Isabel Wilkerson Addresses Class of 2023 at Commencement

Photo by Marc Campos

While the problems facing America can seem overwhelming, history shows us that we each have more power than we know—power that can change the course of history, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and historian Isabel Wilkerson told the Class of 2023 at Occidental College's 141st Commencement ceremony on May 21.

"If our ancestors could do what they did, with so much less than we have been given, then there's nothing that we cannot do in our day," Wilkerson, author of The Warmth of Other Suns and Caste , told the 514 graduates and more than 3,500 family members and friends who filled Remsen Bird Hillside Theater.

"We labor to this day under the weight of the history that we have inherited, the history of manufactured divisions of hierarchy and caste, because our country is like an old house," Wilkerson said. "Many people might rightly say I had nothing to do with how this all started. I had nothing to do with the sins of the past ... Not one of us was here when this house was built. ... But here we are, the current occupants of a property with stress cracks and bowed walls and fissures built into the foundation. We are the heirs of whatever is right or wrong with it."

All of us have the power and the duty to educate ourselves about "the true and full history of this old house we inherited, to raise and educate the next generation to be fairer, and more just than the ones before," she continued. "We have the power to harness our own strength, and the responsibility to harness our own strength. ... One person has the power to influence everyone around them."

The collective impact of the 6 million Black Americans who rejected the South's Jim Crow system and moved north through much of the 20th century—the subject of The Warmth of Other Suns —provides an inspirational example of what Wilkerson called "the power of the individual decision," which multiplied millions of times became a leaderless revolution.

By making the decision to leave all that they knew and everyone they loved—like all migrants everywhere, and as the ancestors of most Americans did at some point—"they freed themselves, and in doing so helped free the country of a formal Jim Crow system and put so much pressure on this country it was forced to take notice," she said. "They paved the way for civil rights and rights for immigrants and other marginalized groups."

Wilkerson was presented with an honorary degree by President Harry J. Elam, one of two presented at the ceremony. The second was awarded to Tim Sanford '75, whose 25 years as artistic director of Playwrights Horizon in New York turned the nonprofit theater into the one of the country's leading incubators of modern American theater.

The College also presented two posthumous masters in urban studies degrees to Richard Earl Brooks and Herbert Alvarez. In 1972, Brooks and Alvarez completed their coursework but were denied their degrees because they had been admitted to the program without having completed their bachelor’s degrees. At the time, the faculty required that students have a bachelor’s before conferring the masters. After being contacted by Alvarez' family, faculty voted earlier this year to award the degrees.