Commencement 2017: Speeches - Kenya Barris
Commencement Address to the Class of 2017
May 21, 2017
Umm, everyone can calm down; you’re at the right place. This is not the Black graduation. I’m supposed to be here.
I saw people walking out, having neck tattoos, and people thinking this might be the Tufts Prison Reform Commencement Speaker Program, but you just truly are at a progressive university.
I, like you, am recovering from a wild night of partying. Last night I went to a party at your university president’s house, and it was lit. I only avoided waking up from a splitting headache because around midnight things started getting weird. Here’s a lesson I learned: when a bunch of retired billionaires begin mixing red and white wine and start asking you if you’ve ever seen The Wire, it’s time to go.
Good afternoon. I’d like to thank President Monaco, the Board of Trustees, faculty and administration for having me here today. I’d also like to send a special thank you to all the parents for allowing me to share in this momentous occasion with you today. With your support, you’ve gotten your child or loved one through a major milestone, and for that, give yourself a pat on the back and indulge in some form of legal or soon-to-be-legal celebratory substance. You deserve it.
OK, now that we got that out of the way. What’s up Tufts’ Class of 2017! You guys did it. This is a big day.
I’m back in Boston. I haven’t been here since my wife went to med school at BU. This is the whitest city I’ve ever seen. There were days I’d walk around Harvard Square without ever seeing a single Black person. I had to call my boys back at home like, we’re still OK right? We’re good, it’s a thing, we’re OK?
And I never really felt real cold before I came to Boston. I’m not even sure this city is safe for human occupation. I remember days when the hair gel in my hair would freeze between the time that I walked out of my apartment to the time I got to my car. Snot stalactites would be hanging from my nose. It’s just a god-awful city. I mean, thank you, thank you for having me. But I can say as I look around in terms of racial balance, you guys have done a pretty good job at Tufts. Although there’s still work to always be done.
I have to be honest with you guys, I have been so nervous about giving this speech. I haven’t had a solid bowel movement in weeks. I thought about cancelling to be honest with you. I spent more time the last two weeks thinking of excuses than actually writing this speech. I started googling rare diseases that come and go within a weekend. Allergies that presenting themselves after the age of 40. And then I thought to myself, I should just not show up. I mean, what are they gonna do? What could they actually do to me? And then I thought about your president’s name, Tony Monaco, which although it probably doesn’t, could have mafia ties. I started fearing having lit towels hanging out of my gas tank. And although I drive a Tesla, the thought of it still sent fear through me.
So I decided to go through the agonizing process of writing this speech, a word of which none of you will ever remember.
I mean to be honest with you, this is an amazing privilege. To coming from where I came from, going through what I’ve been through, to get a chance to do this speech at a university like Tufts; you don’t pass that up.
I have a daughter who is actually about to start college, and I started thinking, what would I want someone to tell her on the day before she started off into the world? The thought of that. The day before she starts off in the world, someone gets to give her a piece of advice. It really stuck with me. That’s a huge responsibility.
So anyway, after my wife caught me crying on the couch for the fifth day in a row, she told me to stop what I was doing, and go on YouTube and see what other people had done before me. As usual, this was an awful piece of advice from my wife. I went on there and it made me feel even worse. Have you guys heard J.K. Rowling’s? It is amazing! I mean, way better than this one’s gonna be. You guys really should’ve gotten her.
And to make it worse, President Monaco’s persistent University office kept calling and asking for a copy of my speech. I thought about typing it up in wing-dings and telling him it had gotten corrupted. But I’ve partied with Tony, so I knew that wouldn’t work.
So on the seventh day of crying, my wife found me on the couch, and she gave me a less awful piece of advice. It was something I had told her and my kids many times before. She told me to sack-up, get up here, do my best, and importantly, be myself.
And that’s when it hit me. The only time my wife gives me good advice is when she says my advice back to me.
What also hit me is that, in all actuality, the only thing that’s ever really worked for me is being me. And I think if there’s any real advice that I can give you today, that’s what it’s gonna be. Be you. And that doesn’t mean don’t look to improve yourself or grow or be better. It just means look inside, remember who you are, remember what your parents taught you, remember the things you’ve learned from experiences with the friends you’ve made here and along the way, and remember the lessons you’ve learned, some from failure and some from success, during your time at this great university. Because those are the things that make you, you.
Now I know being yourself sounds like a pretty lame and simple thing to do, but it’s not. It’s actually much easier said than done.
You see, for the longest time in my life I was trying to be someone I wasn’t. As a Black TV writer, I was in a vastly majority white world. I was embarrassed, because I felt like I was so different from everyone else I was working with. I grew up poor in a family that was filled with love but also a lot of tragedy. We lost my brother, David, after a two-year battle with leukemia right before his fourth birthday. We lost our home, and although it wasn’t much, it was all that we owned, in a fire caused by a massive California earthquake. And on top of that, I had an abusive father. In fact, while my mom was pregnant with me she had her mouth wired shut from a broken jaw she suffered at his hands. The entire time she was carrying me she was drinking 1970s enriched medical protein shakes through a straw, hoping and praying she was getting enough nutrients to grow a healthy baby. Looking at me, I think it’s clear, she did not.
It was during this time in my childhood that I developed my love for books. Characters and stories took me to places I had never been, and let me meet people I would never meet. That’s when I knew I wanted to be a writer. Because for me, those writers and the worlds they created really did save my life.
Growing up, because of the things going on at home, I remember having a hard time making friends. I was shy and unsure of myself. I just wanted to fit in. And the best thing I thought I could do was to be anyone beside myself. I became a chameleon. If football was your favorite sport, it was my favorite sport too. Even though I knew nothing about football, I’d go home, grab my grandmother’s newspaper and learn everything I could about it that night and come back to school to talk to you about it the next day. You into Billy Joel? That’s crazy, me too. Next day at school I’m strutting like Christie Brinkley and whistling “Uptown Girl.” This was who I was. I became a master at it. My plan was simple. Be the guy people like. Be the guy people hated. Be anybody but me.
After getting out of college, nothing had changed. I still wasn’t sure of myself, but I knew I still wanted to be a writer. I wasn’t sure what kind, but I thought TV was the way for me. So after a lot of years of PA’ing and assisting, which in Hollywood is code for getting cars washed, babysitting kids, and even dropping off your boss, Ed Weinberger’s stool sample to his colorectal specialist, I finally become a television writer. I bounced around a lot on a lot of unsuccessful shows over different years and then finally, I got what I thought was my big break on a CBS show called Listen up.
It starred Jason Alexander, who at the time had just had an amazing run of success on what was arguably the best show of all time, Seinfeld. CBS had put Listen up in a prime spot on the schedule and assembled a “murderer’s row” if you will of writers to do the show, which was based on Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon’s ESPN show Pardon the Interruption. It was gonna be great. Or so I thought. That shit was a complete nightmare. I was, as usual, the only Black guy in the room. Something itself I wasn’t uncomfortable with. I’d actually gotten used to it. But for whatever reasons, my chameleon superpowers didn’t work here. As much as I tried, I couldn’t keep up. I had none of the same references or life experiences as any of the other writers, from Noam Chomsky to Neil Young, from Hebrew school to hockey, I didn’t know what the hell they were talking about.It was like we were from two completely different planets.
It seemed like the only time they cared about my voice was when they would ask questions like ‘Kenya, how would a black guy say ‘good morning.’’’ I would look at them and say “Probably like that, dude.” That’s what I should’ve said. But instead, I was so happy to be included in the conversation, I’d just make stuff up like, “Whattup ma?” Or “Goody mo’, fam bam.” Needless to say, I was quickly fired from that job.
That show was a wakeup call. I knew I’d never fit into that world. If I wanted to make it I’d need to create my own show. So I started writing and shooting pilots. Nineteen in fact. One after another they got passed on. I remember writing a pilot about a Catholic priest who has a long-lost son from his days before the clergy as a high-priced gigolo. The show was called Father Father. I wrote a show about a couple who met dating online called rom.com; a show about a long distance trucker with narcolepsy, the Untitled Sleepy Trucker Project. None of them saw the light of day.
I couldn’t figure it out, I was selling pilots, but I couldn’t get anything on air. And to my mind, all the pilots I was selling, in addition to being masterfully named, looked just like shows I was seeing on television, yet none seemed to resonate or go the distance.
Then, after 19 failed pilots, I wrote Black-ish and finally I got the call -- it was going on TV. I couldn’t believe it. What made this show different? Then it hit me; Black-ish was about me. About my family. And subsequently the honesty of that personal story spoke to a lot more people than everything else. All this time I had been trying to be other people and do what I thought other people wanted to see from me. But in the end, what ended up succeeding was a show that let me be honest and true and most of all, let me be me.
In fact, that attitude is the attitude that I tell my writing staff to come into work with everyday. Be yourself. Think you might be a little racist? All good. Don’t know if you’re a sexist pig or not? Don’t worry about it. Homophobic? OK with me. I tell them to bring all that stuff into work, be willing to share it; come in and be themselves. See, that’s where the best stories come from. From people from different walks of life, just talking, honestly.
A great example of a how a seemingly nothing moment can turn into a great story happened in the room when I mentioned I had to leave early to go get a haircut. My white partner, Jonathan Groff, a very brilliant and talented TV writer who created, amongst many shows, Happy Endings, and was a Jeopardy! grand champion, asked why I needed haircut when I had just gotten one last week. I looked at him and said, “Yeah Jonathan, I get my haircut every week. That’s how it stays this short. Have you been thinking my hair just stays like this?” I looked in his face and could tell he definitely did. I then curiously asked how often he gets his haircut, to which he told me once every three of four months. “You get your haircut once every three or four months?! That’s only three times a year!” I was shocked. We were like brothers after doing this show together, yet we did not know this simple thing about each other’s culture. How did this happen? The answer is simple; because we’d never asked.
It was that one-minute conversation that became one of the funniest episodes of the show. And to be honest, that’s a reflection of how the show came to be in the first place. I looked around, and even though we had a Black president, we were seemingly talking about race less than ever. I guess we thought racism and all our other problems were solved. But it wasn’t. We just weren’t talking about it. And not talking about things made them worse than ever. It got us as a country to where we are today. And where we are today is a scary time for a lot of people. In fact, where we are today led me to write not only one of the most personal episodes of television ever done, but I really believe one of the most important things I have ever done as a writer.
This past year I wrote an episode of Black-ish called “Lemons.” I wrote it in a weekend. I changed the production schedule of our show. I got the cast to quickly learn the script and we were able to put out an episode within weeks of the inauguration. The episode was so personal to me because it dealt with a feeling we were all dealing with; uncertainty. The main character, Dre, played by Anthony Anderson, had a moment where he was addressing both sides, red and blue of our country, on the uncertainty of the future, saying that the only actual way we were going to make a difference was for us to stop complaining, stop name-calling and to actually start having conversations with each other, and stand together to make a difference.
This piece of advice Dre gives, along with that feeling of uncertainty, I think is particularly poignant for where you guys are sitting right now. This is a crazy world you’re entering. As I sit here and look at you guys in these seats today, I see the looks of excitement and joy masking what I know has to inside to be a sense of uncertainty. I wish I could tell you that whatever uncertainty you’re feeling was just butterflies, and that it’ll all be OK. But I can’t. As the graduating class of 2017, you have the uniquely proprietary burden of actually being the first graduating class to truly “Make America Great Again.” I can’t think of a time since the Vietnam War… I can’t honestly think of a time since the Vietnam War that a graduating class has had more on its shoulders than you all.
As one should remember, the only person that you really have personal control over of not letting you down is you. The world is gonna try and turn you into someone else. Don’t let it. The idealism, the fear, the honesty that your generation is living with today is a treasure. You can bend, but don’t break. You’re going to hear a lot of different opinions of who you should be and what you should think, but your job is to drown all that out, drown that noise away. Just stick to being you.
If you do that, I promise you, anything is possible.
I mean, if a C-student with a neck tattoo can be giving your commencement speech and a six-time bankrupt former steak-selling reality star can be President of the United States, then literally anything is possible.
So go out and make it happen.
Congratulations Class of 2017.