In a measured poetic cadence, University of New Orleans alumnus and Pulitzer-prize winning poet Jericho Brown urged the fall graduating class of 2021 to “be radical” and to recognize the gift that is their own unique talent to give to the world.
“I don’t care if you build furniture. Can you be to furniture building what Serena Williams is to tennis? I don’t care if you ballroom dance. Can you waltz the way Toni Morrison wrote novels? Whatever you do, do it all the way.”
Brown was the principal commencement speaker for the undergraduate student ceremony held Friday, Dec. 10 in the UNO Lakefront Arena. The University held two commencement ceremonies, a graduate student ceremony at 11 a.m. and the undergraduate student ceremony at 2 p.m.
The 860 candidates who were eligible to participate in the ceremonies represented 26 U.S. states and territories, and 24 countries around the globe.
Brown, a professor of creative writing and director of the creative writing program at Emory University in Atlanta, holds a bachelor’s degree from Dillard University, a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from UNO and a doctorate in literature and creative writing from the University of Houston.
He earned a 2020 Pulitzer Prize in poetry for his poetry collection “The Tradition,” published by Copper Canyon Press.
On Friday, President John Nicklow awarded Brown an honorary doctorate.
“His stature as a renowned and celebrated poet who has received some of the world’s most prestigious awards, his preeminence as an educator of creative writing, and his status as an alumnus of the University of New Orleans warrant the granting of a Doctor of Humane Letters,” Nicklow said.
During his speech, Brown called on the graduates to be radical before reciting a list of progressive change agents that included Nelson Mandela, Jesus, Philip Vera Cruz, Dolly Parton, Sitting Bull, Steve Jobs and Marsha P. Johnson.
“Be radical or be ready to get out of our radical way,” Brown said. “No, I have not come here to incite you to riot. I know it is possible to love a nation and pay taxes to a nation knowing that same nation intends to suppress my vote. How can we ever reconcile these? You reconcile it by giving the gift only you can give, by doing what you love so well that I end up inspired by the fact that you did it. We need you and need what you do! And we need you to look at the future knowing the past.”
Brown later expounded on his definition of radical.
“To be radical is to be inclusive, to love beyond class and sexuality and region,” Brown said. “Be radical. I’m counting on you. We quite literally need you to survive.”
Brown, who earned his MFA while working full-time, also paid tribute to the sacrifices many of the graduates made over the years in order to wear their commencement regalia on Friday.
“At least one of us has seen your parents work blisters into their hands so that you might be able to go to college. At least one of us heard that by this time you’d be in prison. At least one of us has endured the illness and death of a loved one,” Brown said. “At least one of us has a mother who kept your children because you needed to go to the library and finish a paper. At least one of us has spent the last four years working at a job where you can’t leave until 5 o’clock, and in spite of the fact that the job was in Algiers, you always made it to campus without a speeding ticket and were seated in class with your book open by 6 p.m.
“All of us made it to this point because we had enough trust in our God or our family or our professors or ourselves,” Brown said.
Newly minted UNO graduates Ngan Tran and Joella Peterson are examples of that fortitude.
Tran, who earned a graduate degree in accounting with an emphasis in auditing, attended class while raising two young children ages, 4-and 5-years-old.
“I got a message from a friend this morning and she said I deserve this 10,000%,” Tran said laughing. “It means a lot. I have two small kids and it was difficult for me to get to this day.”
Peterson, who earned her bachelor’s degree in elementary education, described her graduation day as a “rebirth.”
“I’m 47 and I’m graduating cum laude,” Peterson said. “I went back to school after 20 years, raised five kids, put them through school. Nobody but God, that’s what this is!”
As she waited for the ceremony to start, Peterson stood smiling and laughing with classmate and fellow college of education graduate Emily Sammartino.
Sammartino, who said she has accepted a job as a special education teacher in St. Charles Parish, wore a decorative mortarboard with the words: “You have no idea how high I can fly.”
“I choose that quote because it shows great determination and strength to move on from one thing and know that something better is coming,” Sammartino said. “I’ve been crying all morning … I’m excited to graduate because I know I can start my job and now be the educator. So, this is a very big day for me!”
The arena stands were filled with friends and relatives of the graduates, who waved posters and pictures, applauded and shouted out words of affirmation or employed the use of an air horn to express their love and pride.
In turn, in keeping with the celebratory atmosphere, the graduates waved excitedly, gave thumbs up, posed for quick pictures and, in some instances, danced across the stage. And, in keeping with a culture that is uniquely New Orleans, the ceremony culminated with a brass band and second-line parade from the arena floor as confetti drifted down from the ceiling.