I’m my high school’s first Black male valedictorian. I won’t be the last | Ahmed Muhammad

Ahmed Muhammad recently became the first Black male valedictorian in the 106-year history of Oakland Technical high school in Oakland, California, graduating at the top of his class with a 4.73 grade point average (GPA) and offers from 11 top universities. A video of his moving graduation speech subsequently went viral, drawing widespread attention on social media and even earning praise from the state’s governor.

Muhammad had previously earned fame for founding a non-profit called Kits Cubed that brings science kits to young students.

In his speech, Muhammad tackled the unprecedented circumstances that defined the class of 2021 – from the Covid-19 pandemic to the summer of Black Lives Matter protests – as well as the historic nature of his achievement. “While I may be the first young Black man to be our school’s valedictorian, I won’t be the last,” says Muhammad, who plans to attend Stanford in the fall.

Below is an edited version of that speech he delivered on 29 May.

My name is Ahmed Muhammad, and it is an honor to stand before you today, representing the class of 2021 as our Valedictorian.

I stand before you proud and amazed, but the glory is not mine. It belongs to my parents, who are my greatest inspirations, my biggest supporters, the two people who I can count on most in this world. The glory belongs to my brother and sister who are the absolute perfect blend of annoying and loving.

The glory belongs to the village that raised me along this journey. Family. Friends. Mentors. Coaches. Who supplement my weakness with their strength, and instill belief in me whenever I’m running low.

The glory belongs to all of our teachers, counselors, administrators, and the rest of faculty and staff, who are overworked, underpaid and underappreciated. Thank you for your commitment, your love, your nurturing, and your passion these last four years. We appreciate you.

The last time I gave a speech was in 2008, at my kindergarten graduation. I talked about how we were all caterpillars. And we were on our way to becoming butterflies. Something like that.

Can you believe that was 13 years ago? And, ironically, it feels like we’ve been in a cocoon over the last year. I can’t help but think about that kindergarten kid and my classmates. And the odds that we’d one day become butterflies.

Ahmed Muhammad also founded a nonprofit that brings science kits to young students.
Ahmed Muhammad also founded a non-profit that brings science kits to young students. Photograph: Courtesy Ahmed Muhammad

I had no idea so much was out there ready to weigh down our wings. How was I to know that the very colors that made me beautiful also exposed me to danger? Who knew some would presume that the best use for us is trapped beneath a glass, our wonder confined to spectacle, our value limited. There was a lot that tried to stop us from soaring, but our purpose is greater than any force that has tried to hold us back.

You should’ve seen me stressed out, poring through Google and YouTube for hours, trying to figure out what to say. Eventually, after watching other people’s graduation speeches, I realized what was wrong. I was trying to find a template, a blueprint, for us to follow. I was searching the experiences of others to convey our experience. And how could I do that? No one has been through what we’ve been through. Our high school experience was everything except for normal.

2020 got off to a weird start. Australia was on fire, Meghan Markle renounced her throne, World War 3 almost happened, the Niners actually made it to the Super Bowl, and this was all before March.

And then, in the midst of a very stressful junior year, we received a well-deserved pause. We were all so happy when this strange little virus called “Corona” gave us an extended spring break. After all, it was only gonna be here for like, two weeks, then we would go back to school.

That’s what we thought at least, but we know how the rest goes. TikTok blew up, toilet paper disappeared and, unfortunately, we were introduced to Zoom. And that’s if you were lucky enough to not catch the virus or have a loved one get sick. Jobs were lost, savings exhausted, housing unstable and mental health stretched. It felt like it kept getting worse.

And piling on top of the trauma, Black people were being gunned down by police. We marched in the streets in the middle of a pandemic because we had had enough.

A pandemic. A national reckoning with race. A completely altered way of life. And no template, no blueprint. We were being trapped in a glass jar, our wings banging against the glass ceiling as we were unable to fly.

But it’s not like we hadn’t been tested before. Did we forget?

In the ninth grade, 17 people were murdered in the Parkland Florida school shooting. Upset, horrified and fed up, we took a stand. Thousands of us led, organized and participated in walkouts to protest gun violence. Remember being out there in front of Tech? A sea of us on the lawn, camera crews documenting our passion and commitment, absorbing our energy.

In 10th grade, right before spring break of 2019, we went on strike alongside our teachers in protest of fair wages and equitable resources. We rallied. We organized. We marched. As sophomores.

In 11th grade, we trekked to San Francisco as part of the Global Youth Climate Strike. More rallying. More organizing. More marching. This time for the sustainability and longevity of our planet.

In 12th grade, after Covid took hundreds of thousands of lives, and trapped us at home, we remained vigilant. We remember the names of Ahmaud Arbery. Breonna Taylor. George Floyd. Toyin Salau. Rayshard Brooks. Ma’Khia Bryant. And we made sure the world remembered them too, as we took to the streets to shout their names from the remnant of hope that we had left.

That summer of 2020, even until now, we made our ancestors from the Civil Rights Movement proud. We honored the legacy of the Black Panthers who hailed from our great city, some even from this great school. A pandemic didn’t stop us. Teargas and rubber bullets didn’t stop us. Nothing did.

Protesters gather in Frank Ogawa Plaza in Oakland during a peaceful sit-in and march in the wake of George Floyd’s death on 4 June 2020.
Protesters gather in Frank Ogawa Plaza in Oakland during a peaceful sit-in and march in the wake of George Floyd’s death on 4 June 2020. Photograph: John G Mabanglo/EPA

Throughout each of our four years in high school, we have been tested. We have been tested physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually. And we’ve also had our fair share of Covid tests as well. Our limits have been pressed and readjusted, and pressed some more, and every single time, we’ve risen to the occasion.

So, no, I couldn’t find a speech to inspire our own. I couldn’t rely on a template to convey us. No class is like our class.

As some of you may have heard, I recently became the first Black male valedictorian in our school’s history. And I want to say something about that. Oakland Technical high school has been around for 106 years. And there is absolutely no way you can tell me I am the first Black person capable of being valedictorian. Not even close. So why me? Why do I get this honor? And why did I get the love, support and opportunity to do this? I don’t know.

But for all of those who didn’t get to maximize their potential, for all those who had the ability but lacked the opportunity, I owe it to them to appreciate this history made by the people who put me in this position. We owe it to them to make sure that, while I may be the first young Black man to be our school’s valedictorian, I won’t be the last.

I’m not the only first in this crowd. Many of us here are the first in our family to live in America, the first to graduate high school, and will be the first to attend college. We all owe it to the people who didn’t make it, who weren’t as blessed as us, to appreciate this position we are in, and to continue turning imaginations into realities.

Now, the looming question, something that’s crossed all of our minds, is: what’s next? And if our high school experience has taught us anything, it’s that we have absolutely no idea.

Life can be flipped on its head in an instant. We know this more than anyone. The future is uncertain. We don’t know what’s next. But we do know that we’re prepared for it, whatever it may be.

We’ve been in our proverbial cocoon over the last year or so. But today, class of 2021, we emerge new. We have matured into something special. If we know nothing else, we know we are capable. Within every single one of us exists potential. Untapped and immeasurable. Greater than what we even comprehend.

Yes, we are the class of social distancing and N95 masks. And we are the class of Black Lives Matter and Stop Asian American and Pacific Islander hate. Yes, we’re the class that has obnoxious TikTok dances. But we’re also the class that inaugurated the first woman vice-president.

We are the class of resilience. The class of strength. The class of hope.

We are Oakland Tech Bulldogs. The class of 2021.

As we embark on our journey, I hope we remember all of this. I hope we remember that everything we’ve been through, has prepared us for everything that’s coming next.

I hope we remember that, whether it feels like it or not, we’re ready to take on the world.

And lastly, I hope we remember that we are beautiful, and we were made to fly. Thank you.

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