This piece was originally submitted as a speech for the Class of 2021’s Commencement.
Hello, my fellow graduates, friends, families, and honored guests. My name is Wassa Bagayoko, and it is my distinct honor and deep pleasure to address you this morning.
I would like to start this address with a land acknowledgment. For those unfamiliar with land acknowledgements, they are statements that recognize Indigenous peoples and their ongoing relationships with their homelands. Land acknowledgements can offer moments of reflection on both the pervasiveness of settler colonialism and the resilience of Native peoples. Today, we acknowledge that Brown University currently resides on the traditional homelands of the Narragansett and Wampanoag peoples and was built by the hard work of not only these Indigenous peoples but also of the many enslaved Africans who cultivated this land. We recognize and respect their enduring relationships to this place — past, present, and future.
When I think of Brown, I like to consider the first thing that caught my attention during my high school visit: our motto. In Deo Speramus, In God We Hope. I’ve always been enchanted by this phrase. Like most Americans, I’ve grown accustomed to “In God We Trust,” which seems more definitive. Trust feels more grounding, more intractable. Hope, conditional and pliable.
For some, trust and hope are the same: an unyielding commitment to faith. For others, hope is more fluid, appearing when circumstances and mental fortitude allow it. Hope is a complicated and deeply personal thing, and I cannot begin to define it for everyone. But I can share my perspective.
Personally, I like to consider the words of educator, curator, and prison abolitionist Mariame Kaba. She believes that hope is a discipline. I find comfort in her words and the idea that hope is something we can build. It is something we must intentionally practice and nurture, for it is not a given. So, I like to think we are the crafters of our own hope. And however, you like to think of hope, I think we can all agree that this past year has tested it.
I like to think we are the crafters of our own hope. And however, you like to think of hope, I think we can all agree that this past year has tested it.
On January 7, 2021, the first draft of this speech was due. This was the day after white supremacists stormed the United States capitol in a failed coup attempt. Like many Black women, I was not surprised, but still, I struggled to process what that moment would mean for me, for the people I love, and for this nation. We were in the midst of a deadly pandemic, a long-overdue human rights movement, and suffering through the final days of the Trump presidency, which has emboldened hatred in a way I have never seen before. If the past year has taught me anything, it is that the future can be unpredictable, and in many cases produce the scenarios we fear most.
So where do we find hope in these moments? And who do we turn to?
I am a deeply visual person, so I like to visualize each practice of hope’s discipline as a spool of thread. Remaining true to my dear alma mater and my beloved sorority Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc, each spool is wrapped in an infinite coil of red string. And each time I witness or experience a display of seemingly impossible hope, that spool begins to unwind.
I would like to share a few instances that have given me hope in my time at Brown:
I first found hope in the activism of the Narragansett and Wampanoag peoples, who after centuries of oppression, still found the strength to demonstrate at my convocation four years ago, and radically transformed my understanding of Brown’s and this nation’s history. That was the first spool.
I found hope in the mothers who organized against the Liquified Natural Gas plant in South Providence and testified in front of intimidating committees after a 10-hour shift to denounce this cruel instance of environmental injustice. That was another spool.
I find hope in my classmates who deferred or interrupted their studies to work for political campaigns and empower voters whose voices are too often excluded. I so deeply admire my fellow Brunonians who organize at a local level and sacrifice their time and labour to fight seemingly impossible challenges. The ones who spend countless hours in the Rhode Island state house lobbying with representatives and waiting until the early hours of the morning to testify for a bill. Those moments alone could weave a small piece of cloth.
I find hope in the legacy of student activism at this University, which is often led by Black women, trans, and non-binary students, who have put themselves at the forefront of necessary change.
I find hope in my fellow first-generation college students, pioneers I so deeply admire and who I am honored to call my friends. They push me to strive for excellence in all that I do.
The result of these instances and countless others is an invisible and intricate web that reaches beyond a single moment of despair. It is an expansive quilt of fortitude and dedication and something that I like to fall back on in moments where hope feels impossible.
Many of the actors in these cases have shown discipline and courage far beyond what has ever been asked of me. Only a few of these instances produced the results that were desired at the time, and honestly, the pioneers of these actions may not be around to see the fruits of their labor. So how do they find it within themselves to hope for a future they may never see?
It is rumored that the motto printed on U.S. currency, “In God We Trust,” comes from Brown’s own motto. These two institutions, the United States government and Brown University, are ones I will always be tied to. We are told that our institutions, many of which were crafted to exclude marginalized people, should be our beacons of hope, progress and liberation. They are our future. But if there is anything I have learned in my time at Brown, it is that our institutions will never be our saviors nor our liberators. They will inevitably fail to completely accommodate us.
Four years in Providence, Rhode Island has taught me that it is not our institutions, but our relationships and our care for one another that has and will continue to endure. It is those connections, our threads of hope, that will guide us through times of unrest, oppression, and fear.
After a year like 2020, it is easy to wonder where we can possibly find hope. But since reflecting on my four years at Brown, it is almost impossible for me to escape hope’s presence. Hope is a discipline, yes, but it is not one we have to build alone.
Congratulations to the Class of 2021. I sincerely wish my fellow graduates will move forward and find their own sources of inspiration — and in moments of uncertainty, lean back on their threads of hope.