Baccalaureate Address: Maurice Eldridge '61

Good morning and welcome parents, friends, Class, platform guests, and thank you Bennett, my dear friend and schoolmate, for the reading; thank you, President Al Bloom, my inspiring friend and leader, for giving me the honor of speaking today to the Class of 2009.

I have thought long and deeply about what I might say on this day to You, a group of students who, to my mind, have already distinguished your selves as members of a generation that has experienced Swarthmore as the model approach to liberal arts education and at producing, as Al would describe you, the citizen leaders of an ever more just, generous, and inclusive society and world. So many of you already practice the skills that will be needed to negotiate that world and move it forward — we see the evidence every day through the full range of your intellectual and academic successes and the marriage of your acumen and knowledge to your efforts to bring justice forward (I think, for example, of War News Radio and its offspring, of STAND, successor to Swat Sudan and the on-going Genocide Intervention Network, Nolarize, Penum, Top Soccer, Dare to Soar, to name only a few). During the closing days of this academic year at the Athletics banquet, the BCC and IC banquets, I was humbled, even bowled over, by the recitation of your accomplishments and the wide range of your endeavors and commitments. The Spring Semester brings us a wide range of musical performances, theater, and dance productions, outpourings of journals of essays and literary magazines, senior art exhibits, all of which delight the senses and stimulate our minds and hearts.

What, I have asked myself over and over, can I offer such paragons as these on such an occasion as this?!

Historically, Baccalaureates are, if not religious, somehow spiritual. I decided that "spiritual" had to mean that I devise a gift of myself, from my heart, shaped by my head and hand.

I am going to take you on an episodic trip, touching a few milestones of personal experience, crossing a few of the borders I have encountered over the nearly seven decades I have been on my journey. I will share two Langston Huges poems emblematic of my spirit.

First, his

Dream Boogie
By Langston Hughes, 1951

 

Good morning, daddy!
Ain't you heard
The boogie-woogie rumble
Of a dream deferred?

Listen closely:
You'll hear their feet
Beating out and beating out a -

You think
It's a happy beat?
Listen to it closely:
Ain't you heard
something underneath
like a -

What did I say?

Sure,
I'm happy!
Take it away!

Hey, pop!
Re-bop!
Mop!

Y-e-a-h!

I was born 75 years after the Emancipation Proclamation in the sleepy, southern, segregated town you know as Washington, D.C. — our nation's capital. My first and most powerful memory of an act of Jim Crow comes from the third year of my life there in my hometown.

In the early 1940s my mother took my older brother and me "home," that is back to her home in Mississippi. We were leaving D.C. "T" and I were excited, beside ourselves with the train ride and yet the memory of it is tainted, has been forever seen mistily through our mother's tears. We had settled into our seats, scrambling to share the window view as the train pulled out of the underground level of Union Station, where trains going South departed and thrilled as we came into the early morning light and crossed the bridge over the Potomac into Virginia. Water led to water. The train paused in Virginia and the conductor came through and moved all of us "colored folk" from our comfort to another, less well appointed car to more crowded conditions. Here was my brother and my first encounter with segregation, with Jim Crow, and with a vision of tears on our mother's cheeks because she could not bring herself to answer her babies' importunate "WHY?" We did not understand why we had to move, to be crowded, to do what that man said.

Washington was then the fiefdom of southern white senators and representatives who ruled over it, controlled its finances, enforced the separateness of its segregated two-tiered school system. Its citizens were even more disenfranchised then than they are today.

We didn't see white people in our neighborhood except when they came to find parking to get to games at nearby (and now long gone) Griffith Stadium, home of the baseball Washington Senators and football's Redskins. We lived our lives fully and not unhappily without contact but we too often found the constraints underlying the separateness worked against us, not them. Stores in which you were not welcomed to try on clothing, counters at which you could not sit to drink a coke (my sister tells us that by now Mama had an answer...we wouldn't try their coke because what we had at home was better).

I remember once being terrified because I had gotten on the wrong bus back from downtown; it turned out to be a rush hour express filled with only white-skinned people and sped past my stop and beyond the borders of all familiar territory without a single stop and I was too scared to ask the driver or any passenger for help.

When it stopped at last I got off and trudged in a southerly direction, having spoken to no one. Alone in my fright but putting on a brave face, I finally reached familiar territory and prepared my excuses for being so late getting home.

I took my last trip as a boy to my grandparents' home in Mississippi when I was 13 years old (in what turned out to be two summers before Emmett Till, another northern boy about my age, was murdered by some who claimed he had insulted a white woman). I stayed on for a longer visit after the rest of the family returned to D.C. I loved being on the farm, welcomed its warm and cricket loud evenings, its dark night sky projecting star light brighter and more alive than we ever could see in the city. I loved the freedom to roam its acres, licking the cows' saltlicks, chasing the geese, picking the ripening peaches or pears, sampling my grandmother's preserves, daring the swamp land to fish under trees from which cottonmouths dangled. I remember my grandmother rejecting the catfish I had proudly caught, saying it was a filthy garbage eater, unfit for us to eat. She had other lessons for me too... how to talk to white folks if I met them along the way... not to sound northern less they find me uppity, say "yazza" rather than "yes sir." She was working on my survival of course, but I couldn't bear to do it, so I took big circles around any white person, daring not to speak.

My brother and I were oddities in Sunday School class because we read fluently and our southern age mates read haltingly, reflecting little or no schooling and that felt just as bad as the need to avoid the whites.

When it came time to go home, Grandma made sure I got a haircut; I was shorn of most of my locks and felt naked and violated... shy the way a newly shorn poodle or sheep feels and so even less sure of myself. When it came time to catch the train she made me put my money in my sock and crowd it into my shoe with my foot and that made me even more afraid of taking the journey alone. She told me to talk to no one, and packed me with a wonderful basket of fried chicken and her wonderful apple tarts and I was off, bound for home. I had to remember that I would change trains in Meridian (still in Mississippi) and was asleep when we got there. The conductor woke me up and told me to get off and wait for the train that would take me to D.C. Sleepy eyed and mindful that night had fallen, I wandered into the waiting room, sat down, and started to doze off again. A shadow fell across me and I looked up at the flushed and unfriendly face of a giant policeman looming over me. "Boy! You don't belong in here. Get out and go next door." Speechless, I quickly exited the waiting room, and, back on the platform, I stared into the dark and forbidding adjacent "colored only" waiting room. I couldn't go in and so sat out the wait in the chill night on a bench out on the platform.

I endured most of that journey home in silence, alone with my thoughts and fear, unable to even remember the good times I had had on the farm. I was relieved and thankful to arrive safely back into the bosom of my family.

Already I have described more than one border crossing, experiences whose meaning became really clear to me on later reflection. And both the reflection and the border crossing experiences are, I believe, important ingredients in the making of a balanced life in which one might be able to do some good in this world. And the opportunity to reflect on one's experience is made more possible through the love and support others may give along the way. Strong family relationships and developed friendships are vital.

My Mississippi grandmother's admonitions about how I should speak were nothing less than love presented in the form of a lesson for survival.

Then there was my other set of grandparents, living when I knew them, in Brooklyn, N. Y. Their journey had begun in the South and progressed north to Petersburg, Va., Hartford, Ct., and finally, to my grandfather's last Church, Brooklyn's Berean Baptist, a church established before the Civil War by a group of abolitionists and free blacks. It has endured and thrived for more than 150 years. My grandfather Eldridge, whom I have always remembered as a man larger than life, full of joy and energy, died when I was five, so my grandmother moved to a new neighborhood — one that had just begun to integrate, in 1945, mind you!

It was my luck over the next few years of visits north to be befriended there by a wonderful white lady, perhaps Italian, who taught me and my brother to play Canasta (a two-deck card game). What I remember vividly and never experienced in memory as anything but a generously loving gesture, was the time, sitting on her stoop, when she took my hand and stroking it, told me what a beautiful color I was and that I must never let anyone make me less than I am because of it. Hers was another example of generosity at a boarder crossing.

In 1954 — the year that the Supreme Court, through the Brown vs. Board of Education decision, made separate but equal segregated schools unlawful — unbeknownst to me, I had my first encounter with Swarthmore College. Fated, I suppose. That year, our "senior year" at Banneker Junior High School, two friends, Charles Bush, Michael Evans, and I were invited, as the top three boys in our class, to undertake a series of mysterious tests and interviews. It turned out we were being considered for the role of first Negro student at the Capitol Page Boy School (Charles, the shortest of us, was chosen since you had to be able to pass unnoticed behind the Justices' chairs). The Court was making sure it had already desegregated its school before issuing its landmark decision. Had I been shorter, I might never have made it to Swarthmore! Fortunately for me, at the same time our famous junior high, D.C.'s premier "colored" school, along with Dunbar High, was visited by representatives of progressive boarding schools like Putney and the Windsor Mountain School. I considered both and chose Windsor as the perfect place for me. The headmaster and his wife, both Swarthmore grads, as it turned out, persuaded my mother over the phone to let me go away to the Berkshires to their school.

It was a homecoming for me — a rarity among New England prep schools in those days, Windsor was co-ed, multi-racial, a haven, too, for European refugees, including among my new friends, people who had survived concentration camps during the Holocaust. All this visited upon the staid old New England town of Lenox where I couldn't even get a haircut. My first taste of Swarthmore-like activism came here; after I had been told that they "don't cut my kind of hair" by the barber, and reported the experience to Heinz Bondy, my headmaster, we boycotted the barber for the next three years and invited others in to campus periodically to cut hair in our rec room. I spent three wonderful years there where I was nurtured by the love, respect, and guidance of my teachers and the school's founder and leaders to become more fully myself, to be a good student and a campus leader, and finally a successful applicant to our dear Swarthmore.

Only, Swarthmore wasn't all that I had hoped when I got here in September of 1957. It self suddenly more integrated than it had been — only a small handful of blacks had preceded me here — and so I found myself at another border, more pioneer than ever and more burdened than I had anticipated.

Still, I was drawn to the place, happy to be here, eager to make new friends and, of course, I readily succumbed to the over commitment to academics and extracurricular life and my lack of "time management skills."

Having always been tops in school, who imagined the heights to be scaled here were Himalayan in their challenges?!

My new friends and I wanted a more diverse (not our language then) campus and a more universal and active commitment to integration, to fighting McCarthyism and the other perceived evils of our time, and our faculty wanted our full attention. Imagining, I think, that if we did our intellectual work well, we could quietly absorb our Quaker values and take the time to make the world better after we got through. Certainly for the most part they did not imagine that we could or should try to change the place itself.

It turns out that as time, institutional evolution (with the clashes of fury and storm that accompany change whether evolutionary or revolutionary) proved that the formula was incomplete; what was needed was a marriage between at least two of our human capacities; a marriage of mind and spirit, of heart and intellect, of dreams and praxis, would create the more perfect Swarthmore, the one more fully realized and visible today.

Let me illustrate this point with another episode from my life.

During the spring of my sophomore year in 1959, I was a campus leader with some others, organizing a March on Washington to hasten integration of the schools, to create our own definition of the Supreme Court's decree to desegregate with "all deliberate speed." As one of less than a handful of people of color on campus (outside of the lower paid work force), you can imagine that I had no difficulty making myself visible. Of course, that also made me a target; so, during this campaign, I received some pieces of rather vicious and anonymous hate mail and was devastated by it. To the rescue came two different forces. The dean painstakingly went through every student registration card (no computers back then, remember!), matching handwriting. He caught the guy and pretty soon expelled him. I did not like that outcome. The guy came to me himself, told me his troubles, and apologized. I forgave him and wished he hadn't been expelled.

The other force was the work of my friends and compatriots in the cause. They mounted their own campaign to compel the entire campus to condemn the letters through guilt tripping or eliciting fellow feeling on the issue (copies of the letter were posted on the bulletin boards). It didn't really work. But what my friends and the dean overlooked was me — the hurting, crying on the inside little old me. The loving generosity of my grandmother and my Brooklyn neighbor, their sympathy and empathy, were absent from the repertoire of our campus response.

We simply did not exercise our shared capacity to see and feel for and with the other.

And let me tell one more quick story about commonality lest I leave the impression that this is all only about my being a victim.

Back in the days of my segregated education in D.C., around 3rd or 4th grade I was stricken with Scarlet Fever and taken off by ambulance to a segregated hospital where I, along with Dennis, my roommate, was subjected to some rather mean treatment by the medical staff. I found that in that setting, I was actually capable of being rather mean to little Dennis myself. Once, I scared him into tears by locking him in the bathroom. I was deeply embarrassed by my behavior but from such an experience I came to understand that our common humanity includes its dark side. Mastery of this internal potential conflict — our capacity to do good or evil — requires achieving real balance between our emotions and our intellects.

Back now to the spring of 1959 at Swarthmore. My mother visited me that spring and found a copy of the hate note and I found her, one more time, in tears — the key as it happened to unlocking my own. I fled home once more to the bosom of my family for that next year and despite the dean's spoken speculation that perhaps I didn't belong at Swarthmore, I returned, mastered myself and Swarthmore — formed lasting friendships across all the divides of our campus and left here, as you say now, a Swattie, prepared and determined to make a difference in my world.

What I learned then without knowing it was that Swarthmore has a characteristic which is one of its most enduring virtues, of always wanting to be better than it finds itself at the present moment and, much to my surprise, the intercepting circles of my life brought me back here again 20 years ago to participate more consciously in that "making better."

This 20 years encompasses the Bloom years and much "making better" at all sorts of border crossings on campus, in local communities, across the nation and world, between classroom and community, between staff and students, faculty and staff, race and class and gender and sexuality, with ever increasing, however imperfect, understanding, newly minted friendships, and a greater capacity for experiencing and acting with empathy as a match to our awesome intellectual powers.

Coming to the mantra of this new age, — Hope — I say with Langston Hughes to have hope we must dream — and I know we are all dreamers — we scientists, we social scientists, we humanists.

Let us acknowledge that common bond as we go forward to make our globe safe, inhabitable, whole.

I close with a final episode and a second poem by Langston Hughes. This past January, my wife Joan and I took a subway train from our hotel in Northern Virginia back across the Potomac River in to Washington, D. C., to witness the inauguration of Barack Obama as president. So much of what my first crossing in 1943 represented had been dramatically overcome in the unfolding of the intervening 66 years and that change, slow from some perspectives, and certainly not yet complete, my friends, gives me great hope for what can and will be achieved in your life time.

I Dream a World

I dream a world where man
No other man will scorn,
Where love will bless the earth
And peace its paths adorn.
I dream a world where all
Will know sweet freedom's way,
Where greed no longer saps the soul
Nor avarice blights our day.
A world I dream where black or white,
Whatever race you be,
Will share the bounties of the earth
And every man is free,
Where wretchedness will hang its head
And joy, like a pearl,
Attends the needs of all mankind -
Of such I dream, my world!