Bongani Ntsakani Musikavanhu ’22 at Commencement 2022
President Hamilton, Chancellor Tong, Vice Chancellor Lehman, and Provost Joanna Waley-Cohen,
It was 2019. Some friends and I had woken up at about 5 AM to catch the sunrise over the Yellow Mountain in Anhui. It was exhausting, but I can say without a doubt that it was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. Very worth it.
As I am taking in the view, I hear a voice to my side whisper, “Wow, how can he be so Black?”
For a second, I wondered why they would describe the sunrise as black, until I heard another voice say, “How would I know? You should go ask him.”
“Okay, okay fine…Uhh hello, why are you so Black?”
“Ayaa, please excuse my friend. What he means to ask is, ‘Is everyone from where you are from THAT Black?”
I thought for a second, then responded, “No, they are not all this Black. When I was little, I ate too much chocolate.”
“Ahhhhhh of course, yes,yes you remember Mr. Wang’s son and his Fererro Rocher addiction. A true tragedy.”
I’ve wondered if that was the most responsible answer, but in the end, the interaction meant more than just a question. It was a chance at introductions.
There are so many things I can stand here and thank this university for. And when someone recently asked me what those things were, my thoughts surprised me. Immediately my failures came to mind, moments of testing and trials that required me to ask myself hard questions. Indeed I am not the same person who walked into Jinqiao in 2018. Therefore, I initially would have thanked this school for its equal and unbiased presentation of adversity, its indifferent pursuit of the erudite and its candid assessment of the individual. Because it's the things that nearly broke me that showed me my own strength. However, that is not the whole picture.
Throughout my time on this planet, I have noticed there are typically two reactions to extreme differences: fear and withdrawal, or courage and engagement. The subsequent outcomes of such reactions are as powerful as they are different. Fear almost always leads to feelings of shame and distance, whilst courage by and large leads to connection and understanding. In a lot of instances, courage has led to what I would describe as warmth and love. I would like to present to you an idea I have been raised to believe. While many would assume ‘Love’ is just a powerful emotion to be sought after or received, I understand it to be in most cases a decision. A decision that often requires a lot of courage.
2020 and 2021 asked us a lot of questions. They brought a lot of us to a breaking point, and I am not just talking about Covid-19. We saw some of the worst cases of discrimination and hate since Jim Crow and Apartheid which I would very much consider ‘recent history.’ The propensity to hate and fear difference has plagued humanity much longer than this virus, and yet we still hesitate to recognize the only remedy.
I realized what I truly wanted to thank the university for. This institution has made it their priority to unite the world in a rather unique way. Giving opportunities for all kinds of people to be curious and learn. This was carried off campus as well. By getting me here, this school has allowed me to connect with this language and culture in a deep and profound way. It has likewise given the few people I have engaged with a similar chance at getting to know me and my background. So, I want to liken the testing this education has put me through to the testing we face on a daily basis. Choosing perseverance means you could also just give up. Choosing courage requires fear as an option. Choosing love means hate was just as accessible. I would like to encourage the Class of 2022, and future NYU Shanghai students to let fear guide you to moments of courage. Go talk to that student you have never met before in their language. Go hang out with the old people in the park. Yes, you may get turned down, but there is a chance that you may find warmth. There is a chance that you could be the one person that informs or changes an entire world view simply by being yourself.
You could be the antidote to a world plagued with hate and fear.
Thank you, and good luck to the Class of 2022.