Courtney B. Vance AB ’82

WOW! I’ve been in the business long enough not to be a stranger to hearing my credits read. But to have them read HERE, where it all began for me…when I didn’t know what I wanted to do, when I was quite lost, THAT is overwhelmingly moving.

Thank you…

My parents are no longer with me to enjoy this moment, but my ‘Sister-From-the-Same-Mister’, my heart, my sister Cecilie Vance-Penchion is with me here today, and I’d like to honor her. Cecilie, would you please stand and be acknowledged?

And my mother’s younger brother, my uncle, is here.

Lee Daniels, Harvard class of '71, and my inspiration for going to Harvard, Lee would you please stand and be recognized?

Thank you for that everyone...

Can we all acknowledge this minor miracle we are in the midst of: the weather has cooperated!!!!

Thank you, President Garber. It is indeed an honor to be standing before you, as you shepherd us during this very important, transitional time.

Thank you for that wonderful introduction, Ty Moore. Your passionate leadership has blessed us during this difficult, exceedingly trying year.


Y’all look so, so good! I hear Commencement was amazing, wonderful…and a little spicy!

And finally, hello everyone live streaming with us!

That is the end of my ‘housekeeping’ duties. I can’t spend any more time telling you how beautiful you are, and how happy I am that I’m here, because I only have 20 minutes with you, AND I WANNA BE ASKED BACK!

So here we go!!!

Dr. Benjamin Elijah Mays, intellectual father of the Civil Rights movement and president of Morehouse College for 30 years, said it best:

"I have only just a minute,
Only sixty seconds in it.
Forced upon me, can’t refuse it.
Didn’t seek it, didn’t choose it.
But it’s up to me to use it.
I must suffer if I lose it.
Give account if I abuse it.
Just a tiny little minute,
but all of eternity is wrapped up in it!"

Dr. MLK, Jr. speaks to us today and says:

"Cowardice asks, 'Is it safe?'
Expediency asks, 'Is it politic?'
Vanity asks, 'Is it popular?'
But, conscience asks, 'Is it right?'
And every now and then,
there comes a time, in all of our lives,
when we must take a position
that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular,
but we must take a position 
because it is right!"

My wife and our children know any excuse I have to come back to Cambridge, I’M THERE!!!

So, this past January, our beloved varsity basketball Coach Tommy Amaker invited me to be a special guest at his famous Breakfast Club gathering at the Charles Hotel. I was very excited, got on the plane, checked into hotel, went to the event the next morning, and sat down at the head table. And slowly it began to dawn on me that Coach Tommy wanted me to close the program with prepared remarks to lift up the young men and women!

I had no idea what I was going to say. As each of the speakers came up to speak, I listened to them and was at a loss. And then ever so slowly, a topic began to formulate in my mind, as it occurred to me that our country and our Harvard community was in the midst of a major moral, political, ethical, psychological, and historical battle of epic proportions, that would eventually envelope and consume our own newly inaugurated president, Claudine Gay. And as I was thinking about all that was happening in the world at that time, and all that happened in the world my generation inherited, I heard my bio being read, my name being called, and I stood up, and opened my mouth:

I thanked everyone for inviting me, and told them how honored I felt, that this African-American boy who grew up poor during the riots in Detroit, was standing in front of them; charged with inspiring them to greater heights and deeper depths! And the only thing that came to mind was my dear friend and colleague, Romell Witherspoon, saying, "Courtney remember the Five B’s: Be Brief Brother Be Brief!"

I began talking to them about noticing the dichotomy between what they are learning in the college classrooms and on the basketball courts—and what they see on their various screens: CNN, NYT, WSJ, Snapchat, IG, FB, X, and whatever else Boo! I said we are living in a time where things are happening with a quickness on our phones and tablets—but every 4 years our voting materials require our signatures to match. Funny, during COVID, cashiers were offering to sign my cc pages themselves! Charles Dickens’ greatest opening line in all of literature rang loudly in my ears:

“It was the best of times, and it was the worst of times.”

And I challenged the young people and said, ‘Don’t listen to us.’ I said, ‘We are not doing right.’ Any child knows that. That’s why when children ask us simple, basic questions, we end up with long, rambling answers, to which they respond: ‘But why?!’


But why are the Russian and the Ukrainian people fighting and have been doing do for many years? But why are the Israeli and Palestinian people fighting and have been doing so for many centuries? But why do we teach children, ‘Sharing is Caring’, but nations/adults don’t abide by the same rule?

But why is one of the most popular words in the English language today, the N-word? But why in politics today do the ‘ends always justify means’ no matter how wrong we all know the situation is? But why are we pretending that there are/were no emotional & psychological scars we all received during the Pandemic? But why do children have the highest rates of suicides? But why can’t we talk about our mental well-being?

I told them that our world was a much slower-paced world, and that that is both good and bad, all at the same time.

I told them my generation inherited a horribly flawed world of assassinations, Vietnam War lies, Watergate, major city riots etc. Hell, my Uncle Lee’s older brother was one of the leaders that took over the Brandeis Administration bldg in 1969!!! And we had to slowly make lemonade out of all that mess. I told them they are much smarter and have much more information at their fingertips than we did, so things don’t have to be as they see them today. I told them they don’t have to sell their souls to be successful, ‘as they define success.’

And finally, I told them, technologically, as we move into the A.I. era, we are doing things/dealing with issues, that I can’t even begin to understand! But we still have to be able to deal with, engage with, discuss with, argue with, ‘agree to disagree with’, PEOPLE. ‘If it wasn’t for the people, this would be a wonderful world! (you’ll get that tomorrow)’

But unfortunately, our people skills are diminishing as we have gone, ‘All-In’ to this technological moment. Pastor Adrian Rodgers said, "There is a high cost to high living."

And we are seeing the fruits of that statement today. Suffice to say, there was a lot of discussion after I finished...

This is a very challenging time for all people, but especially our youth. It’s almost like by the time we deal with one ridiculous thing, the next crazy, unbelievable thing happens! And we all go around pretending like, ‘I’m cool.’ ‘I’m ‘aight!’ ‘I got this!’

You got this!’ Yeah, WE got this!!! And we really don’t.

No, no, no, no. We really, really don’t…

My father died of suicide 34 years ago, prompting my wonderful, amazing co-author, Dr. Robin L. Smith and me this past November, to write a book entitled - THE INVISIBLE ACHE: Black Men Identifying Their Pain & Reclaiming Their Power (Amazon!!!).’

My father wouldn’t let us take care of whatever was ailing him. But my mother did let us to take care of her.

My beautiful wife, Angela Evelyn Bassett, allowed me to bring my mother to our house and we went down that long, horrific, 5-year, ALS road to saying goodbye.

My mother died of the disease almost 7 years ago.

Our family has no regrets.

My father’s suicide allowed my mother to have all of us to go into therapy, thereby saving our family. My mother taught us about the transitions in life. She taught us that there are finite number of everything in this life: breaths, heartbeats, eye-blinks, waking up, going to sleep, etc. She taught us that every thing and every one is precious. I don’t have time to hate you. And if you hate me, I’m gonna “shake the dust off my shoes” and keep going. Because I’m called in this life to help, to be of service, to be kind, and that is what I am challenging all of us here today—as we ask ourselves,

‘But is it right?!’

I challenge you to make choices in the short time we have here on this earth, that lifts up your neighbor, your colleague, and potentially your enemy.

I’m not naive enough to think that we all don’t, have our moments. We all get up ‘on the wrong side of the bed’ sometimes, and have to literally tell ourselves, NOT to respond to that crazy cashier! Or when that person sneaks into that parking spot that we were backing into, we’re gonna let them know that was not cool (euphemistically speaking)!

But I’m talking about those moments when your life or your children’s lives spin on a decision, and YOU have to make the right call! I’m talking about when your wife or your brother or your sister or your mother, father, or best friend is in crisis, and YOU have to have the ‘tough conversation!’ We have to ‘practice’ being intentional.

Allen Iverson said, "Why I gotta practice, man?"

We not talking about a game, we just talkin about practice, man!’ We gotta practice, because as every athlete knows, as you practice, so you play...

Jon Meacham’s towering biography on Abraham Lincoln, AND THERE WAS LIGHT, was in no way a whitewash of the Lincoln legacy. Meacham showed him as a man of his times, for sure. Lincoln saw that The Civil War was a situation in which both the North & the South each saw that God was on their sides. So he realized that whoever won the war, God and they, were right. There was no middle ground or rational discussions to be had.

Emerita Drew Faust, as I was listening/reading (Audible/Kindle), I realized that I had forgotten that in the midst of the death of 750,000 men, and the potential destruction of our country, we had a general election (1864). The Blue and Grey soldiers returned respectfully and orderly back to their towns, voted, and went back to fighting for another 5 months. They did what was right. There were no stolen ballot boxes, broken voting machines in the AA districts; no ‘hanging chads.’ Lincoln’s own party (Republicans at that time) actually asked him to find a compromise with the Southern Democrats to end the war! Lincoln was absolutely alone in his refusal/his decision. He said that their party must respect the people and the system; and do what was right. Would we have been able to stand our ground under that kind of enormous pressure?

The senators and congressmen went to White House in spring of 1974 to let, then President Nixon, know what he was doing was not right and that he would be Impeached if he didn’t step down. They recognized that their ‘Grand Experiment’/their precious Democracy, was far more important than their party affiliation. They did what was right.

What will it take for us to realize that we are and have been at an inflection point? When will the phrase, ‘I’ve seen worse’, ring hollow for us? Our very form of government is at stake. Have we lost our very minds/our very souls? The Capital Takeover was a sign. Will we listen? Have we gotten so ‘free’ that we are willing to gamble our very way of life on a pyrrhic general election victory? Oh, we’ve done that before!!!

The Republicans and Rutherford B. Hayes struck a deal, and with the Compromise of 1877, Black people were lynched, burned, butchered, and dragged for the next 80 years. Yes, this is very familiar territory...

Only in America can one be convicted on 34 counts and still run for president.

The people did what was right in 1864. The senators and congressmen did what was right in 1974. Will we do what is right in 2024?

"Cowardice asks, 'Is it safe?'
Expediency asks, 'Is it politic?'
Vanity asks, 'Is it popular?'
But, conscience asks, 'Is it right?'
And, every now and then,
there comes a time, in all of our lives,
when we must take a position
that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular,
but we must take a position,
because it is right!"

Is this that time for us?!

A week ago, a recent Harvard grad who was in the audience at the Breakfast Club event I spoke at, sent me this email, AFTER I had written this speech:

Dear Courtney,

When you spoke to the Breakfast Club earlier this year, your message about doing the right thing, resonated with me more than you may have expected. Harvard has given me more blessings than I can count. It has also made me fight for my idealism.

If life is like climbing a mountain, Harvard has introduced me to people who are approaching the summit. They act like shepherds, saying “I’ve taken your path before. Let me tell you what I’ve seen.” They offer encouragement but also warn of the unexpected setbacks they’ve faced: sudden medical diagnoses, economic crashes, and, most devastatingly, the times when they or someone they loved did the wrong thing. These acts of betrayal by others - or by oneself - seem to hurt the most. We all want to believe that we are heroes in our own story. These events can rob us of that self-narrative. What troubles me about these events is two-fold: First, not knowing enough to recognize whether you’re doing the right thing or not. And secondly, whether someone nearby is being charmed by the call of a siren you can’t hear. And hardening one’s heart is a result of it all.

When you came to Cambridge, I was (in the midst of) wondering how to reconcile my idealism with a realistic understanding of the world and the curse of incomplete information we forever endure. I was asking myself if it was possible to fight off cynicism and live with a tender heart.

You touched on this at the Breakfast Club, but you answered it as we walked around Cambridge afterwards. You taught me that you can be careful without being cynical, that there is always room for the tender-heart. More than just a mentor and a shepherd, you made me feel like I had a teammate in this fight for my own idealism. And that means the world to me. Thank you for everything, Courtney.


Thank you for that, Liam. Thank you for giving voice to all of us who are struggling with our idealism.

Continue that fight, knowing that you can be careful and not cynical, as you make room for your ‘tender-heart’, because in the words of Kaela in THE GREATEST SHOWMAN: 

I’m not a stranger to the dark,
Hide away, they say, ‘cause we don’t want your broken parts.
I’ve learned to be ashamed of all my scars,
Run-away they say, no one’ll love you as you are.
I won’t let them break me down to dust,
I know that there’s a place for us, FOR WE ARE GLORIUS!!!
When the sharpest words wanna cut me down,
I’m gonna send a flood gonna drown them out,
I am brave, I am bruised, I am who I’m meant to be,

Thank you so much for allowing me this time to share.

Be kind. Be respectful. Take care of your ‘tender-hearts.’ Let’s try harder to be people of our words. Young people are watching!!! And remember:

"Whatever you are going through,
It has come to pass.
It has not come to stay."

May God continue to richly bless each and every one of you!

Thank you…

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