed from frequent travels to New Orleans. See, in New Orleans there are lines of people waiting to buy frozen snow cones called Snow Balls with all types of flavored syrups, sprinkles, condensed milk, and cream toppings. It’s quite tasty if you like a cold treat that’s super sweet. Well, I purchased a machine that turns giant blocks of ice into soft ice like snow with one pull of the handle. We called our business “Tropical Snow”. In New York City there’s a tradition that comes from Puerto Rico. It’s the same thing, but the vendor has to scrape the ice into a cup and then pour the flavored syrup on top. It’s called Piragua. It takes work to make that cone, but to make that business work you needed to have a hot day! That was something we did not factor in. It’s not as hot in NY as it is in New Orleans. We watched the weather every day for the entire summer. There were a few good days like here in Vermont, but sometimes the weekends were cold or got rained out, and we lost money! But when we did have a hot sunny day, we made 12 to 1400 hundred dollars selling sugar water within 6 hours. Everyone kept asking us “Where’s your store – Where’s your store”. So, we leased a storefront in Brooklyn and opened up a Seafood Restaurant called “Fish & Crustaceans” with a pizza window on the side selling tropical snow. We had a functional plan… it wasn’t ironclad, but we took the risk! Unfortunately, poor management eventually made me close the place, but now I have a greater understanding of leasing contracts, building codes, permits, fire suppression systems, plumbing, food contamination, catering, and how to run a restaurant in New York City. Risks comes with uncertainty, but sometimes it’s worth the risk!
So, I ask you, what can we learn from this year, this time of uncertainty? How can we turn this adversity into optimism?
I need you to take risks, be bold, think innovatively, stay curious, stay humble, be grateful, give, serve, collaborate, improvise, and become more empathetic as you continue to evolve into your greater self. And one of the most important things to remember are the people who got you here. I’ll leave you with one final thought… a quote from Saint Francis of Asisi “Do what’s necessary, then do what’s possible. The next thing you’ll know, you’re doing the impossible”.
Congratulations Bennington College Class of 2021.