OWN - Oprah's Compelling Commencement Speech To TSU Class of 2023

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Friends, faculty, family, and the Tennessee

State University class of 2023.


Who says you can’t go home again?

Because I’m back.

Dr. Glenda Glover is the reason why I’m here,

because she is relentless.

You actually– you don’t know the meaning of no.

And she’s been here a decade and has

been asking me for a decade.

I’ve been to so many graduations since I have 20 daughters

from my school in South Africa have

graduated in the United States.

And I have attended all of their graduations.

And I said, Dr. Glover, I just have

so many graduations to go to.

And she said, you must come.

And I’m so glad I did because–

(SINGING) I’m so glad I go to TSU.

I’m so glad I go to TSU.

I’m so glad I went to TSU you singing glory hallelujah.

I went to TSU.


Thank you all for being here, family and friends

and for my family who all came out today.

I didn’t know I had that many family members.

The whole Winfrey and Walker clan, thank you.

So I’m going to start with a confession.

I was supposed to graduate from TSU in 1975.

But I somehow managed to come up one credit short.

What can I say?

The school taught me many things.

But keeping track of my credits was not one of them.

And to be fair, I did have a lot on my plate at the time.

I was living at my father’s house.

I was commuting from East Nashville every day.

Then I’d get home, and I’d work in my father’s store.

And on, weekends I’d be reading news at WVOL.

So sophomore year, I was majoring in speech

communication and drama.

I’d wanted to be an actress, but my father

had proclaimed that no daughter of mine

is going to be on somebody’s casting couch.

And so I decided, all right, I will teach.

But I was having some challenges, particularly

with my scenic design class.

It was taught by Mr. W. Dewey Cox, who declared in front

of the entire backstage crew where we

had our class in the theater–

and this is a quote–

“Winfrey cannot draw a straight line with a ruler.”

So in his class one day, I got a call.

I got pulled out of Mr. Cox’s lecture

to take a call from Chris Clark, who

was the lead anchor at WLACT Channel Five at the time.

He’s now WTVF.

But he was the news director and lead anchor at Channel Five.

And Chris had heard me on WVOL Radio.

Don’t ask me why Chris Clark was listening

to a Black radio station.

Jesus led him to it, I guess.

Anyway, he called me here at TSU and wanted

to know if I was interested in being in television.

And I said, no, sir.


No, not really, sir, because my father

says I have to finish school, and school

is just too important.

And I doubt that my dad would even let

me do it, something like that.

So Chris told me to just give it some thought

and get back to him.

And when I returned to Mr. Clark’s class,

I repeated what Chris had said to me,

Chris Clark had said to me, that whole conversation.

And I said to Mr. Cox, I don’t think my father

would even consider it.

Now, Mr Cox had a face like the lion from “The Wizard of Oz”

and a demeanor that nobody would ever call warm, or fuzzy,

or comforting.

And he looked at me as if I didn’t have the brains

that God gave lettuce.

And he said, this is why you get an education, fool,

so that CBS, Channel Five will call you.

You and your father ought to know that.

He rolled his eyes.

And As he’s walking away, he said, I’ll tell him myself.

And he did.

So second semester sophomore year

here at TSU, I arranged for all of my classes

to be finished by 2:00 PM.

And from 2:30 to 10:30, I worked at the television station.

That left me just enough time to make it back for my father’s

ironclad 11:00 curfew.

So I am doing the evening news, finished at 10:30.

And my dad is like, better be home by 11:00.

So by graduation, my career was in full swing.

And I didn’t feel the need to pursue a diploma.

But for years, and I mean, long after I started

“The Oprah Winfrey Show,” not a conversation with my father

would pass without him asking, when are

you going to get that degree?

So finally, in 1988, Dr. Jamie Williams– bless her.

She just passed away recently– allowed me to write a paper

and submit some of the shows I had done.

So I got my degree from Tennessee State

right about the same time I got my third Emmy.


So it is true that between the studying,

and the multiple jobs, and all that commuting back and forth,

it took a little longer for me.

But I can promise you that you’re

looking at a very proud graduate of the only state funded

historically Black university in Tennessee.

Home again.


And I will tell you that the last thing I did before getting

into my burgundy Oldsmobile Cutlass and leaving Nashville

was to speak at the Faith United Baptist

Church Women’s Day Celebration.

Bishop, you know Women Day.

And my sermon at the time revolved

around a single thought, and it’s this.

I know not what the future holds,

but I know who holds the future.

And I want to tell you, I’ve been guided by the light

of God’s grace my entire life.

People ask, what’s the secret to my success?

It’s because I lean into His grace

because life is always talking to us.

And this is what I do know.

When you tap into what it’s trying to tell you,

when you can get yourself quiet enough to listen,

I mean, really listen, you can begin

to distill the still small voice, which

is always representing the truth of you

from the noise of the world.

And you can start to recognize when it comes your way.

You can learn to make distinctions,

to connect, to dig a little deeper.

You’ll be able to find your own voice

within the still small voice.

You’ll begin to know your own heart

and figure out what matters most when you can listen

to the still, small voice.

Every right move I’ve made has come from listening

deeply and following that still, small voice, aligning myself

with its power, with the source of power,

so that when I walk into a room just as cool as you please

and the fellas is either stand or fall down on their knees

and they say, that’s a phenomenal woman.

And when I walk into that room, I come as one.

But I stand as 10,000 because everybody

that’s ever come before me walks into that room with me.

My great, great grandfather, Constantine Winfrey,

born an enslaved man and couldn’t write or spell

his name, but 10 years after the Emancipation Proclamation

had learned to read and had picked 10,000 bales of cotton

in exchange for 80 acres of land and became

the first person in my American lineage

to own his own property.

I come as one.

I stand as 10,000 has been my mantra for power

because for so many of my earlier years

when I was the only, I was the only woman,

I was the only person of color, the one nobody expected

to be in the room at the table on the anchor desk co-anchoring

the news here in Nashville in 1975,

walking into boardrooms in the ’80s negotiating

deals to OWN my own show, not just do the show,

but to make as much money from it

as they were going to make off of me.

And at no time did I ever feel out of place, or not enough,

or inadequate, or an imposter.

Do not let the world make an imposter syndrome out of you.


Because I knew who I was.

And more importantly, I knew who’s I was.

I didn’t know the future, but I knew who

was in charge of the future.

And my job, just as your job is, to align

with God’s dream for you.

And my prayer was always, use me.

Use me, God.

Show me how and who you need me to be because this is what I

will tell you, God can dream a bigger

dream for you than you could ever imagine for yourself.

I am living testimony of a lining and living history.

But my job today is to help you to commence to the next part

of your dream odyssey.

So let’s talk about the right moves for that.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how much of your lives

have already been spent grappling

with the extreme complex issues of our time

because you are the generation that is forced to depend

on body cams to obtain justice.

And even then, accountability, as we’ve seen again and again,

can be so hard to come by.

You’ve witnessed the storming of the Capitol

and the death of civility.

You’re acutely aware that voting rights are being gutted,

women’s rights are being dismantled,

books are being banned, history is being rewritten.

The Supreme Court is being corrupted.

The debt ceiling is being held hostage.

The climate is changing.

The LGBTQ community– the LGBTQ plus community is under attack.

The Cold War is back.

The leaders are behaving like children.

The children are being gunned down by military-grade assault


We live on a planet where there is more than enough wrong

to keep you busy trying to make things right for the rest

of your natural life.

And unfortunately, you’re going to encounter people who

will insist that it’s not actually possible to make

any real difference.

But I believe Tennessee has a couple

of Justins just a few miles from here

who would respectfully disagree.

Representatives like Justin Jones and Justin J. Pearson

are using their lives to prove the cynics wrong.

And they’re building on the legacy of giants, mentors

of mine like John Lewis, whose fight for justice

started right here in Nashville and who

now speaks to us from eternity.

Well, this is what I know for sure,

there will never be anything in your life

as fulfilling as making a difference in somebody else’s.

Everybody here wants to see you take your integrity,

your curiosity, your creativity, your guts,

and this newfound education of yours

and use it to make a difference.

Everybody always thinks you got to go

do something big and grand.

I’ll tell you where you start.

You start by being good to at least one

other person every single day.

Just start there.

That’s how you begin to change the world,

by just being good to one other person.

It doesn’t matter if it’s a member of your tribe

or a stranger on the street.

I’m here to tell you that a little act of compassion

can be a lifesaver for somebody who receives it,

but also for you who offers it.

Just extend yourself in love and kindness to somebody.

And as my dear friend Maya always said,

love recognizes no barriers.

It jumps hurdles.

It leaps fences.

It penetrates walls to arrive at its destination full of hope.

And when you step out in love, you become someone’s hope.

And I know that becoming hope in the world won’t always be easy.

There will be times when you get to your wit’s end.

But there’s another old proverb that

says, when you get to your wit’s end, remember,

that’s where God lives.

I would add that when you get to your wit’s end,

it’s also a good idea to remember that you’ve been there

before because we are among the toughest, most resilient

people the world has ever seen.

And I’m just not talking about older generations.

Your generation has masked up and locked down for a pandemic

that ravaged the world.

You, my TSU friends, have trained for complicated times.

And I don’t care how hard life after college gets–

and it’s going to get hard–

we need you to dream big.

We need audacious thinkers.

Use my example.

I was one good TSU teacher, Mr. Cox, and one timely phone call

away from a career that would absolutely change my life.

That story is not just my own.

What dream are you one or two steps away from?

We also need generosity of spirit.

We need high standards, and open minds, and untamed imagination.

That’s how you make a difference in the world, using who you are

and what you stand for to make changes, big and small.

And there will be times when making the next right decision

will be scary.

I’ll tell you a secret.

That’s how I’ve gotten through every challenge

without being overwhelmed, by asking,

what is the next right move?

You don’t have to know all the right moves.

You just need to know the next one.

And it’s OK to be scared.

In fact, if you weren’t scared, I’d be scared for you.

But let me repeat something that the most extraordinary,

certainly, one of the most extraordinary ordinary men

I’ve ever known said.

May your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears.

Let your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears.

To me, that’s a nine-word prayer.

And it came from a single individual who literally

changed the world by putting his own fears aside

for the people of his country.

Thank you, Nelson Mandela.

Now, you all have photos to bomb and diplomas to frame,

heels to change out of–

I don’t know how you walk in them heels, Trinity–

neckties to handle your next of kin.

But I can’t just tell you what desperate shape the universe

is in and send you on your way, so I’m going

to leave you with this instead.

The world is weaning itself off Russian fuel.

Electric cars are going mainstream across the globe.

That hole we punched in the ozone layer is healing.

Ukraine is still in there fighting for us all.

Finland joined NATO.

COVID is currently receding.

And there are human beings who very quietly donate

their bone marrow to strangers.

And this to me signals that the United States of America

may not be united, but we are not a finished product.

My point is anything is possible.

The wheels are still in spin.

Saints walk among us.

And as Nelson Mandela so brilliantly demonstrated,

it’s better to be hopeful than fearful

if for no other reason than the fact

that hope brings us one step closer to joy.

And I leave you with this.

You have been prayed for and paid for not just tuition,

but paid for through the sacrifices

through the daily aggressions, through these discriminations,

the locked doors, the back doors, the barriers

broken down, through the humiliations, working two

and three jobs just trying to make ends meet and getting you

a little money, so you can have something to spend in college.

Every family member from generations

back who helped make this day possible,

you owe them a rising.

And your job is to come on up to the rising,

to meet the rising of your life, and know that your crown has

been paid for.

Put it on your head and wear it.