MAXWELL: Many battles ahead for black graduates 

5/26/2004 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper

This is the first year in many that I did not deliver a commencement speech. Two high schools and one college asked me to speak, but I had conflicts. Not to fear, though. Following is the speech I would have delivered if I had been invited to address African-American high school graduates.

Good evening.

This event marks a milestone for each of you, a rite of passage. You now move from being a child to being an adult. From this point forward, society will hold you personally responsible for your decisions and actions. Your parents will not be called in to clean up the mess you have made. You made that mess. Trust me on this one.

I am not being negative on this wonderful occasion. To the contrary, I am going to list, in no strict order, several universal principles that will help you succeed during the many battles ahead of you.

Some of these battles will be life-threatening. So, listen up. Fall asleep if you dare. What I have to say is intended for the graduates _ young people. I am not speaking to parents or other older people who are set in their ways and cannot face the truth. Here goes:

Be realistic about who you are. You are black, and the odds automatically are against you. In most endeavors, you will have to work three times as hard as your white counterparts.

Although you are an actual victim of America’s racism, do not live as a ctim. Assess your life and try to comprehend that you have control over the outcome of much of what happens to you. Obviously, you cannot control everything. But try to avoid giving up control as often as possible. Do not allow stuff, which includes individuals, to control you. Here is something my grandfather told me: “Pretend you’re responsible for everything, good and bad, that happens to you. In that way, you can change things. You don’t try to change things you’re not responsible for.”

Reject peer pressure, especially when it is negative. Do not be afraid to just say “hell no.” You are an adult now, and you need to start thinking for yourself and looking out for your self-interest.

Please do not be afraid to be smart. Being smart is not acting white. Being smart is acting black. Read. Read. Read. Travel. Travel. Travel. Surround yourself with other smart people. In fact, seek them out. Talk with smart people. Listen to them.

As an African-American, you have a duty to become a person of culture. Go to museums of all kind and visit exhibits. Dress up and go to the opera house. Listen to your local orchestra. Never miss a good play at the theater. Make bookstores part of your routine _ your enlightenment and your entertainment. Did I mention the libraries?

Sure, young people will be young people, but try to avoid all self-destructiveness. If you must do some of the bad stuff, such as drinking, do so in moderation. Trust an old goat on this one.

Delay instant gratification, especially when it distracts you from your goals. Try to adopt the long view as often as possible, remembering that good things will come with time, patience and maturity.

Respect the wisdom of rational authority and reject the allure of popular folly. The latest fads, trends and personalities will bombard you. But you need to keep your wits about you and weigh the consequences of following the crowd or jumping on the bandwagon, which might be hurtling over a cliff. Trust your good instincts.

If you do not attend college but enter a technical profession, master your craft and keep an eye on starting your own business, if that is a dream.

If you attend college, become one of those nerdy intellectuals _ one of those uppity blacks _ who gets on people’s last nerve. Indeed, if you must be obnoxious, at least be smart with it.

Lastly, here is one to strive for: Tell the truth so often that your word becomes law.

Well, those are a few principles for success. I could list many more, but this is the biggest night of your lives, and you all do not need to hear me go on forever. No one person will practice of all these principles, but if you take one to heart, I guarantee that you will benefit greatly, and you will bring joy other people.

I want end with three of my favorite quotations on success.

Woody Allen: “Eighty percent of success is showing up.”

Henry Ford: “The whole secret of a successful life is to find out what it is one’s destiny to do, and then do it.”

Elbert Hubbard: “Success is ten percent opportunity and ninety percent intelligent hustle.”

That is a good place to stop. Good night and good luck.