With COVID-19 causing cancellations and postponements of graduations in 2020, we wanted to share two previous commencement speeches by Mount Vernon native son, Denzel Washington to inspire not just the Class of 2020 but for many of us having to navigate through these uncharted waters and find our way while dealing with our new normal.
The first is Denzel’s Make A Difference speech – During commencement at Dillard University, Denzel Washington delivers an inspiring speech about the necessity of failing in order to grow and achieve greatness.
The second is titled Fail Forward. Denzel Washington’s Motivational And Inspiring Commencement Speech At The University of Pennsylvania. Denzel shares his stories of failure, and how success is always just one failure away.
Here is a longer version of Denzel’s Fail Forward Speech he delivered again in 2019. Watch this every day and share this with the youth. To go where you have never gone, you have to be willing to do something you have never done. This is a message that can inspire us at any age.
Denzel Hayes Washington Jr. was born in Mount Vernon, New York, on December 28, 1954. His mother, Lennis “Lynne” (née Lowe; born 1924), was a beauty parlor owner and operator born in Georgia and partly raised in Harlem, New York. His father, Denzel Hayes Washington Sr. (1909–1991), was a native of Buckingham County, Virginia, an ordained Pentecostal minister, and an employee of the New York City Water Department, as well as working at a local S. Klein department store.
Washington attended Pennington-Grimes Elementary School in Mount Vernon until 1968. When he was 14, his parents divorced and his mother sent him to the private preparatory school Oakland Military Academy in New Windsor, New York. Washington later said, “That decision changed my life, because I wouldn’t have survived in the direction I was going. The guys I was hanging out with at the time, my running buddies, have now done maybe 40 years combined in the penitentiary. They were nice guys, but the streets got them.” After Oakland, he attended Mainland High School in Daytona Beach, Florida from 1970 to 1971. He was interested in attending Texas Tech University: “I grew up in the Boys Club in Mount Vernon, and we were the Red Raiders. So when I was in high school, I wanted to go to Texas Tech in Lubbock just because they were called the Red Raiders and their uniforms looked like ours.” He earned a BA in Drama and Journalism from Fordham University in 1977. At Fordham, he played collegiate basketball as a guard under coach P.J. Carlesimo. After a period of indecision on which major to study and taking a semester off, Washington worked as creative arts director of the overnight summer camp at Camp Sloane YMCA in Lakeville, Connecticut. He participated in a staff talent show for the campers and a colleague suggested he try acting.
Returning to Fordham that fall with a renewed purpose, Washington enrolled at the Lincoln Center campus to study acting, where he was given the title roles in Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones and Shakespeare’s Othello. He then attended graduate school at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, California, where he stayed for one year before returning to New York to begin a professional acting career.
Denzel went on to become an actor, director, and producer, and arguable one of the greatest actors of our time. He has received two Golden Globe awards, one Tony Award, and two Academy Awards: Best Supporting Actor for the historical war drama film Glory (1989) and Best Actor for his role as corrupt detective Alonzo Harris in the crime thriller Training Day (2001). He is widely regarded as one of the greatest actors of his generation and is considered an American cultural icon.
Washington has received much critical acclaim for his film work since the 1980s, including his portrayals of real-life figures such as South African anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko in Cry Freedom (1987), Muslim minister and human rights activist Malcolm X in Malcolm X (1992), boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter in The Hurricane (1999), football coach Herman Boone in Remember the Titans (2000), poet and educator Melvin B. Tolson in The Great Debaters (2007), and drug kingpin Frank Lucas in American Gangster (2007). He has been a featured actor in films produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and has been a frequent collaborator of directors Spike Lee, Antoine Fuqua, and Tony Scott. In 2016, he received the Cecil B. DeMille Lifetime Achievement Award at the 73rd Golden Globe Awards.
In 2002, Washington made his directorial debut with the biographical film Antwone Fisher. His second directorial effort was The Great Debaters (2007). His third film, Fences (2016), in which he also starred, was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture.
An average dude from Mount Vernon who hung in the streets like many of us have who had people push him, who pushed himself, who learned to embrace his failures and Fail Forward. To all young people reading this, if Denzel became successful, with hard work and dedication you can too, no matter where you are from or where you live, no matter what limitations or obstacles you face. When people tell you, you can’t, when things seem like they are not working out, when you begin to doubt and you need some inspiration, watch these videos and inspire yourself.