As always, things are wild in my life right now—I had a super busy week, presented a poster at my university’s Undergraduate Research Symposium, and then got horribly ill and missed almost an entire week of classes. More about that in my upcoming June GHDR Review Post, though; this post is about something else that happened in among all of that.
So, at the recommendation of a friend, I was invited to apply to be a student speaker for this year’s PSU Multicultural Graduation. The theme of this year’s graduation event is From Resilience to Revolution, something I definitely feel qualified to speak on. I wrote a speech, recorded myself reading it, and sent in the application, but in the end I wasn’t chosen. The student who was chosen is a brilliant young man doing very important research, and I am as excited for him as I am disappointed not to be chosen. But I decided to share the speech I would have given with all of you. So, without further ado, here it is:
I’d like to start by reading a poem I wrote in honor of my mother.
Work-weary women stand in the doorways of sleeping children’s bedrooms watching smiles faint on their lips pride-full and wondering I made this with my bare hands I cradled this life into being ain’t that a heck of a thing? See, our mamas taught us well these single women working for our best possible future always looking to tomorrow where there may yet be nourishment bread for hungry mouths books for hungry minds labour transformed by love to sustain life. And we came up protected by ancestors these warrior women’s work & sacrifice paved our way towards freedom so now we come to a place where we must also take up this precious mantle the latest generation preparing to push the next towards the mountaintop.
Hello, my name is Tessara Dudley, I am so grateful to be speaking to you tonight. And I want to say this: we made it; because of our parents, our aunties and uncles, our friends, cousins, partners, mentors, our own indomitable spirits, we are here. Tonight, we stand at the end of one road, preparing to embark on a whole new journey. Some of us, myself included, never thought we would reach this moment. This place, this institution, was not meant for us, but we have taken it and made it ours. We have carved out this beautiful space, together. We are making room for justice through our very presence.
For some of us, it’s been a hard road. We’ve been challenged, not by new knowledge and robust intellectual debate, but by the pressures of systemic discrimination and inequity. Some of us have faced microaggressions, struggled to feed ourselves and our families, or experienced loss of health and happiness. It has taken hard work, but we are here celebrating together. Our ability to find and build community is among our greatest strengths.
2 years ago, I didn’t know if I would make it to graduation. After the police violence in Ferguson, I stressed myself sick, swinging between 3 and 13 hours of sleep a night, going and going until I couldn’t anymore. My professors were very understanding, and I got through fall term with Bs, but I spent a month seriously thinking of dropping out. I kept hearing the criticism of academics and academia: we’re too isolated, we don’t do anything to make our communities better, our work isn’t connected to the “real” world. As I saw images of children and disabled people being tear-gassed, it became harder and harder to feel like my work here mattered. I had a deep internal crisis that year. Two things kept me going: the love of my family and friends, and the amazing, affirming support of my professors. Without my professors in Black Studies and the advocacy of the Disability Resource Center, I wouldn’t be on this stage today and, again, I’m so thankful for the collective work that has gotten me here.
Together, we have persevered, and we are not conquered. But is survival enough? What of those who could not be here tonight to cross this stage and be honored by this loving community? What of those who follow us? We are resilient, but there’s more to life than pushing through adversity. How do we build on the work of those who came before us? How do we push our communities into creating a truly equitable society? How do we live our authentic truths in a world that tells people who look like us they have no worth?
We have built a vibrant, inclusive community, but we need to keep pressing outward. There are so many people who want to be here and are prevented by institutional barriers. Racism, gender bias, disablism, classism, documentation requirements, and other barriers keep out students who could benefit from post-secondary education, students who could use that education to benefit their communities, and whose experiences and perspectives would greatly benefit this university. Instead of scarcity, we can adopt an attitude of abundance: our accomplishments are not diminished by the expansion of this space, but are instead enhanced.
If I had left back in 2014, I know I wouldn’t be on the path I’m on now. I wouldn’t have been able to take the history class that busted my world open, and I wouldn’t have gotten the chance to spend a wonderful semester at the University of Ghana, and I wouldn’t have been chosen for this year’s McNair Scholar cohort. I wouldn’t now be preparing to go to grad school, or following my dream of becoming a teacher and researcher. Without the strength and courage I found through this community, I wouldn’t be whole.
No matter where we go after this night, it is time to take this same spirit into our workplaces, our community organizations, and our future academic departments. Wherever we go, we can bring revolutionary insight and bold action. We can press the edges further and further outwards. We can enlarge the circle to make room for the voices being left out.
To revolutionize the world, we cannot let fear stand in our way. Change is hard, and sometimes it’s scary, but as Audre Lorde said, “When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.” Being afraid and doing what must be done anyway is the bravest act of all.
None of us are free until we are all free. Our communities are not whole until we all are present, able to be our whole selves and build the future together.