Phillip B. Williams Addresses the Class of 2020
Phillip B. Williams addressed the Class of 2020 as the Faculty Speaker at Bennington College's 85th Commencement and first-ever virtual ceremony.
Thank you to Bennington College faculty, staff, and students for offering your time and patience during this tumultuous period. I want to also thank Isabel Roche and John Bullock for their leadership and care. To the class of 2020, I started my journey with you all as a visiting professor in 2016. I, too, was a freshman here and have watched you all grow into phenomenal scholars and people of mind, body, and soul. I hope that I too have grown in the cascade of your seeing me, have grown into an educator of whom you can be proud. Thank you for pushing me to grow and allowing me to do the same for you.
I congratulate you on a job well-done, on having stayed the course until its completion, despite challenges, doubt, and interruptions of your safety. You have experienced an education unlike any other in the nation, and though you may not realize it, the level of care you received here is unique and will not be replicated outside of these hallowed fields of Bennington’s campus. There will be no visitation of deer by your favorite place to practice the flute, no unicyclist dressed as Abraham Lincoln making wild proclamations just outside your door, and no endless office hours with your favorite exhausted professors. Once you graduate, what we sometimes mistakenly call “the real world” will take the lead. But the real world began the moment you were born, and once you were born every joy and kindness imaginable became possible for you to experience. If anything, Bennington helped you reckon with smaller versions of your future mistakes. You were allowed to witness evil, but not too much. You were forced to concede to versions of yourself that, given time, you were able to reconsider. Deem it fortuitous that this practice had been offered to you: to be able to make mistakes with limited risk.
Once you go to wherever welcomes you with the hopes that it will continue to welcome you or at least pretend, you must guard yourself without hiding yourself and expect nothing that you demand. You may protest that you be respected yet never receive it. Do not waste your time with people who cannot respect you. You may believe you have earned the love of another, but forever dwell in the realm of the unrequited. Do no wait for them to realize their mistake. It will take them too long and by then you can find another lover, a true love. You may have worked hard in all things career, but still find it difficult to afford basic human needs. Do not stop believing you deserve to have those needs met. These things may happen not because the world is cruel, though it often is, but because the world and its inhabitants can be indifferent, which is something else altogether. Often indifference is mistaken as cruelty. But cruelty is active, so much so that it too can be mistaken for something else: love, perhaps. But indifference can never be mistaken for love and even those who use indifference as a tool to break you down will eventually have to pay you attention for their indifference to manifest in abusive ways. What I am telling you, then, is that you must be ready to no longer be considered special or to receive particular attention to your needs. You will have to prove your self-worth perpetually, not just to others, but to yourself. You must learn to supply your own needs and trust me when I say you are prepared to take care of yourself, to be gracious with yourself, and to love yourself intensely. This may seem daunting, frightening even. But remember that proving yourself to yourself is nothing but an endless source of self-love.
Speaking of what frightens, fear is not always an obstacle. We experience this emotion for a reason. When you stand before your peers to perform in a play, or to sing your favorite song, or to share the calculation you discovered that relieved you from your misunderstanding of inertia or some unbalanced equation—when a part of ourselves must be shared with someone else, many of us feel fear, and this is because fear is derived from care. It is meant to be an origin point toward maintenance. Fear means for us to take notice, to recognize that there is an issue that requires our intense focus, that something is wrong and needs to be changed. But so often we allow fear to plagiarize care, to upend it and take care’s identity as its own. Where fear says we must move toward care (of the self and of one another), we choose instead anger, neglect, punishment, shame, insecurity, denial, escapism. Why in times of our greatest need do we decide that it is not healthful consideration that we need, but destruction and ambivalence of our own gift to turn that fear into something ambitious and radically nested in love?
I think often of my childhood and the time I was caught in a crossfire on my way home from school, walking with my friend, Derrick, and my uncle, Greg, who took us to school and picked us up every day. I describe the situation as quicker than it should have been. You would think almost losing your life would take a long time, would move at a glacial speed. When what sounded like a car backfiring turned into my uncle saying get down while the sounds of bullets ricocheting from a nearby fence chimed the metal like bells. Perhaps, yes, that became our church, a call to service, the proximity of God drawing nearer. And I share this moment with you because not too soon after did we run through a gangway into an empty lot where a house used to be and laugh. We survived. We had felt fear and defied it. We were forever imprinted upon by that moment.
What have you experienced that has planted a seed in you that if it blooms to its fullest capacity, it could undo you? What during your tenure at Bennington College put unshakable fear in you? Something else about fear that I find interesting: it seems always attached to lack, to loss, to the idea that something or someone will leave us behind. Whom have you lost in your time on this campus? What have you lost? Yourself? A friend? A lover, perhaps, who said they would never leave not knowing their future had prepared for them this lie from the very beginning? Someone at home who in their absence has permanently redefined what home is and could ever be? We can say now, with honesty that may feel caustic, that we have lost the school we were promised because of a pandemic. How and where we began years ago no longer exists. Is that harm or inconvenience? For whom? When does change ever promise to comfort us as it transforms us?
You will see many people trying their best and falling short. You will get a chance to be one of those people. When have you fallen short and had only that failure acknowledged, despite the many miles you have crossed on your way? How is the loss more complicated than just someone or something you cherished going away? There is a depth to loss. It stays in our bodies for years and therefore carries across space and time. It is defiant but is also, in its purest form, necessary change. I would like for you all to think about fear as a catalyst for change that involves reconsidering how you approach, consider, and process losing what is important to you.
This is not easy. It requires therapy, recognition of our traumas, and a community of healers both living and dead. Which is where all this time I have been trying to arrive. I mean to speak to you about death.
My uncle who saved my life with a command to duck from the invisible paths of bullets, is dead. He died years ago of natural causes. He was a Gemini, a neighborhood custodian, and a gay Black man whose femininity I overlooked as a child, though I never felt ashamed of him. Not really. I just didn’t know how to see the feminine in him as dangerous, and it was danger that I remembered best. I learned later how to see him whole, when it was too late to matter, I thought, and when my own proclivities toward femininity had become too exhausting to hide, though all my life I had hid them in order to exist. But don’t you know that existing is and was merely partial? I am not suggesting that I should have risked my life in my neighborhood then. But I am also not suggesting that the life I am living now is as whole as it could have been had I been myself and, perhaps, endured. We make choices everyday as to how we want to live versus how we fight to exist, the difference being how we activate our lives in ways particular to engage our skills and interests versus how we manage to not die. I write as a form of living. I eat food to continue to exist. And I wonder how many versions of me have died in the wake of my choosing to exist, which was a need, versus choosing to live, which always felt like a privilege. This is the failure of fear and failure is not something to feel ashamed of.
I had to come to terms with my uncle’s death much later in life when it became clear to me that I let him die a newfound stranger to me. And now that he has become an ancestor, I can reconcile my missing him with my awareness that he is still here. I believe in the presence and powers of ancestors, and not in that respectable “grandmama made so many sacrifices for us so that we could achieve x-y-and-z” fashion. I have never ill-imagined my people in such a way where their own complexities kneel to my political and social agendas or some juvenile need to be seen as a morally upstanding human. Some of my ancestors were cruel and dangerous. They were inimitable in life and remain so in death, and it is through them that I learn to forgive myself for being afraid and to push myself toward care whenever I can.
I want you all to consider your bodies in this moment because we have all been denied access to intimacy of the flesh. The minor propulsions of being in a check-out line, the nudges from behind on a train thundering through corridors of concrete towards countless predestinations. I want you to recall the times your body has proven to you that you are a person meant to connect to other people. You lose your imaginations when you lose each other. So first, you must recognize you have a body that requires care. You must pay attention to your body when you are afraid because it will tell you what parts of you need attention. And you must look at what you have lost as a path toward the new life you will gain if you treat each loss with reverence and awe.
As students, you have had the privilege of learning a lesson every moment you breathe, and I am here to tell you that it is breath itself that will have you honorably remain a student for the rest of your days, learning lessons that only living itself can teach you. I urge you today to live an almighty life, daily recreating yourselves to grow more closely to the version of yourself you wish and deserve to be. Not in spite of fear, but hand-in-hand with fear. Today, I challenge you to forever embrace your time as students so that you may forever remember that you, alive, are to be held accountable for what you learned here.
And what will you share once you leave this institution of learning? Share how you took classes that challenged your preconceived notions and helped you expand your ways of thinking about the world. Teach others the song, poem, painting technique, experiment, or social theory that meant the most to you. Apply what you learn in communities that need you without usurping those who have been leaders in those communities. Serve without trying to dominate. Give back with the same energy your teachers and peers gave to you. Move with generosity into the next stage of your constantly evolving lives. Use fear as a springboard into better days. Take loss as an opportunity to add something unexpected and fulfilling to your lives. Choose caretaking in all its forms. Choose not just yourself, but each other. Someone else needs you. They could be a friends or a stranger, a colleague or an enemy soon to be revised into friend. Stand up in your power. I am waiting for you. I have been waiting for you my entire life.