2021 Commencement Address by Annette Gordon-Reed ’81

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“I learned many things here, but what I value most was the validation of an enthusiasm that often gives birth to passion, because passion is absolutely required to do anything with excellence—whether it is writing a book, making a movie, raising children, or maintaining friendships.”


Thank you very much for that generous introduction.

To President Hanlon, members of the Board of Trustees, honored guests, families, and students—I give my greetings—along with my heartfelt congratulations to the Dartmouth Class of 2021. 

This is a speech that I was never supposed to give. I had made up my mind long ago—after giving a commencement address once—back at the end of the 1990s—to reject all invitations to speak at commencement ceremonies. The prospect was simply too daunting—having to think of something meaningful to say to a group of young people who are heading out to begin their lives, and are anxious to get on with it—sitting in uncomfortable chairs while wearing caps and robes that absorb heat—although I can think of at least one occasion during my tenure on the Dartmouth Board of Trustees when the heat-gathering propensities of caps and gowns came in handy. That day back in 2011 saw a brief return to winter-like conditions here in the middle of June. As you all know, when it comes to the weather, almost anything can happen in Hanover—especially when the surprise involves being cold. Of course, because of my work, I give speeches all the time—not just my classroom lectures—as a matter of fact I feel as if I’ve given about a 1,000 speeches these past weeks talking about Juneteenth, but commencement addresses are special because I would be talking to young people at an important moment in their lives, which I despaired at the thought of possibly ruining.

And then—for me—there was the specter of Conan O’Brien—whose commencement speech at Dartmouth (actually, on that extremely cold day in 2011 that I mentioned above) was a complete masterpiece of the genre—a screamingly funny beginning—pitched perfectly to the age demographic to whom he was speaking—that segued seamlessly into a poignant and heartfelt middle and ending in which he reflected on a moment of searing disappointment in his professional life, driving home the very true point that ups and downs in one’s career and in one’s personal life are inevitable. The key is always to keep moving forward. The address—justifiably—went viral on social media. I laughed so hard as he poked fun at Dartmouth’s rustic and seemingly out-of-time location—talking about the blacksmith shop at White River Junction—and I felt the poignancy of his references to losing his dream job as host of the Tonight Show. I thoroughly enjoyed the speech and the crowd’s reaction to it—supremely confident in my knowledge that I would never have to attempt anything like that myself because I would never be a commencement speaker. Accept an honorary degree—smile and wave?—yes, talk?—no.

But when President Hanlon asked me to give the commencement address this year, and I gave it some quick thought, I realized that it made no sense to think I had to live up to a standard created by an enormously gifted professional comedian, one of the creative forces behind a legendary television program—The Simpsons. Also, it was not a very Dartmouth-like thing to do—to run away from a challenge, and, there was something else—I knew that there is no group of young people I would rather address, and no place I would rather make that address than right here at my alma mater, Dartmouth.

As I’m sure you know, Dartmouth is a special place. When I arrived here, more years ago than I care to state—though you can easily figure that out knowing my class year—after taking my first-ever airplane ride from Houston, Texas to Boston, where I then boarded one of Air New England’s tiny planes—peering into a cockpit with a pilot and co-pilot, who, I swear, seemed to be looking down out of the side windows to follow the highway—I later learned the airline was called “Scare New England”—I had no way of knowing what was in store. I had picked the College sight unseen except for the pictures in the material I received from the Admissions department. It would not have occurred to me—it did not occur to me—to think that I could go flying around the country looking at schools before I made the choice of what school to attend. So, I made my decision “on the papers,” so to speak, and on the enthusiasm of the students who contacted me and sold the school really well. I remember one student mentioning that I would need a down jacket. I was stumped. I had no idea what he was talking about, but figured out that it must involve feathers. I remember vividly the very first image that popped into my head—a coat made of feathers—but with the feathers on the outside. How strange, I thought. That can’t be right. Naturally, these were the days before Google, and rather than trouble myself about it, I figured I would deal with that conundrum later when I got to Hanover. Indeed, I also remember my first trip to the Dartmouth Co-Op and my secret mortification when I saw—and purchased—my first ever down jacket—and learned what they actually look like. By the way, I was never able to wear that coat at home in Texas. Even on the coldest days, it was always too hot. From this last winter’s news events—the unfortunate disaster with the Texas grid, I gather that has changed.

Crossing the bridge over the Connecticut River, riding up the hill, and arriving at my dorm—the all-female North Massachusetts Hall, which would be my home for four years—I was in a state of nervous excitement, exhausted from my trip, but gleeful that I was now really away at college—in New England, no less. I was on an adventure. And what an adventure it was! In ways that I can only truly appreciate now, many years later.

What immediately struck me about Dartmouth was the energy of the place—the open enthusiasm and spiritedness that I saw in so many of the people at the College. Even before I arrived in Hanover, I could detect it in the voices of the students from the Afro-American Society who exhorted me to come join them. I felt it in the students I met during those first weeks, as I adjusted to living in a triple with my roommates, Susanne Strong and Elizabeth Wang. I felt it when I went to hockey games with Kathy Bailey—we bought season tickets every winter and went to all the home games. The atmosphere was electric. I felt it at dances at the Afro-American Society in Cutter Hall—dances that never started until after midnight. I felt it freshman year whenever we came pouring out of the stands during half time at football games to make our class number at one end of the football field—though I understand that is no longer allowed—we were a bit out of control—maybe that was too much enthusiasm on those occasions.

I have thought many times over the years how important it is to meet life with such enthusiasm, or to put it another way—to be game, to be up for it. The school my children attended in New York City—the Trinity School—has a phrase in its school prayer that I always loved. I heard it at school events every year for the 13 years that both of my children went there, and I have repeated it in my head many more times than that. When listing the things to be prayed for, it mentions “a capacity for gallant living.” I take that as being akin to enthusiasm and spiritedness. As a scholar of the 18th century, I should say that the people of that time were very suspicious of enthusiasm, thinking it could lead people astray and cause disorder in society as individuals stepped outside of designated roles and chased dreams—sometimes dangerous ones. But I am thinking about enthusiasm, as a form of the capacity for gallant living—as an attitude rooted in an optimism that seeks to be open to new experiences and challenges, bringing energy to all of one’s endeavors in life.

Even the things that we may not want to do at any given moment, can teach us valuable lessons. I have taken a somewhat circuitous path to where I am now. I could not have imagined when I was sitting in my cap and gown for my Dartmouth commencement that I would go from practicing law in a Wall Street firm, to being the counsel to a small, underfunded city agency that oversaw the running of New York City jails on Rikers Island, to becoming a law professor, and then a history professor, (without having a PhD in history). Nor could I have known that a subject that I had been thinking about informally—but enthusiastically—since the third grade—Monticello, Jefferson, and slavery—would come to define my adult life and career. But every job I have had—even the ones that seem the most tangential to what has become the focus of my life—prepared me to write my first book and to get going in my current career. No experiences are total wastes.

What I saw every year that I was in Hanover was that Dartmouth students were not afraid to be seen as enthusiastic or passionate about things. It would have been easy to take one’s place in the much-vaunted Ivy League as an excuse to be jaded—to affect an air of nonchalance—as if everything were old hat and there was little about which to get excited. But that was not the way my schoolmates went through the world. To this day, I don’t know if that was the result of the Admissions department’s method of picking classes—or whether it was the result of the environment—the concentrated intensity of a school away from it all—where people had to make their own fun. I learned many things here, but what I value most was the validation of an enthusiasm that often gives birth to passion, because passion is absolutely required to do anything with excellence—whether it is writing a book, making a movie, raising children, or maintaining friendships.

As the parent of a Dartmouth student, I know very well that my Dartmouth is not the same as your Dartmouth. For one thing, you all have the Dartmouth Coach to get you away to Boston and NYC—and I see way more student cars here now than I did during my day. But I sense the same enthusiastic attitude that I saw when I was here in the Dartmouth students whom I’ve had the chance to observe on my visits to Hanover as a member of the Alumni Council, when I was on the board of trustees, and when I came to the College as a parent of a Dartmouth student. There is a Dartmouth spirit. 

What I took away from my time here was the importance of moving through the world with that kind of spirit, facing life with a sense of optimism about what can be learned from every experience—having a sense of joy at the possibilities each new endeavor presents. No one wants to appear naïve. But there is no protection to be found in cynicism–or being “wised up.” Those postures are armor that do not provide an effective shield against the possibility of being hurt or disappointed. As my predecessor at this podium, Conan O’Brien, noted: Moments of disappointment—like moments of joy—are a natural part of life. 

“Greet the world, from the hills, with a hail!” Is, perhaps, my favorite line in our Alma Mater. For me, it is a call to remember what I learned while living in “the hills”—reminding me that I lived intensely in a place that prepared me to go forth. It gave me tastes of what it was like to leave the place and explore—first on LSA in France and then an internship in Jersey City—and then come back home to Dartmouth to be readied for the final send off. The spirit embodied in that line of Dear Old Dartmouth—the spirit that exalts enthusiasm—will be invaluable to you as you chart your course through life.

I have witnessed the operation of that spirit so often over the years. One of the great privileges of my life has been to see it carried over as a parent of a Dartmouth student, as a member of the board of trustees, and in the connection to you that I feel—and the hopes I have for each of you. This past year has been tough in many ways. You have had your classes disrupted, experienced isolation—physical and emotional—and you have suffered the loss of members of the Dartmouth family. But, you have made it to this moment, a testament to the spirit of which I have been speaking. Now—it is time to “Greet the world, from the hills, with a hail!”—a world that badly needs your spirit and enthusiasm is waiting for you.

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