“Reject The Slander That Says A Black Child With A Book Is Trying To Act White” The Best Celebrity Commencement Speakers

May 6, 2014  |  
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It’s a wonderful time of the year for college students around the nation. With young adults bidding farewell to frat parties, all-nighters and general recklessness, students are gearing up for one final hurrah: Graduation. So now seems as good a time as ever to take a look back at our favorite celebrity commencement speakers whose words we have no doubt will stick with these grads throughout the years.


We may be a little ways off from his highly-anticipated and hotly-contested commencement speech at Howard University, but regardless of how it goes, P. Diddy’s visit to one of the country’s most prestigious HBCUs is sure to be memorable. He is one of the most successful Hip-Hop moguls after all.


It’s difficult to zero-in on exactly which speech we think is Oprah’s best — she has delivered commencement addresses at Harvard, Stanford, and Duke — but, we’d have to say her most recent speech at Harvard was certainly a good one. With lines like “Not too many girls from rural Mississippi have made it all the way here to Cambridge,” Ms. Winfrey’s speech was both inspiring and relatable.

Toni Morrison

It’s no surprise that a woman as accomplished and gifted as Toni Morrison would deliver a knock-out graduation speech. In May 2004, Morrison spoke at Wellesley College in a candid, no-nonsense way that only she could.

Conan O’Brien

Granted it wasn’t really a commencement speech, but Conan O’Brien’s Class Day speech in front of students at his alma mater was one of the most memorable in the annals of celebrity speeches. O’Brien was utterly hilarious, self-deprecating and uniquely inspiring, giving students a dose of realism about the professional world.

Stephen Colbert

Soon-to-be Late Show host Stephen Colbert delivered a stellar address to Northwestern’s graduating class of 2011. Reflecting on his time at the University and infusing his dry sense of humor along with some sage advice, Colbert had students, parents and faculty laughing hysterically and clinging to every word.

Barack Obama

There was no chance we would recap the greatest celebrity commencement speeches without including the inspiration doled out by President Barack Obama to the graduating class of 2013 at The Ohio State University. With a simple directive to “… do better. I dare you to dream bigger,” Obama provided a positive, yet ambitious messages for seniors.

Michelle Obama

First Lady Michelle Obama certainly didn’t disappoint with her speech to the graduates of Bowie State University. Two of our favorite lines:

“Instead of walking miles every day to school, they’re sitting on couches for hours playing video games, watching TV. Instead of dreaming of being a teacher or a lawyer or a business leader, they’re fantasizing about being a baller or a rapper.”

“Please reject the slander that says a black child with a book is trying to act white,” Obama said. “In short, be an example of excellence for the next generation.”


Dolly Parton

Granted, it may not have been the most inspiring commencement speech to ever be delivered, but it sure was entertaining. Country legend Dolly Parton bestowed some memorable parting words on the students at University of Tennessee at Knoxville back in Spring 2009. Line of the afternoon:

“… Nervous, because I know that I am suppose to say something meaningful to you. Maybe some good advice for you to always remember. Now I usually try not to give advice. Information, yes, advice, no. But, what has worked for me may not work for you.

“Well, take for instance what has worked for me. Wigs. Tight clothes. Push up bras. High heel shoes, five inch high heel shoes. All I gotta say, take my advices some of you boys out there may find yourself on a little different career path than you might have planned. And you girls better be careful, too, seriously.”

Bill Cosby

“If one of you, sitting out there tries to use this graduation as a Mother’s Day gift I hope you get punched… That is how Bill Cosby kicked off his hilarious, yet insightful speech to Temple’s 2013 graduating class. Cosby’s likeable nature, good humor and fatherly demeanor all contributed to what had to have been a memorable day for students and their parents.

Steve Jobs

In 2005, Steve Jobs delivered a moving, personal and poignant commencement speech to graduates at Stanford University. While not known for his friendly nature, Jobs came off incredibly likeable while providing students with advice on how to pursue their dreams and live as independently as possible.

Bill Clinton

Dubbed the first black president before there was a president of color in the White House, Bill Clinton seemed a strangely apt commencement speakers for students at Howard University in 2013. The speech — which included a Phi Beta Sigma shoutout less than two minutes in — focused largely on global interdependence and unity. Though a little long-winded at times, Clinton’s charisma and overall message made this speech a success.


Jane Lynch

She is one funny lady and certainly didn’t disappoint when she took the podium for Smith College’s commencement in 2012. Filled with personality and undertones of female empowerment, Lynch’s speech skillfully mixed first-hand experience with universal themes that easily applied to the women of Smith.

Ellen Degeneres

Tulane invited the always hilarious Ellen Degeneres to speak to its 2009 graduates. A surprising fusion of a heartache, laughs and advice, Degeneres’ speech was a certifiable knockout. One standout line: “…As you grow, you’ll realize the definition of success changes. For many of you, today, success is being able to hold down 20 shots of tequila. For me, the most important thing in your life is to live your life with integrity, and not to give into peer pressure.”

Jon Stewart

William & Mary alum Jon Stewart delivered a speech that both embodied his trademark cynicism, while encouraging students to realize that despite the chaos around them, things (their lives, the world), will actually be OK.

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