(Editor’s note: The following is a transcript of remarks delivered by Antonio Delgado,’99, U.S. Representative for the 19th Congressional District of New York, at Colgate’s 198th Commencement, Sunday, May 19, 2019.)
What an amazing sight. To think that I was here 20 years ago. Never in my wildest imagination did I think I would be standing here today. It means the world to me to have this opportunity.
To President Casey, the administrators and faculty, distinguished guests, and to the graduates, their parents, relatives, and friends — good morning and congratulations to Colgate’s Class of 2019! As a proud graduate of Colgate (Class of ’99), I am truly honored to be with you on such a momentous occasion. And I am deeply humbled by the opportunity to deliver the commencement address in the year when Colgate — one of the finest universities in the world — celebrates its bicentennial anniversary!
I want to first thank Adonal Foyle.* You are a man of class, a dear friend, a scholar, an athlete, and now an author. My children just bought a couple of your books yesterday.
I also want to acknowledge President Casey for your incredible dedication and commitment to this University. On top of that, you’re pretty cool! He was a captain of the Notre Dame swim team, and if I’m not mistaken, still swims, with the Colgate swim team today. Not bad.
I also want to acknowledge one of my closest mentors, Professor [Harvey] Sindima, for the many hours spent together in your office when I struggled with a lot of truths, and your sage wisdom, your undying patience, and your profound commitment to aiding me in finding my truth, I will be forever grateful. Thank you.
Today, 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 and she believed in the power of love. And because she believed in that power, in her power to love, I am here.
Graduates, as you begin your journey into what some like to call the real world — and what at times can no doubt appear to be a cruel, dark and ugly world — I want to talk to you today about your greatest power — the power to love, which is to say, the power to light the world with your truth. In love, you will find the courage to turn down all the noise that is outside you in order to hear your inner voice. In love, you will find the strength to follow your heart and intuition when all around you think otherwise.
Love of Philosophy
I fell in love with philosophy my freshman year at Colgate (1995), not long after I met the late great Professor Joseph Wagner — he was an intellectual giant on campus, and he had a booming heart to match. And as fate would have it, he taught my first-year seminar, What is Real and What is True. The course, which introduced me to the great works of Plato, pushed me to question certain truths I had been raised by my parents to accept without challenge — from truths about God and religion, to truths about my own life’s path.
One of those truths, as determined by my father, was that I was going to be a doctor. Not because he was a doctor, but because he so fervently believed in both the nobility and financial security of the profession, and he wished that when he was coming of age as an inner-city young boy in poverty, someone took the time to push him in that direction. Looking back — and as a father of identical twin boys, Maxwell and Coltrane — I understand where he was coming from; and his unrelenting commitment to my success in many ways developed in me the work ethic and discipline I now see as invaluable tools for any endeavor. Nevertheless, dad pushed — very hard and from a very early age. He pushed so hard and so often, I had little room to entertain any other possibility; that is, until I met Professor Wagner and spent countless, countless hours — many of which dragged into the wee hours of the night — discussing everything I had once taken for granted, down to the very meaning of life.
It took a good two years, during which I actually dropped chemistry and struggled to keep my head above water in courses like biology and vertebrate zoology, before deciding to walk away from pre-med in order to focus on philosophy and political science. My father was disappointed, and he said as much. I still have a vivid recollection of that moment. But as soon as I made the switch, and pursued what I truly loved, I thrived in the classroom. So much so, that during my senior year, Professor Wagner pulled me aside and suggested, much to my disbelief, that I should apply for a Rhodes Scholarship. That moment, which changed my life, would have never occurred had I not followed my heart, and the only reason I was able to do so, was because of the courage I derived from the power of love — in this case, my love of philosophy and Professor Wagner’s love of teaching. Professor Wagner remained a dear friend and mentor long after I graduated from Colgate — right up until we lost him to cancer in July of 2016. He never got to see me run for Congress, but he lives on in everything I do, and in the lives of so many other students he taught and mentored. I miss him dearly. May God rest his soul.
Love of Hip Hop & Justice
You see, 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 LA 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.
Love of Country
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 in order 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 Pettus 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.
Love of Home & Community
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.
And yet, I’m as upstate as anyone can be — born and raised in Schenectady. The proud son of two parents who were longtime employees of GE, back when GE had a real presence in upstate NY and gave working families like mine all across the region a chance to climb the economic ladder with good-paying jobs. In my household, like so many others in upstate New York, and across the country, for that matter, education was talked about as the great equalizer, the gateway to opportunity — no matter your race, class, religion, or gender. I’d walk home after school, a latchkey kid at 8 years old, let myself in, do my homework, leave it on the counter, and wait for mom and dad to come home to review — they did this, every single night. And if I wasn’t hitting the books, I was in church or on the basketball court, my very first love.
And all of this is what got me here to Colgate in 1995, a wide-eyed student eager to make an impression from The Coop down to The Pub, and everywhere in between. I never jumped into Taylor Lake, but I may have taken a few romantic strolls along Willow Path. I was indeed on the varsity basketball team — the last team to make it to the NCAA tournament, before, well, this year’s team! And how about that team! Now, I can’t sit here and say I ever got much real playing time. Actually, I got none; but I am a member of the Upstate New York Basketball Hall of Fame — note the word upstate.
I can go on and talk about how my wife, Lacey, also grew up in upstate, just an hour away from me in Woodstock. Or how we got engaged in the beautiful Hudson Valley and married in the Catskills, both in upstate. But the point is that upstate is and always will be home. And it was love of home that enabled me to trust that home would love me back in the face of an onslaught of hate-based attacks. There were many observers who wanted me to lash out in anger and to zero in on the ugliness of the attacks — to make it all about how nasty the hate was. And I certainly felt the temptation to do so. But what felt more real, more true, was to get out there, and listen, and connect in a genuine way with people in every corner of my district — to lead with my heart by extending my arms rather than crossing them. Were there disagreements? Of course there were. When a third of your district is Republican, one-third Democratic, and one-third independent, you’d better believe there’s going to be disagreements. But love has a way of making folks disagree in an agreeable fashion, and it can inspire you to reach beyond differences in order to find common ground.
And 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.
Love Conquers All
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.
The world needs more of the love, creativity, and dedication of people like graduating senior Uyi Omorogbe, a first-generation American, soccer player, and entrepreneur who created economic opportunities in Africa by harnessing the talents of Nigerian tailors to create a modern clothing company inspired by traditional designs. He then used the profits from over $45,000 worth of sales to renovate a primary school in the rural Nigerian village in which his father grew up. And I just found out yesterday that he is a member of the very church I grew up in. We need more of the desire to help others from people like graduating senior Oneida Shushe, a molecular biology major who has sought to make a difference in the lives of those who struggle to overcome barriers to health and wellness. She founded the Bigger Smiles Project to spread awareness of oral health in her native Albania, served as a patient advocate at a homeless shelter, and among many other acts of goodwill, started a student chapter of Kiwanis to engage more of her peers in direct service. This summer, through a Kathryn Davis Projects for Peace fellowship, she will work in post-war Kosovo to help children and minority populations access dental health care.
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.”
Now, as I was preparing my remarks for today, someone asked if I was going to rap on stage. I’m not going to do that. But I do want to leave you with something I wrote around ten years ago, back when I was AD the Voice. It goes like this:
we the people feel the wrath of hate
tragic fate, can hope escape, before it’s too late
take more than words to see us through
can you believe in you, get past what division do
listen, hear the voice in you, the Rolls Royce in you
the drive to move, yes we can, if only knew power
deep inside, so true, blinded by lies of few
so far between, the dream, what seem to be
nightmare, freedom, never got quite there
look inside your soul, truth live right there
right hand on bosom of love, I swear
I dare, cause I know all come from one
I care, cause I know we light the sun
ain’t fair, how we treat parts like the sum
of the whole, when the whole more than the sum
of its parts, all beat from one heart, one spark
light the fire inside, to be more than alive
a natural high, close your eyes, touch the sky
open your mind, free the butterflies
goodbye, cocoon of fear / no room, for sorrows tears
peace reign, over atmosphere / tomorrow’s here
the futures now, get found (repeat)
To Colgate’s Class of 2019, I say to you today, get out there and go lead with some love! Thank you!
*Foyle, Colgate Class of ’98, former NBA player and founder of Democracy Matters, introduced Delgado to the commencement audience.