Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from U.S. Rep. Antonio Delgado’s commencement address Sunday, May 19, at Colgate University, his alma mater. Click here to read related editorial.
I want to start with a story about my mother, who has often told me that she loves me with every fiber of her being, and there is absolutely nothing that I can do about it.
She had me when she was 21 years old; and did so against the wishes of her doctors. They advised that her heart was not strong enough to survive the pregnancy. Mom disagreed.
Now, she did not disagree because she somehow forgot about that fateful Easter Sunday when, at the tender age of 9, she was rushed to the hospital with a severe case of the rheumatic fever – so severe that she was read her last rites.
Nor did she disagree because she failed to remember how, even though she survived the illness, her heart took such a beating in the process and was so weakened that she grew up unable to take PE classes for the remainder of her childhood.
No, she disagreed (as she likes to tell me) for one very simple reason – she loved me.
…Life has taught me that to dream big, you need love. It was my love of hip-hop culture and the pursuit of justice that pushed me to become the rapper AD, the Voice; it didn’t matter that I left family and friends scratching their heads, wondering why a Rhodes Scholar with a Harvard Law degree and mountains of student debt (my parents often reminded me) would move to L-A to become a struggling hip hop artist.
For five years, I toiled away, sleeping on air mattresses, dining on Cup-o-Noodles almost daily, and taking on odd-end jobs, from being a parking lot attendant to an apartment janitor, in order to pursue my passion and rap about things like the perils of inequality, violence, and hate.
Was I successful? Certainly not monetarily speaking, I’ll tell you that. But I found a lot of meaning in the struggle, obtained a better sense of self, and grew stronger in my truth, wherever it would lead.
Years later, I found myself far from the world of music working as a litigator at a corporate law firm and on track likely to make partner. But it was my time struggling as a hip-hop artist and getting to know my truth that gave me the courage to take off the golden handcuffs of law firm life to dedicate myself to a life of public service.
Only, this time it was out of love of country. I am deeply in love with America. I love how we were not founded based on language or geography, but rather on ideals and principles like freedom, equality, and fairness. I love our diversity and the fact that we are human history’s grand experiment in democracy.
And I love how in America, a little black boy from a working-class family in Schenectady – Upstate New York – can one day grow up to be a congressman with a rap album and represent a district that is nearly 90 percent white, and the eighth-most rural in the entire country.
Only in America could that same little boy grow up to walk across Edmund Pettis Bridge, in Selma, Alabama, the site of Bloody Sunday, where armed police attacked and brutally beat Civil Rights demonstrators,
with the very man who nearly lost his life that fateful Sunday: my hero and now my colleague in the House of Representatives, the great John Lewis.
America is truly extraordinary in this way – her promise of opportunity is without bounds. And yet, with all the discord and divisiveness dominating our politics and stifling civic engagement, it’s become a lot harder to fulfill America’s promise – more difficult for folks to believe in the American Dream, to believe that if you work hard and play by the rules, anything is possible in
this country no matter who you are or where you start in life.
My parents lived the American Dream, and it led me to be here with you today. But for far too long, it has been slipping away, further and further out of reach for so many, no matter how hard you work. I decided to run because I couldn’t accept this – not as a proud American deeply indebted to all before me who sacrificed so much both at home and abroad so that I may have a chance to achieve the American Dream. I couldn’t sit on the sidelines and watch the opportunities that I had access to and benefited from become unattainable for future generations.
And in my heart of hearts, I knew the answer to restoring the American Dream does not lie in dehumanizing or demonizing others who might not look like you, pray like you, or dress like you. For there can be no American Dream if, in attempting to restore it, America loses herself in the process – if America forgets who she is and what she has stood for since inception – that we are all created equal; equal in the eyes of our God, our laws, our government.
It is my firm belief that only through love can we stay true to who we are – can we live up to our ideals and fulfill America’s promise. Only through love are we able to remember that so much more unites us than divides us –that we all want to provide for our families, pursue our happiness, and give our children an even-better life than we experienced. And in understanding all of this, I was deeply compelled to fight partisanship with unity, and discord with commonality, by rooting my campaign for public office in love.
Now, my theory on love was certainly tested. I know some of the students here followed my campaign back in 2018, and if you did, you know about the sustained negative and racially charged personal attacks against my character. There was this belief, by the authors of those attacks, that my time as a hip-hop artist could be used to turn me into a thug with anti-American views. The line of attack played on ugly stereotypes and degrading notions of black masculinity. Participants in the
ads would say things like, my voice could not be their voice, or, I wasn’t like the people of Upstate New York.
…As I traveled and held town halls all across my district, which includes 11 counties, stretches nearly 8,000 square miles, and is bigger than Connecticut and Rhode Island combined – what I felt from the people was something deeper than politics. What I felt was a real human connection, grounded in our shared capacity to love each other – to hope and dream for each other – to believe in each other and home. And in the end, we prevailed. Against all the odds, love was the answer – love of country, love of home, love of community, love of service.
Always remember, that when you love, anything is possible, including finding your truth. You just need to make yourself vulnerable, trust in the goodness of others, and lead with your heart. The times we live in make it easy to be cynical and pessimistic about the world around us. There is a lot of hate and hostility bubbling up to the surface – a lot of divisiveness, and anger and fear. But I believe with every fiber in my being that love conquers all. Hate may very well amass power, but it can never be great. To be great, one must be good, and to be good, one must love. For only love can lead to kindness, compassion, decency, honesty, mutual respect, and understanding.
Now, more than ever, we need to love each other – to restore civility in our public discourse and the dignity of humanity in our shared experiences. As you prepare, graduates, to make your mark in this world, please know that what the world needs more than anything from you, is love – love of self, love of neighbor, love of country, love of home, love of community, love of what you do.
It’s not hard at all to dig one’s heels in when there is plenty of fertile ground upon which to be divisive. The hard work, the meaningful work, the work that takes strength of character, often requires that one go against the herd – not to be a contrarian, or to just grab a headline, but instead, to unite – to elevate the conversation in pursuit of a greater good or higher purpose. And none of this work can be done in the absence of love.
…We need to ground ourselves in love as a community, through groups like Do Random Acts of Kindness (DoRAK), one of the University’s longest-standing clubs, that seeks to spread a message of positivity through activism, outreach, and kindness. These acts light up the world with love and cast out the darkness of hate and division. As my hero, Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., once said, “darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”