“Over the past couple of months, our foundation has been shaken,” Mrs. Obama said. “Not just by a pandemic that stole too many of our loved ones, upended our daily lives and sent tens of millions into unemployment. But also by the rumbling of the age-old fault lines that our country was built on. The lines of race and power that are now, once again, so nakedly exposed for all of us to grapple with.”
The former First Lady opened up, revealing that she too feels overwhelmed by the current state of the world. “If any of you are scared, or confused, or angry, or just plain overwhelmed by it all, if you feel like you’re searching for a lifeline just to steady yourself, you are not alone. I am feeling all of that too. I think we all are.”
The speech continued on, pointing out that these painful issues aren’t an anomaly.
“What’s happening right now is the direct results of decades of unaddressed prejudice an inequality. The truth is, when it comes to all those tidy stories of hard work and self-determination that we like to tell ourselves about America, well, the reality is a lot more complicated than that. Because for too many people in this country, no matter how hard they work, there are structural barriers working against them that just make the road longer and rockier. And sometimes it’s almost impossible to move upward at all. Because what if you’re required to work during a pandemic, but don’t have enough protective equipment or health insurance from your employer, or paid sick leave? What is more essential: your work or your life? If you don’t feel safe driving your own car in your own neighborhood? Or going for a jog, or buying some candy at 7-11, or birdwatching? If you can’t even approach the police without fearing for your life, then how do you even begin to chart your own course?”
Instead of offering impossible answers, the former First Lady brought life lessons, instructions on how to channel this new-found focus.
Lesson 1: “Life will always be uncertain.”
Lesson 2: “Treating people right will never, ever fail you.”
Lesson 3: “Share your voice with the rest of the world.”
Lesson 4: “Anger is a powerful force, it can be a useful force. But left on its own it will only corrode and destroy and sow chaos on the inside and out. But when anger is focused, when it’s channeled into something more, that is the stuff that changes history.”
Looking forward, Mrs. Obama pushed for activism beyond social media shares. “Sometimes it’s easier to stand with strangers at a protest than it is to challenge someone in your own backyard. So if you hear people express bigoted views or talking down to ‘those people,’ it is up to you to call them out. Because we won’t solve anything if we’re only willing to do what’s easiest. You’ve got to make hard choices and sacrifice. If you’re spending a lot of time just hash tagging and posting, that’s useful, especially during a pandemic, but it’s only a beginning. Go further. Send all your friends a link to register to vote. Text everybody you know to join you to exercising their constitutional right to protest.”
The Reach Higher Initiative hosted the first hour of the Youtube special, which also included a commencement address from Beyoncé. K-Pop group BTS also offered some kind words to the class of 2020, along with Lady Gaga, Barack Obama, and Malala Yousafzai.
Additionally, the YouTube special featured music performances by Lizzo and the New York Philharmonic, Chloe x Halle, Finneas, Katy Perry, and a performance of “Still I Rise” featuring Madison Calley, Misty Copeland, Naya Lovell, Janelle Monáe, Shonda Rhimes, Tracee Ellis Ross, Kelly Rowland, and Yara Shahidi.
The all-day commencement celebration honored this year’s graduating class, who are unable to hold an in-person ceremony due to the coronavirus pandemic.