Hello USC Class of 2021! Welcome and Congratulations! My name is Tianna Shaw-Wakeman, and I recently found out that after 140 years of operations, I stand before you as USC’s first Black University Valedictorian. To me, this revelation stands as a testament, albeit small, to both how far we’ve come as an institution, as a country… and how far we have to go. Before we get into the future, let’s talk about the past – my past.
My parents were outwardly star-crossed lovers who married in 1995 at a time and in a place that didn’t support their union. They experienced the judgement and hate indicative of our county’s history of slavery, racial segregation, and the vestiges of anti-miscegenation laws. So you might ask, and some have, why did they marry, why did they have kids? Why did they choose a life that put them directly in the middle of the racial struggles in our country? Truthfully – they didn’t choose. They didn’t choose to exist within a society where some deemed their love to be wrong because of the color of their skin… any more than I chose to live in a world that deems people who look like me to be deserving of police brutality, to be less important.
None of us chose to live in a world consumed by racial injustice, but we all do. Now we can choose how we navigate in it. We can choose to do the work of learning about our country’s history, to do the work of rooting out racism in ourselves and the communities we inhabit, and if you identify as being a part of a minority group like me, we can choose to love ourselves, and be gentle with ourselves despite what society tells us.
This past year, in the midst of COVID-19, we experienced how quickly and ferociously hate can spread and become its own pandemic – but we can choose not to be a part of it. In our future careers, future families, and future relationships we can choose to use the best parts of ourselves to see the best parts in everyone else.
Now, to my family, thank you for being a constant example of how incredibly powerful love is and for supporting me throughout my USC journey. To my mentors, professors and advisors, thank you for being so open with your time and care. To my fellow Graduates, congratulations! – you’ve all given so much to be here, and you made it through this year that felt like a lifetime! I hope you soak in the bliss of this moment and, if your vaccinated of course, hug the people you love and haven’t seen in over a year.
But …. I don’t think we just have a responsibility to not spread hate, we also have a responsibility, or rather the privilege, to give – so every single day of your lives I ask you to give kindness, not malice. Give support, not judgement. Give compassion, not aggression. But if you come face-to-face with hate, be as strong as I believe my parents were 26 years ago.
Fight for a world where future generations won’t have to keep making the same kinds of choices, in the same environment, that we do. I promise you – I’ll be there fighting on with my fellow Trojans. Thank you!