Commencement address notes provided by Danai Gurira ’01

First, I was amazed when President Rosenberg asked me to speak here today. I was sure I had just left college a couple years ago—how the heck am I the one standing up expected to give gems of wisdom and guidance to new graduates?

Time is a funny thing. Because regardless of how vivid my visions of making my own red meat-free concoctions in Kagin are, or watching naked streakers run through the quad or making out with my then-boyfriend in my insanely oversized Doty single, or those dudes playing bagpipes, God bless them, rehearsing outside my window early Saturday mornings—no matter how recent that feels, I graduated 15 years ago. I’ve had to take a minute to digest that fully. Fifteen years. Man.

Reflecting on that time makes me realize how certain I am that this was the best college for me. There is no other school I would rather have graduated from. No other.

I had the time of my life on these grounds, in these buildings. Challenges, heartbreaks, best friendships forged, mind transformed, breakthroughs realized, identity sharpened, ideals cemented, revolutions devised, outrage upon outrage upon outrage, creations born, destinies defined. I’m not entirely sure who I would be today if I hadn’t spent that time, in this place. 

And the support: To this day I have support from folks I met here in this institution—confidantes, advisors, mentors, best friends. To this day, I gravitate towards living in communities that look a little like Mac: the East Village in New York, Silver Lake in L.A., Inman Park/Little Five Points in Atlanta. Diverse and daring, folks from across the globe, artists and hipsters who may not always embrace personal hygiene practices but who are freely expressing a different way of facing a world that often tells us exactly who and what to be.

There is a safety I felt here: to make attempts, to pursue ideas, to believe I could make an impact. I remember when a whole bunch of student organizations were fighting for something or other—there is always something we were fighting for, maybe it was the establishment of a multicultural division, maybe it was against the use of sweatshops for school memorabilia, who knows—but we were protesting, meeting late at night, devising ways to impact the administration, ways that they could not ignore us, ways to get them to the table and make them hear what must be done, and do it, and I remember, even back then, as a girl in my late teens, I got it. I had a thought that proved to be absolutely true: This place was preparing me for the larger world, not just in the sense of having a degree but in the sense that I was going to face institutions in the larger world, of all sorts, that I would need to challenge and enact change upon. That I would always need to speak up for others, to attempt to empower people other than myself. I realized I was in a microcosm of what the larger world was going to present to me, a very benevolent microcosm, one that sometimes seemed, despite itself, was training me to become a changemaker, to make sure my voice was clear not just to the world, but to myself. And for what it would take to be a person who had the courage of my own convictions.

And the key thing that this school gave me, and I’m pretty sure it gave you as well, is what I now call the Mac moment. The Mac moment is that singular moment of realization and self-discovery that may stay with you for the rest of your life. It may define who you go on to become and what you go on to contribute—if you let it.

My Mac moment did not physically take place at Mac. It took place during my semester abroad, that sacred Macalester tradition that insists you leave the nest and nurture your global citizenship. I was in Cape Town, South Africa, where I was a part of a program called Arts and Social Change, based at the University of Cape Town. I had actually wanted to do the Durban-based program that focused on politics, but it was full so I had to “settle” for the artsy one. And although I was involved in the arts, I didn’t think the Cape Town program had the meat or the muscle to exact my ambitions to be a changemaker in the world.

But that semester changed everything. I encountered artists who used their voices to combat the injustices of apartheid, at much risk to their personal safety and that of their families. Who brought awareness through their craft, through storytelling that made both personal and urgent the need for the world to pay attention to the harrowing experiences of those under this oppressive system. 

And I knew I had to change my plans. I sat in that University of Cape Town campus, staring out over stunning Table Mountain, and decided to do something that has defined my path ever since. I decided to follow my heart and to tell stories rarely heard. My heart wanted to explore the dramatic arts, to give voice to African women and to place their narratives center stage. I would retain my psychology major, because it all related after all, but I would apply to graduate school in the dramatic arts—security be damned.

It was one of the most defining and freeing moments of my life. And all of it was Mac devised. The first thing I did was share my new ambition with Mac professors Peter Rachleff and Beth Cleary. They were ecstatic, because they said—and I will never forget these words—you have the power, Danai. I didn’t dare think too hard about what that meant, I just knew I would follow my heart right through to the end—wherever that would be.

And with that kind of belief and encouragement to lean on, what excuse could I possibly employ?  That was my Mac moment, and without it, who knows what I’d be doing right now? Would I have followed the same path with the same timing, or would I have attempted a less risky professional ambition?

What is your Mac moment? You may not realize yet that you’ve had one, but I bet you did. It’s that moment where your heart breaks through and defines your destiny to you, if you dare to listen. Now your job, as you leave dear old Mac, is to protect your Mac moment. Guard it like Fort Knox because the world will not be kind to your Mac moment. The world will tell you to throw it away, to join the crowd, to be like everybody else, to accept that this is just the way things are.

You will be enticed by high-paying bloodless jobs, the need to just get along, the need to please, and the paralysis of complacency. You will be told what you envision is utterly preposterous and implausible; you will be undervalued and underappreciated, and you will dearly miss this benevolent microcosm. But you can always reach back to that Mac moment, if you guard the heck out of it. Yes, it needs to be guarded; it needs armor from the attack the world will bestow. You have to put on your armor.

So what does putting on your armor mean? First, it’s real. You can’t be out there naked and exposed and expect to keep your heart’s ambitions intact. That’s just not going to happen–you will be taken out! Your armor is going to be specific to you and you now have to discover what that will be, what keeps your Mac moment safe and alive inside you. I have found my armor piece by piece over the years.

I remember getting struck by fear and anxiety while performing my first play, In The Continuum. The accolades had come, the play was on its own off-Broadway stage, and I got hit with a whole lot of irrational anxiety. I had to combat it so I could get on that stage every day and tell the story of a woman in Southern Africa who discovers she is HIV positive while pregnant. I had to tell that story for all those women on the continent who don’t get to tell their stories to the world themselves.

But anxiety and fear started to mess with me and I needed some armor, because I was doing exactly what my Mac moment had described and yet, suddenly, I was terrified. My armor came in the form of leaning into my spiritual practices, psalm after psalm after psalm and, music—oh yes music: transforming my feelings and thoughts through “Get up” by Jill Scott, “Closer to my Dreams” by Goapele and “Optimistic” by Sounds of Blackness. How many fearful moments Sounds of Blackness got me through. More Mac support right there! I wouldn’t be Michonne in The Walking Dead without “Optimistic” by Sounds of Blackness, emboldening me as I went through that final audition. I wouldn’t be killing no Zombies! Have a song y’all, have a song. I now know that music is a part of my armor, it transforms the atmosphere, and sometimes that is all we can control.

You may not be able to control your environment, but you can always control your atmosphere, placing you in a zone no one can disrupt. Fear and anxiety will come to most of us, but the key is to refuse to let it stop you. Courage, as they say, isn’t about being fearless, it’s about doing it despite the fear. Fear is designed to rob you of your Mac moment. And man, it has tried that on me many a time.

I also found armor for my Mac moment in the form of what I call my village. Who is your village? They are the people who believe in your Mac moment ambitions and will aid and protect them and you through the tough times, through the pains, through the doubts.

I remember how utterly despairing I was some years ago when I was due to go to Liberia to research my play now on Broadway: Eclipsed. I was nearly broke and had received one of those grants that tell you to go spend money you don’t have, bring them the receipts and then they’ll give you the money. Well, I didn’t have that first part covered, especially when I took into account my New York rent and other expenses. I remember being a little peeved that I didn’t have a commission; hadn’t I proven myself through the success of In the Continuum? When I lamented to Lynne Nottage, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, she said to me: Do it on your own. You don’t need institutional support, you need to pursue your vision on your terms.

That freed me of any grudge or righteous indignation I was harboring and set me straight. I humbly shared with friends my need for support, and two dear friends told me to throw a rent party and they would match whatever was donated. It was beyond humbling to reach out to folks and ask for financial support to visit Liberia and learn these women’s stories, but I did it, and folks came out for me— $30 here, $50 there—and soon enough with that plus the match from my friends Charlie and Steven, I got on that plane to West Africa, scared out of my living mind, but doing it anyway.

Without that village, who knows if Eclipsed would exist? I also lean on what I call my fairy Godmamas: the Maya Angelous, the Harriet Tubmans, the Wangari Mathaais—women who lived lives of power and purpose, who I look to when I feel weak and uninspired, when I am dealing with unfair circumstances or ignorance. Their words, their example, gets me back on my feet, re-energizes me, and reminds me upon whose shoulders I stand.

Find your village. You’re going to need one.

The final piece of Mac moment armor I can offer is to nurture what I call the Mac muscle. Your Mac muscle is that bundle of experiences, interests, and intentions that keeps you nourished and enriched, and that counters the deadening popular culture fixations that often do nothing but distance you from inspiration and actualization. Focus on what matters, what inspires, because at times it will be a challenge, and hard to reconnect with this dear old place and all it grew inside of you.

Because now that I am 15 years removed, I can honestly say that these were the smartest four years of my life. I am far dumber now than I was when I was on this campus. I miss the sharpness of the minds I experienced in these buildings, the global concerns that were always on the table. But I take from that the need to be in the know, to nurture my own global citizenship, to grab hold of information and knowledge and refuse to be complacent. I feel deeply unhealthy if I am not engaged by global affairs, if my mind is out of sync with what is happening in the larger world. 

Recently I began a dedication initiative, where at the end of each Eclipsed performance on Broadway, we give voice to the names of girls still in captivity, and we then give our Broadway audiences information that will allow them to connect with this global gender-based terror that is sexual violence in conflict. I realized digging deeper into this play’s purpose, into how it can function as a platform for activism, was that good old Mac muscle insisting that I do more than lap up the praise of putting the first all-black female production on Broadway. 

That muscle was nurtured here. It was cut and toned in the hallways of Olin Rice and the foyer of Weyerhaeuser, in the living room of the Culture House. It’s up to you now to keep that muscle strong, trust me. There won’t be nearly as many tools out there to do so, readily at your disposal; you are going to have to seek it out and be deeply intentional about it, constantly challenging yourself to explore and discover, to nurture your outrage, to extend yourself to causes and concerns even when it is inconvenient. That is the only way that the muscle won’t atrophy and the armor will stay intact. 

So there it is, Class of 2016. Fifteen years later, that’s what I know for sure. Who knows what the next 15 years will bring? When people talk of what I’ve done since I left Macalester, I don’t have much of a response because my eye is on how much I still need to get done. But I know there is no way that I could have accomplished what I have without keeping alive my Mac moment of self-realization. 

So the thing I can tell you without a shadow of a doubt is that you are entering a battlefield that will seek to rob you of the originality you found in yourself here. That voice you got to explore here, that feeling of self-confidence and clarity of your purpose on earth, that Mac moment—be it while you were singing in an a cappella group or studying in Cambodia or interning at the Center for Victims of Torture—all those moments of breakthrough and validation you received here will be challenged by a world that tells you to fit into a simple mold. And that’s when your Mac muscle has to come into use. 

You see, Macalester Class of 2016, the world needs you, it really does. It needs your mind, your individuality, your vision, your tenacity, your courage, your beliefs, your originality.  And I can’t wait to see what you bring. Because God knows, Macalester attracts the most distinctive and globally concerned individuals you’ll find anywhere. Let yourselves be driven by outrage, by hope, and by love. Don’t let anything you face out there rob you of that. The world is yours to shape and make better.

Congratulations, Class of 2016, I can’t wait to see what you do with the Mac inside of you. 

May 24 2016

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