2016 Valedictory Remarks
2016 Valedictory Remarks
Princeton University, May 31, 2016
Class of 2016, it is a rare joy to be together today, gathered in one place to celebrate whatever it is we’ve called Princeton. Of course, there is not one Princeton: That name does not mean to me what it means to each of you. When I first imagined talking to you today, I was daunted by your exquisite variety. I knew that I could not speak to all of your experiences, and I will not try to do so. But I hope that we can pause to consider this moment of oneness, a moment marking the end of four years that have been rich with difference.
The only Princeton of which I can speak with certainty is my Princeton. Simply put, I've spent my time here encountering other lives in books and acting out other lives on stages. But I didn't realize exactly what that means to me until late in my sophomore year, when I learned a fact that struck me with the force of fiction. I had always known that my grandfather left his family and died young. What I hadn't known, for twenty years of my life, was that he left because he was gay and that he died of AIDS in New York City in 1986. The story had been silenced at some point, well before I was born, for reasons that I have learned how to comprehend and to forgive.
In an uncanny turn of fate, I heard the truth while I was working on a concert to benefit an organization that supports AIDS research and patient care. I learned then that stories that seem distant can strike chords that are dear and deep within us; I learned that empathy keeps close quarters with self-care. As I told a story that I thought belonged to others, I instead faced a ghost of my own. Against the hush of history, a hush that has smothered the stories of thousands like my grandfather, our ensemble sang and summoned that ghost from its silence. Now as then, I am grateful to those who gave their voices to a story that needed speaking, no matter how far it might have seemed from their own. They did not know how near it was to me, but they helped me heal.
As I speak to you today, I wonder what speech can do to ease the ache of silence. I've been dwelling on something that Professor Jeff Dolven, one of my mentors in English, wrote to me this year: "What literature always asks is, who gets to read; who gets to think this way; for those of us who care about it, what are the real conditions that make it possible for others?" I take reading here to mean the chance to learn, to reflect, to engage with concerns apart from one’s subsistence and safety. That only occurs at a confluence of historical, cultural, and material conditions. Not everyone has the luxury of spending a day with a book.
Similar conditions apply to the possibility of speech, and so I want to ask us today: Who gets to speak? I know that what I get to do on this morning is a privilege and an opportunity. I do not take the chance lightly, especially in a year when free expression has been the subject of such frequent debate in American universities. For today, I'm less interested in the freedom of speech than I am in what we decide to do with that freedom, once we feel that we have it. Any conversation about free speech must acknowledge the relentless pressures that keep suppressed the voices of those already disenfranchised. When it comes to free speech, we do not start with a level playing field.
This year, some of our classmates have stood up, spoken out, and declared that no one should have to suffer under the silence that is so often the burden of a marginalized identity. I support and I thank those students, who have shown me the most urgent purpose of speech: to make audible the inaudible, to hold up the hurts that history has left unheard. Of course, there is more to be said. There will always be more to be said. Even after we leave this place, I hope that we will keep talking and keep trying to say what we haven't yet.
No doubt, the degree you receive today will afford you opportunities to speak when and where others cannot. It is my hope that you will speak in ways that are meaningful and true to you, but it is also my hope that you will do so with close attention to the world towards which you send your voice. As we fixate on the right to speak, we cannot forget its attendant imperative: to listen. I hope that all of us might listen to others with compassion, with care, and with a keen awareness of the responsibility that we carry as speakers. Because the truth is that we never speak only for ourselves. The things that we say, and the things that we do not say, change the lives around us.
In one of my favorite moments from Virginia Woolf’s "Mrs. Dalloway," Clarissa Dalloway imagines herself as "part of people she had never met; being laid out like a mist between the people she knew best, who lifted her on their branches as she had seen the trees lift the mist, but it spread ever so far, her life, herself." Clarissa finds her way towards that last word — herself — only through other people, whether they are those she knows best or those she has never met. Clarissa inspires me to see how my life might extend towards other lives, in ever swelling and shifting arrangements; she urges me to look for myself in a man I never met — in a life that ended before my life began.
Once I encountered the truth about my grandfather, I found that my story could not stop with me. I had to engage with his life — however distant and different — before I could know how it fit into my own. I would not have been able to do that without those who were there to lift me, just as — in Woolf's words — "the trees lift the mist." What both Clarissa Dalloway and my grandfather remind me is that we find and we form ourselves, always, in how we choose to relate to others. And how we relate so often starts with how we talk to each other. If we listen, and if we use our voices well, we have the power to hear each other and to make each other heard. With enough work, I believe, we have the power to move each other towards justice, towards hope, towards grace, towards love.
Class of 2016, thank you for four years of remarkable conversation. As you go out of FitzRandolph Gate, hopefully for the first time, tell your stories, listen to the stories of others, and mind the many ways — often unexpected — in which they speak to each other. I look forward to talking.