Jesmyn Ward

2018 Keynote Address

Good morning.

It is an honor and a pleasure to be here, sharing this momentous day with you.

Before I begin, I want to thank President Fitts, the faculty, staff, and everyone at Tulane University who made it possible for me to be here.

I grew up in a poor, rural, mostly Black community in Mississippi.

Both sides of my family, my mother’s and my father’s, have lived there for generations.

When my grandmother was a child, first she studied at a one room school her father built to provide schooling for black children, and then later she walked two miles to a school next to the local catholic church, where she studied basic math and reading and writing.

When she wasn’t in school, she worked in her father’s fields, weeding and picking.

My grandmother’s schooling ceased when she was 13: there was no curriculum for high school education, no teacher for it, in the 1940s.

After she left school, my grandmother worked many jobs to support herself and her children.

She was determined her children would finish high school.

Four of her children, including my mother, graduated.

Three of her children did not. None of them graduated college.

My grandmother thought that if her children finished high school, they wouldn’t have to work as hard as she did; she thought they wouldn’t have to labor as housekeepers or as maids.

But her kids' lives were as hard as hers. They too scrubbed motel restrooms, mopped floors, served at lavish parties. Their lives seemed to tell the same story hers did.

When I was young, all of the adults in my life were drifting from job to job or wrestling with substance abuse.

With that peculiar certainty the young possess, I believed their lives told the stories of their youthful foibles: I believed the drudgery of their lives the result of one colossal wrong choice: in my head, the decision to leave school.

They worked one dead end job after another, or were chronically unemployed, living from paycheck to paycheck.

I was determined that this would not happen to me, that I would not live the rest of my life in my small, rural town, scrabbling for resources, working myself to the grave.

One of the most important life lessons I thought I learned at the end of my high school career was this: the choices you make as an adolescent will determine your entire life.

So I studied.

On Friday and Saturday nights, I poured over college admission applications, worked on my essays, answered questionnaires, did anything I could to get into a good university that would provide me with a way out of the narrow future I felt tightening around my neck, threatening to choke me.

That sense of discipline and studiousness was a good thing; it meant I understood the value of hard work.

But I was looking at the situations of the people I love dimly, judging their educational choices without asking myself what realities narrowed their choices, what circumstances limited what they could aspire to.

I didn’t understand that the legacy of history and generational poverty and intergenerational trauma meant most of them asked themselves these questions when they were teenagers:

Do I continue to go to school or should I work?

Should I buy propane and wood or should I freeze?

Should I eat or should I starve?

I didn’t understand that writing a different story for myself meant I not only had to make wise choices, plural, but have the gift of luck and better circumstances as well. I didn't understand that my mother and father had given me an outrageous gift, because I didn't have to choose between eating and my education. 

I didn’t understand any of this when I matriculated to Stanford.

All I saw was the promise of my one perfect choice.

The promise inherent in education. 

I was the child of cleaning women and bootleggers, factory workers and landscapers.

Of course the people in my family taught me this narrative when I was a child; of course they believed in learning as strongly as I did, given that education seemed a magical key that would open the door to a life not bound by poverty, not restricted by the circumstances of birth.

My mother held the truth of this tenant close to her when she scrubbed floors.

My grandmother held it fast while she stood on an assembly line for ten hour shifts, doing quality control on seemingly endless processions of bottles of Pepto Bismol and Maalox.

And they told it to me, nearly every day of my entire life, before meals, before bedtime, repeated it like a prayer: You will go to college.

The subtext was this: you will be free of this drudgery, this tragedy, this mill.

You will be free. I believed them.

I believed that one task, going to university, would be the key to changing the narrative, to escaping the legacy of being poor and black and southern.

In college, I wasn’t the standout student I had been in high school; instead, I was decent, even though I worked as diligently as I did before.

University was much harder than high school.

Not only was the work harder, but the sense that I’d had in high school that I could study my way to a better life seemed confused, the relationship between studious effort and success blurred.

Instead of pre-med or law or business, I was drawn to literature and creative writing.

I tried to study other subjects, anxious to see if I would feel the persistent burr of curiosity, the rush of passion and reverence that came when I read poetry and fiction.

I didn’t.

What would I do with this passion for words that would not leave me?

Graduation came and went, and I had no idea.

I applied for job after job, and almost began crying in a Macy’s when the clerk ringing up my purchase told me that he, too, had been an English major in school.

I thought I might try to be a writer one day, but in my early twenties, I was no Yaa Gyassi.

I didn’t even understand what a plot was.

I attempted to write short stories but found myself with pages of extended scenes instead.

My characters were flat and unbelievable. My dialogue was painfully fake.

While my ambitious, savvy, assertive friends who’d majored in economics and political science were being snatched up for jobs, I was applying for positions in marketing and television and journalism and never hearing anything back.

So after I sat where you are now, in my own graduation ceremony, giddy with elation and rigid with dread all at once, I did the only thing I could do, considering I had no job offer and no prospects, and only a passion for something that I wasn’t very good at.

I moved home.

Six months after I moved home, a drunk driver rear ended my brother and killed him.

Everything changed.

I questioned all that I thought I knew, shocked at the unpredictability of life, the irrefutable fact of death.

I realized that a magic job wasn’t going to fall into my lap, that my education was not the only choice to guarantee success, that sometimes life was hard without reason, so I adapted to my changed circumstances, just as generations of my family members had done before me.

I did what I had to do: I applied for holiday work at the local Tommy Hilfiger outlet. I was one of two college graduates who worked in the store.

I was the only one who’d earned a co-terminal master’s degree.

I moved in a fog of grief. I barely talked to my coworkers, instead folding and rearranging a wall of jeans until the skin on my hands turned white and cracked.

I spoke with friends who lived in NYC, and they encouraged me to move there to search for work.

I was desperate, so I moved to NYC and interviewed for a job in publishing.

I worked there for two years.

I wasn’t a very good publishing assistant. I was too depressed at my brother’s leaving, and too distracted by that persistent need to write, even badly.

It was then that I realized completing university was not an ending, but instead was the beginning to finding my way to doing something meaningful. I learned that for most of us, there are no easy, singular ascents.

And I realized I wanted to be a writer.

So I began to do the work, the work that my dream necessitated.

I made an important choice; I took a step.

I read widely.

I read contemporary writers who were strangers to me, and I read classic writers I didn’t read in school.

I did as my grandmother and the people I love in my life did to survive; I adapted.

I made another choice: I took another step.

I wrote bad poems that I hid from others, but I didn’t attempt to write any more short stories because I realized I had only a dim idea of the conversation, unspooling through the centuries, that I was attempting to join by writing literature.

So I read more; for 2 ½ years, I read.

And at the end of that time, I wrote and revised one short story.

I made a choice, took another step. I applied for MFA programs, and was accepted to the MFA program at the great University of Michigan. I made a choice, took another step.

I studied fiction at U of M; I wrote my first novel while I was there.

I realized that becoming a writer would require me to continue to work hard, to face rejection, to make choice after choice that would one day lead me to holding a published book I’d written in my hand.

I realized that education wasn’t one choice; instead, it was a lifetime’s undertaking. As an adult, I understood that finding the kind of life I wanted to live required constant work, constant study, constant risk-taking, and that there were no easy routes to success for people like me.

So for a decade, I made the best choices I could.

I tried not to bow under the weight of rejection.

After Hurricane Katrina roared through my hometown, I moved there and worked as a teacher, and I revised my MFA thesis for three years.

It took that long before a publisher decided to purchase the rights and publish it as a novel.

Through it all, I read and wrote.

Sometimes my stories thrilled readers.

Sometimes my stories bored my readers and they couldn’t even finish reading them.

Whatever the response, I upheld my end of the bargain: I read, wrote, and revised.

I chose education, again and again.

And I submitted my work to the gatekeepers again and again, and I faced rejection again and again.

I made choices, I took steps, and I persisted.

My years in college and afterward taught me this: success is not the result of making one good choice, of taking one step.

Real success requires step after step after step after step.

It requires choice after choice.

It demands education and passion and commitment and persistence and hunger and patience.

And not the easy hunger, like the hunger for sweets, that plagued me so when I was young: for instant success, for a lifetime of reward after four years of effort.

Sometimes, this kind of success happens for young people, people like Zadie Smith and Edwidge Danticat, who are incredible gifted writers who bang out beautiful bestsellers in their late teens and early twenties.

But for so many others, this doesn’t happen. For many others, success comes after hundreds of hours of work and lucky breaks and study and heartbreak and loss and wandering.

As an adult, I learned this: persist. Work hard.

Face rejection, weather the setbacks, until you meet the gatekeeper who will open a door for you. Sometimes you are twenty when you stumble upon an open doorway. Sometimes you are thirty. Sometimes you are forty or fifty or sixty.

I remembered this when I felt like giving up.

When I thought I thought I’d pack all my notebooks and stories into plastic bins and put them away, when I thought I would resign them to the recycling bin.

And I remembered this new lesson I’d learned about persistence and success when I looked again at my parents, my uncles and aunts, all the people in my small rural black community who persisted, even with the promise of less on the horizon.

I looked at them and all the old disdain I’d harbored at their lives dissolved and turned to understanding.

I understood what it meant to do the best you can with what you’ve been given.

For my grandmother, who only had a sixth grade education, this meant educating herself in trades and skills as an adult: she studied to be a seamstress, a nurse’s aid, a hairdresser, so she could support herself and her children.

Success for her came when she was nearly fifty, when she gained a job in a pharmaceutical packing plant with health insurance, competitive salary, enough money so that she didn’t have to struggle to figure out how she would pay her bills, clothe and feed her children.

When I was young, her life looked like failure, a result of bad decisions, something to be averted; when I became an adult, I realized her life couldn’t be described in such glib terms; that life was a tumultuous sea, and that my grandmother had spent her days afloat on a raft, and she’d paddled and bailed water and read the map of constellations in the sky to find land, reprieve, and survive.

Be patient with yourself. 

If you are one of those lucky people who are exceptionally good at an endeavor you’re passionate about, if you possess tireless ambition and keen direction, congratulations!

You will go far and do well.

Your successes will come early and rapidly. If you are not one of those lucky people: if you are bewildered and confused and clinging tenaciously to some course you love, be patient. Work hard.

Hold your dream tightly to you and do everything you can to realize it, within reason.

Take a step that will lead you toward the realization of your dream, and then take another, and another, and another.

Hold fast to your oars. Hoist the sails to the wind. Read the pictures in the stars. Look beyond the horizon, to that which you can’t see but dimly sense in your future: the curving inlet, the sandy beach.

Know that even those calm waters may harbor boulders, craggy rocks intent on rending the bottom of your boat. That when you land, you may find your legs too weak to walk well, still shaky from the sea, and that the soil may have its own perils, know that this is life. But also know that the fruit on the trees, sweet and warm to the mouth, is life as well.

Persist. Be patient. Be well.