Marquis Palmer’s Speech
Class of 2018 and our loved ones who join us as we celebrate today: We did it! — or as the homies of Milbank 11 and Home Improvement like to say, ‘It’s lit!’
I’m filled with the dopest sort of gratitude not simply for this recognition, but mostly for those who so generously gave me their love and care as I’ve strived to be as a great as they are even on their worse day. There’s too many to name, but let me quickly say that it all goes back to my lovely mother, Melissa Morgan, and my third grandmother, Diane Berry. Huge shout out to y’all, as well as every other person who helped make this moment possible by pushing me, every day, to become a better human. Thank you.
I want to start by sharing with you the story of the first daily challenge that I confronted as a freshman at Hamilton: the long, treacherous, seemingly insurmountable and potentially deadly journey … from Wertimer up that darn hill to the main part of campus.
If you’ve lived deep down in those trenches — Wertimer, Wally J, Sken, or Bundy — you unfortunately know very well what I’m talking about.
Trudging up that hill, you start to feel your ankles burning. Your knees begin to feel like they’re about to pop. Your right thigh is all cramped up. You got sweat pouring down your back — weighing you down even further as you struggle toward the top of what you now realize is a never ending hill. After 5 minutes of this torment, your hope, dim as it already became, diminishes even more and you whisper to yourself in a tone of defeat, ‘Yeah, it’s over for me. I’ll never reach the top.’
But then — just then — you raise your head slightly, peer intently forward, and your face slowly changes from despair to delightful surprise as you finally see it — the main part of campus standing not too far ahead of you. So you straighten up your back, take a deep breathe in, take a swig from your overly priced Hamilton water bottle, and you march on forward … now to class … probably about 20 minutes late, though.
I start with what I admit is an overly dramatic account of my daily trek up the hill because
it almost perfectly symbolizes my intellectual journey at Hamilton — that is, my perpetual confrontation with the difficult challenge, presenting itself anew each day, of trekking on the upward journey toward a newer, better self — the challenge of not simply knowing myself, but becoming myself.
Which is to say, when I finally made it on top of the hill, arriving to my class — 20 minutes late — I confronted, yet again, another hill, in the form of a question that underpinned every intellectual challenge posed to me by every professor and thinker before whom I stood: ‘Marquis, who do you want to become?’
And in my confrontation with that question, my true upward journey began. Like my ankles as I climbed from Wertimer, every prejudice and presupposition on which I stood began to burn. Like my knees, the values that I had, unknowingly, inherited from society felt as if they were going to pop. And like my cramping thigh, the very ‘self’ that held me up quivered as if to give in — threatening to dash to the ground the self that I claimed as my own.
Although demanding — much more so than climbing the physical hill — it was precisely in grappling with this question in every class I took, in every issue I confronted — both personal and political — that I began to gain clarity on who I was, what had shaped me, and what I wanted to be, all of which eventually led me to the realization that who I was and would I wanted to be were far from the same thing. I had some climbing to do.
So: I straightened my back. Took a deep breathe in. Took a swig from my overly priced Hamilton water bottle. And I marched on forward, striving to become a better version of myself.
Today, I stand before you as a much better — although far from perfect —version of the freshman year me. Beside my significant growth in leg muscle from hiking up that darn hill everyday, I’ve climbed toward a version of myself that tries to realize a horizontal form of justice — one that permeates across socially constructed boundaries of race, nationhood, class, gender, and sexuality; meaningful engagement over obsession with resume-building; inclusive collectivism over self-interested individualism; an open, admittedly fallible quest for wisdom over egoistic intellectualism; and authenticity over whatever self the world around me has tried to force me to become. I’m climbing.
I say all this to not merely to share a part of my own intellectual journey but, ultimately, to pose a question to Hamilton as an institution, the Class of 2018, and all who gather in this space today:
In the face of a society increasingly dominated by the often un-admitted to but blatantly embodied values of racial hatred, money worship, patriarchal rule, nationalism, militarism, anti-LGBTQ+ bigotry, and, worst of all, conformity, will you choose you trek on up from the deep trenches of the worst of who you are and strive upward, toward the highest version of who you could be?
Or, to put it how it was put to myself freshman self after I made that long, treacherous, seemingly insurmountable journey from Wertimer to the classroom: Who will you become?