Political scientist Melissa Harris-Perry delivers Wellesley 2012 commencement address
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Published: Tuesday, May 29, 2012
Updated: Tuesday, June 26, 2012 11:06
Renowned political scientist, author and professor Melissa Harris-Perry delivered the commencement address to graduating Wellesley class of 2012 on Friday, May 25. Her speech, by turns humorous, moving, and encouraging, emphasized the dual strengths of independence and interdependence for enabling success in the future.
Harris-Perry, who currently serves as a professor at Tulane University in New Orleans, has an impressive resume that includes two acclaimed books, a stint as a professor at Princeton and a regular MSNBC show. She is one of only a few African American women to have a regular position on cable news. She is also a high school dropout, self-identified feminist and founder of the Anna Julia Cooper Project, which investigates the intersection of race, gender and politics in the American south.
Before addressing Wellesley’s ruby class of 2012, Harris-Perry met privately with several students of African descent, with whom she chatted amiably and offered some private advice. She graciously posed for a series of photos with the students, a gigantic papier-mache model of a blue hand giving the thumbs-up (“That is the best thing I have ever seen!” she exclaimed) and even one student’s mother.
She also briefly discussed all-women’s education and identified herself as a strong proponent of all-female schooling. Her daughter, a fifth grader in New Orleans, attends an all-girls school. “I’d be perfectly happy if she stayed with all-girls education forever,” said Melissa Harris-Perry, chuckling.
Kim Bottomly, president of Wellesley College, introduced Melissa Harris-Perry. After presenting Harris-Perry’s long list of accomplishments and accolades, she gestured to the long row of flags on the stage behind her -- 56 flags in total, one for each country of citizenship represented within the graduating class -- and apologized for not having a flag for Nerdland, the Twitter hashtag that is used to identify her show. When Harris-Perry stepped forward to begin her speech, the graduating class screamed, applauded and waved hundreds of small Nerdland flags they had kept hidden under their seats. “That’s pretty easily the coolest thing that’s ever happened to me,” said Harris-Perry, grinning.
Throughout the body of her speech, Harris-Perry offered many tidbits of advice from such diverse sources as Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The Velveteen Rabbit” and Beyoncé. She recited rap lyrics and prose and relayed morals from children’s books, but the core of her speech came from the heart. “Don’t nod and smile unless you’re happy and agree,” she advised; the graduates cheered.
Her main message to graduates is summarized in a brief sentence that she explained at length: “Be ignorant, be silent, be thick.”
Harris-Perry spoke of ignorance as a form of humility that drives us to continue to seek education and experience. “I encourage you to embrace the reality that you know almost nothing,” Harris-Perry told the graduating class. She relayed her love of visiting libraries, where she stands among the stacks and revels in the understanding that there is a vast amount of knowledge she will never have. “Ignorance is not your enemy,” Harris-Perry said; “only complacency with ignorance is to be resisted.”
On the topic of silence, Harris-Perry acknowledged her own love of using her voice and acknowledged that the producers of her NBC show would be astounded at her offering this particular bit of advice to anyone. She also touched on one of the great cornerstone of all-women’s schooling when she proclaimed that women’s education is very much about finding your voice. “There is an enormous difference between being silenced and choosing to be silent,” she said. Chosen silence soothes your inner demons and critics. “Gather your voice in your silence,” advised Harris-Perry. “Listen to it in your head before you give it away.”
Her final piece of advice was perhaps the strangest: be thick. She apparently drew the phrase from Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” in which one character complained to another, “Your love is too thick,” to which she replies, “Love is or it isn’t. Thin love ain’t no love at all.” Harris-Perry expounded on this notion by exploring the differences between “thick” and “thin” women; the former are strong, intelligent but curious, have convictions but are open-minded, while the latter crumble beneath criticisms, bull-headedly refuse to adjust their attitudes and believe every critic is a “hater.” “Cultivate a radical thickness that allows you to be vulnerable and imperfect as you cast yourself headlong into the crazy, scary, painful, grown-up world,” she concluded.
Harris-Perry completed her speech with a reminder that we are not meant to go it alone. “You cannot be brave all by yourself,” she told the graduates.
“This is the start of your stay,” she said to conclude her commencement address.