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Spelman Commencement: Nikole Hannah-Jones Urges Graduates To ‘Control Your Own Excellence’

Nikole Hannah-Jones served as the keynote speaker for Spelman College’s 2023 Commencement ceremonies. The Pulitzer Prize-winning creator of the “1619 Project” provided the 423 degree candidates with words of inspiration as they set out on their next chapters in life.

Hannah-Jones began by sharing stories of her humble upbringing and how she beat the odds to gain success as a journalist and author.

“I didn’t come from Black people who have much formal education outside of high school,” Hannah-Jones said. “Our migration from Mississippi to the North was an agrarian migration. My grandmother was born into a sharecropping family in Greenwood. She had a fourth grade education. My father did go to high school, but he went to the military, and none of my aunts or uncles had gone to college. I was an adult before I learned that there exists this prestigious college founded a few years after the end of slavery to educate Black women.”

Hannah-Jones also spoke about her rise in media and being in spaces where she was, at times, the only Black woman in the room. She urged them to have the strength to know that they belong.

“It is possible to succeed in those spaces where people don’t think we belong without compromising your values,” she said. “Success doesn’t mean you have to walk or talk or think a certain way. I stand here with this bright red hair vehicle and wearing Air Jordans.”

She also touched on the controversial reactions from her “1619 Project” where right-wing politicians are seeking to erase Black history and make it more difficult for marginalized communities.

“Across the nation, we are seeing cruel attacks on other marginalized groups, particularly the trans community and particularly our trans sisters,” she said. “As you prepare to take this next step in your lives, women across the nation have lost their constitutionally protected right to determine their own reproduction. Particularly devastating for Black women who for centuries have fought for our own bodily autonomy. These are perilous times, but if it is one thing that Black women know how to do, it is the fight.”

Hannah-Jones inspired the graduates to do whatever is possible to control their greatness.

“We’ll raise ourselves by understanding that you can’t control the same thing outside of yourselves,” she said. “What you can control is your own excellence. So you work every day to make yourself undeniable in a world that wants to deny you everything.”

The Class of 2023 includes 473 degree candidates, receiving 298 Bachelor of Arts and 175 Bachelor of Science degrees, and four valedictorians, a salutatorian and many high-achieving graduates from across the country.

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