“Don’t Lie”: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie urges Harvard’s Class of 2018 to uphold the truth

Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie just became the first African to deliver a Class Day speech at Harvard University, joining the likes of former US Vice President under President Obama, Joe Biden, former US President Bill Clinton, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mother Teresa, CNN host Christiane Amampour, and Corretta Scott King, the wife of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who delivered the very first Class Day speech in 1968 (Dr. King accepted the invitation before he was assassinated in April of that year, and his wife spoke in his place).

The award-winning novelist stressed the importance of truth during her Class Day speech on 23 May to graduating Harvard seniors, not just for the nation but for themselves. 

“At no time has it felt as urgent as now that we must protect and value the truth,” she said to applause on a sunny afternoon in the Tercentenary Theatre. “The biggest regrets of my life are those times when I did not have the courage to embrace the truth.”

The writer went on to tell the graduating class of 2018 an anecdote about meeting an established male writer at a conference, well before she became one herself. She knew his name, but not his works. Despite that, she shook his hand and told him she was a huge fan. Then his wife turned to her: “So which of his books have you read? she asked. Adichie froze. Then quickly mumbled, “The one about the man discovering himself?” before fleeing the scene.

“I’m not asking you to tell the truth because it will always work out,” she said, “But because you will sleep well at night,” the bestselling author of Americanah said while issuing an imperative to tell the truth.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie speaks at Havard Class Day 2018. Credit: Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

Adichie described her deep mortification at the mistake she made speaking to a male writer, and how, after the matter, she developed admiration for the “fantastic bullshit detector” of the writer’s wife. She told the graduates, “So have a good bullshit detector. If you don’t have it now, work on it.

“But having that detector means you must also use it on yourself, and sometimes the hardest truths are those we have to tell ourselves,” said Adichie, who recalled how an early manuscript of hers was rejected by publishers and how it took time to face the truth that it simply wasn’t good enough.

Adichie, who was a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study in 2011-12 also told an anecdote of an English woman who tried hard to make sure not to mispronounce her name in her introduction on stage at an event, but ended up with “Chimmichanga”, a result of anxiety.

“We now live in a culture of calling out, a culture of outrage, the author said, and you should call people out, you should be outraged, but always remember context, and never disregard intent.” With everyone shouting at each other across ideological lines around the world, Adichie’s call for context is particularly pertinent.

In talking about the obstacles she encounters during her writing process, Adichie reassured seniors that it is perfectly valid to feel a tempest of emotions when they’re pursuing something difficult.

“You cannot create anything of value without both self-doubt and self-belief,” she said. “Without self-doubt, you become complacent; without self-belief, you cannot succeed.”

“The world is calling you. America is calling you. There is work to be done. There are tarnished things that need to shine again. There are broken things that to be made whole again.”