Speaker: Marnay Avant ’18
May 27, 2018
Good morning, everybody! How are y’all feeling, Class of 2018? I’m excited!
So, before we close this chapter in our lives and start the next one, it is only right to thank all the people that have been there with us along the way, because we did not make it to the finish line by ourselves. To our professors, such as Professor Gilkes of African-American studies and sociology, Professor Weisbrot of history, and Professor Seay of government, you have done your part. Five years from now, we may not remember the exact details from your courses, but we will remember the tools that you equipped us with and how you helped us discover our passions. To administrators like Professor Sasaki, Dean McRae, Chaplain Nelson, and Dean Ameer who took care of us with love, and even treated us like family, we are grateful. And finally, to all of our families and friends for your love and guidance throughout the years—we thank you. Specifically, for my mama, wherever you are out there: you taught me what strength, vulnerability, resilience, hard work, humility, and forgiveness looks like. I stand here today grounded in myself because of you. My degree may have my name on it, but I accept it on behalf of you. I hope I made you proud, mama. I love you. We made it. [Crying.] I gotta get myself together.
I think the lyrics of the hip-hop artists Future and Drake, “what a time to be alive,” perfectly captures the last four years at Colby, and also including the moment that we are experiencing right now. We are finishing a chapter of our lives that taught us so much about ourselves and about others. We learned who we are, who we are not, how to persevere, how to ask for help, what we want—although some of us are still figuring that out—how to navigate difficult conversations, and how to let go, to name a few. College honestly brought us some of our brightest but darkest days, and we should be proud of successfully finishing this rollercoaster-like journey.
When I came to Colby four years ago, I had no idea what to expect. I left the comfort of my hometown of Saint Louis, Missouri—by myself—to come 1,366 miles to Waterville, Maine, in pursuit of a higher education. I cannot lie, these four years challenged me in so many ways. Being black, low-income, and first-generation-to-college at an elite school ain’t easy. However, I found a way to leave an impact on campus as a mentor, a friend, a budding academic, and a leader.
If you think back, we honestly endured and survived a lot: all-nighters (especially if you’re like me. I mean how else do you think I finished this speech? No, but I’m serious.); the brutal snowstorm of our freshman year that made administrators call a snow day for the first time in almost 17 years (that is the year that I learned there’s a difference between Missouri wind and Maine wind); Dog Head, barely … and no, I never, ever thought about swallowing a goldfish; Dana food (no shade to Sodexo or Bon Appetit, who we have now, but those Dana burgers? That’s a whole ‘nother story); and waking up on Sunday mornings only to find out that some drunk knuckleheads smashed the vending machines. (Dorm vandalism was and will never be cool. I’ma repeat that one more time: Dorm vandalism was and will never be cool!) Studying abroad, which I had an amazing time in Ghana and Uganda; apartment parties; transition in administration, faculty, staff; and even shortcomings of ourselves and the Colby community.
So, now we are here, at commencement, supposedly ready to “commence” or begin a new life-chapter beyond college. The big question for many of us is what will come next? Some of us know exactly what our next steps are, some of us are conflicted, and some of us have literally no idea. Regardless of where you are on that spectrum, I’ma tell you, it will be okay. My wish for each and every one of us is that we will practice what Barbara Love, a social justice education professor at the University of Massachusetts, calls a “liberatory consciousness,” not only in the next chapter of lives but for the rest of our lives.
We live in a world where injustice is ubiquitous, and it is a liberatory consciousness that will give us the tools to navigate oppressive systems with awareness and intentionality, the tools to fight and to change systems that thrive on fabricating and targeting “the other,” the tools to imagine what liberation, equity, and justice looks like.
Dr. Love outlines four components of a liberatory consciousness: awareness, analysis, action, and accountability/allyship.
The first step, awareness, requires us to notice. We need to pay attention to what is going on around us. This requires us to ask ourselves what power structures are at play in any given situation. For example, many of us are entering the workforce. If you hear or see a coworker being biased towards another coworker because of religion, sexuality, gender, race, ability, etc.—you should take notice of this and not pretend like it didn’t happen.
The second step, analysis, asks us to think about what can be done in a situation. Sometimes, we have more than enough time to think about possible actions and their outcomes, while other times we only have a few seconds. Regardless of the time frame, we need to think about and process what is happening around us to know whether or not to take action, to speak up, or to stand down.
The third step, action, requires us to think about what action needs to be taken and to follow through with that action, then seeing that we take that action. Sometimes, we need to take initiative. Sometimes, we need to encourage others to take initiative. And other times, we will support others by helping them feel empowered and directing them to resources that will aid and support them.
The final step, accountability and allyship, means not only that we learn how internalized racism, sexism, classism—you can name ’em—subconsciously and consciously affect our lives, but also, most importantly, that we agree to actively interrupt and do away with these systems of power. It means accepting accountability to self and communities from local to global levels for both our actions and inactions. Because sometimes, our action or inaction can determine life or death.
I challenge all of you to join me in committing to practicing a liberatory consciousness. It is not a noun but rather a verb. When I call on you to practice a liberatory consciousness, I do it with a sense of urgency because, from my perspective, taking action for the greater good of people is less a choice than it is an ethical and moral imperative. Racism, sexism, classism, and transphobia to name a few did not create themselves. People did. Only if we commit to fighting against these structures will we be able to potentially say that one day we live in a just society. Sometimes, we may fall short in our practice, but I hope that the possibility of liberation and justice for our communities and for our world will make us get back up and keep fighting.
I will leave y’all with some words of wisdom from Cornel West whom I had the pleasure of meeting when he came to campus almost two months ago:
“It takes courage to interrogate yourself. It takes courage to look in the mirror and see past your reflection to who you really are when you take off the mask, when you’re not performing the same routines and social roles. It takes courage to ask—how did I become well-adjusted to injustice?”
I hope that wherever life takes each of us—whether that be on Capitol Hill, Wall Street, a classroom, a nonprofit, or a research lab—that we will all dig deep inside ourselves to find that courage: The courage to have a liberatory consciousness in a world that encourages bliss wrapped in racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, classism, ableism, xenophobia, and materialism.
The courage to acknowledge and accept responsibility when we fall short to challenging these systems.
The courage to develop a radical imagination that allows us to envision what a just society looks like.
The courage to feel like we, as individuals, but also as local and global communities, have the POWER and AGENCY to create and sustain change for a world liberated from oppression and hate, where all people live with dignity, freedom, and justice.
So, I thank you, Class of 2018, from the bottom of my heart, for choosing me as our class speaker. I am incredibly proud of each and every one of you, and I wish you all the best. Please dedicate your lives to practicing a liberatory consciousness. And if you didn’t know already, black lives matter. [Raises fist in the air.] Thank you.