Address by Anna Deavere Smith

Commencement 2007 remarks by Anna Deavere Smith, who received the honorary degree of Doctor of Fine Arts.

My few words to you are about community. That’s a word that doesn’t have a lot of teeth, and I think it’s because when we look it up in dictionaries we see that it doesn’t tell us anything about power. Certainly, if you’ve accomplished what you have here, to have graduated from Bates, somewhere you’re interested in power.

The kind of future that’s in front of us, and part of what Dean Kamen has talked about today, is going to require that we work in community and that we work in teams. “Community” will not just mean that which is closest to you, but that which you can reach. And what’s so important is how long your reach is, in terms of how far will you go, either by being present or through technology. But beware, as my good friend Studs Terkel, that great radioman from Chicago, said, “We’re more and more into communications, and less and less into communication!” So just because we can reach through technology, doesn’t mean we’ve really connected.

Sometimes, working in community and teams is going to call for more stamina than you might think of. I’m impressed already with your potential for delayed gratification [laughter]. You’re here to be honored, and I’m sure you really partied and celebrated last night. And you have to hear all us speak before get your prize. But when I think of stamina, I think about Brent Williams, a bull rider whom I met in Idaho, who talked about hanging on the bull even if you’re riding upside-down. You’re going to hang onto that bull until your head hits the dirt.

The reason that community and reach and stamina are so important now is that many of us have been educated to celebrate our own identities, to celebrate that which we understand because that’s what we came from. I like to think about us existing in what I call “safe houses of identity.” There’s the black woman’s house, the white woman’s house, the educated person’s house, the illiterate person’s house. I suggest to you that you come out of your safe houses of identity, even as your education may have rightfully nurtured you in the archives of those identifies. Come out of that into a space that I call “the crossroads of ambiguity,” where there is no house, where it is not safe.

I’ve talked to my students about resilience, about what the bull rider is trying to teach us, where there is no roof and where you might make a brand-new house with someone who doesn’t speak a language that you speak. Living this way is going to call for a greater sense of mobility, and in that mobileness also keeping the kindness that Dr. Carle has talked about, the music that Dr. Harris has talked about, your sense of humor, and, mostly, never to think you know where you are.

When I arrived here yesterday to the Hilton — and I’ve seen more Hilton hotels that you want to know about — I didn’t even bother opening the curtains. I was sure I would look at a parking lot or another building. Right before I went to bed, I thought that I better open the curtains, to make sure I wake up. When I woke up, I saw that extraordinary waterfall that you have here. And so, even at the moment we think we know something, if we stop to open the curtain, to open our eyes, to open our hearts in another way, there just might be that waterfall. And that waterfall might just lead us to lead us to a new thought or a new spirit.

Be strong, be new, be you. The “be new” is even more important than the “be you.” Congratulations.