Good afternoon graduating class of 2022. Today’s remarks, my last as a Professor of History at Swarthmore College are for you, the soon to be alumni of this august institution and for those alumni of previous years who studied with me. Swarthmore College students introduced me to many things: popular culture idioms and foolishness, the music and poetry of Jill Scott and Megan thee Stallion, but most important they have always challenged me to think about old stories in new ways for which I am grateful. Still, I was reluctant to accept the honor of serving as your final “lecturer.” The vast majority of students assembled here and in my twenty-five years at Swarthmore College never ventured near a course in African American History. Some boldly declared studying the Black past was too painful, others that teaching about slavery failed to uplift Black people. More egregious still, a recent student demanded that I stop speaking, specifically noting, “more people in this room agree with me than with you, so you should just stop speaking.” Ironically, this dismissive command brought me to the podium today. Reflecting on every Black women in my personal tribe and all of those other Black women, past and present, who have been told to stop speaking, I had no choice but to rise to the occasion and “use my platform” to share a bit of truth and offer some thoughts learned college graduates might find useful.
I remain unrelenting and unapologetic in my commitment to teach Black history: the story of our quest for justice and the development of strategies and hard-earned skills of survival, knowledge of which is essential for all who wish to understand the American past and present.
bell hooks, Octavia Butler, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Nikki Giovanni, Sherrilyn Ifill, Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, Ida B. Wells all served as intellectual mentors and guides in the arc of my teaching career. Re-reading and reflection brought to mind their voices, insights and any wisdom I may share today. And of course, a brief history lesson is necessary.
Visionary and multi-award-winning novelist Octavia Butler began to write science fiction and fantasy as she said, “When I began reading, heck, I wasn’t in any of this stuff I read…I wrote myself in, since I’m me and I’m here and I’m writing.” With these few simple sentences, Butler captured the story of the Black experience. Brought to these shores battered, bruised and in chains, Black people wrote ourselves into the story of the nation and in the process enhanced and redefined democracy in America.
The chief document of American democracy is soon to be 235 years old as the nation’s Constitution was “written in 1787, ratified in 1788, and in operation since 1789” America did not however approach democracy in practice until after the Civil War, after the passage of numerous amendments and after the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-20th century. The battle to end chattel slavery began not with white abolitionists but with Black enslaved human beings determined to free themselves and their brethren. The passage and ratification of the 13th Amendment (12/6/1865) elevated the Constitution, formally making it an anti-slavery document, thereby ending what William Lloyd Garrison called “A covenant with Death and an Agreement with Hell.” The 14th Amendment (passed June 13, 1866 ratified 7/9/1868) followed, granting birthright citizenship and establishing equal protection under law. The last of the Reconstruction Amendments, the 15th (passed 2/26/1869, ratified 2/3/1870) secured the right of the franchise for men irrespective of “race, color or previous condition of servitude.” These changes were forward thinking and potentially revolutionary. Thus empowered, Black men enthusiastically joined the American democratic project as they sat on juries, pursued elective office and wrote progressive laws, working to make a fuller freedom available to the 4 million formerly enslaved the nation over. Had their white peers, male and female, shared their radical commitment to a multi-racial democracy, Black history and American history would be vastly different. Sadly, America’s devotion to democracy ended on the shores of white liberty. The hope and possibilities of Black Reconstruction as W.E. B. Du Bois argued were extinguished by white backlash against Black freedom, backlash by individual citizens and by the courts. Black women who challenged, supported and cultivated Black male political insurgency in the late 19th century, fought and helped win passage of the 19th Amendment earning their right to vote in the 20th. Black suffragettes who first worked for the franchise beginning in the 1830s, discovered gender solidarity was no match for white supremacy. Indeed, they learned white woman, liked white men, used their new voting power to shore up anti-blackness and suppress Black liberty at every turn.
Full Black liberation, at least as it was tied to American jurisprudence remained illusive until after World War II. With apologies to those committed to fantasies about “the Greatest Generation”: those men and women who weathered the Great Depression and “saved the world from Nazis” as described by Toms Brokaw and Hanks and Steven Spielberg, it is vital we remember how many of that generation came home after fighting against Hitler and without a trace of irony went right back to fighting against liberty, equality and democracy for Black men and women in America. The true greats of that generation came home from a foreign war, took off their uniforms and headed down to southern court houses to register to vote, where like Medgar Evers, Hosea Williams, Amzie Moore and thousands of others they were turned away, denied their 14th and 15th Amendment rights despite the nation’s victory over fascism across the sea. Black (and Brown and Yellow and Red and yes, some white) men and women engaged in a bloody civil rights struggle from 1952 -1968 that violently took the lives of more than a hundred American citizens, and saw hundreds more beaten, injured and jailed. This was the price paid for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (arguably the most significant piece of civil rights legislation of that era) and the Civil Rights Act of 1968. This costly high point of American democracy undid the egregious legal, economic and social abuses that defined American apartheid aka Jim Crow segregation born in the ashes of Reconstruction.
Understand, from this rapid-fire condensed version of African American history, Black people fought for our full humanity, for justice, for our freedom for ourselves and our progeny and to claim all the rights of democracy. And in each era, our work and our sacrifices forced the nation to confront the dichotomy between democracy on paper and democracy as a lived experience. We made and are continuing to make this a democratic nation.
What does this difficult history – this dark story filled with loss and sadness - have to offer you, those whose futures are so bright? Having quickly walked through “the gloomy past,” I invite each of you to consider how it is you will be joining the struggle to maintain and grow American democracy in a moment of reactionary politics: when Americans have joined in lock step carrying torches and shouting anti-Semitic slogans and menacing fellow citizens? When leaders elected to federal office celebrate the words and deeds of those white supremacists who advocate violence against other Americans here at home and debase themselves by endorsing the world view of tyrannical dictators abroad? When the nation’s highest court has yet again acted to undermine voting rights, women rights, LGBTQIA rights? When medical misinformation and anti-science propaganda thrives though a million Americans have died in a pandemic? When have been witnesses to the national government ripping children from the arms of their mothers seeking refuge at our border? When our very home, the planet earth is hot and growing hotter in the face of our refusal to acknowledge the climate crisis and take necessary steps to address it?
First - Do not panic. Instead I say cultivate empathy, bear witness, and work for justice. Finally, I urge you all to Choose to Live.
Octavia Butler’s, The Parable of the Sower invites readers to engage with the idea of empathetic imagination. Lauren Olamina, the protagonist of the novel is a hyper-empath, meaning she feels, the pain she witnesses in those around her. A Trekkie long before I met Octavia Butler on the page or in the flesh, I had some familiarity with the idea of an empath from Gene Roddenberry’s “space western” the original Star Trek. Still it was Butler’s character Olamina who communicated both the danger and the real power of empathetic imagination. How different is the approach to the world if humans lead with empathy toward their fellows rather than sympathy, suspicion, competition, pity or contempt? Olamina’s “gift” makes her vulnerable to physical and psychic harm, from those she would help and those who witness her super human trait. Butler, of course, is welcoming readers to think, seriously about experiencing and understanding the pain of others, to see others as fully human as we see ourselves. See others, for example, not as “those little black children in Chester to be rescued” during a summer’s long engagement funded by the Lang Center, nor as the “poor” of the “developing world” to be uplifted and transformed through random acts of charity and upper-class philanthropy all stepping stones to the next stage of personal careers. Butler’s Olamina has some exciting ideas (“All that you touch you change. All that you change changes you. The only lasting truth is change. God is Change.”) but she does not have magical powers. She cannot fix the structural oppression or personal challenges of many people she encounters. The problems of her post-apocalyptic moment like our current moment, are vast and almost overwhelming. Yet and still, her gift means that she sees and experiences the pain of others almost as a piece of herself and acts accordingly.
If you find the idea of empathetic imagination as the key to radical change unconvincing, reflect on the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 in response to the killing of George Floyd. The national and global protests, the largest civil rights protests in American history, grew directly from Floyd’s murder. Yes, from the sense of horror but more importantly from the profound sense of empathy men, women and children felt in response to George’s deeply human cry for his mother. Those protests brought to mind the words of civil rights icon Ella Baker, “Until the killing of Black men, Black mother’s sons, becomes as important as the killing of a white mother’s son, we who believe in freedom cannot rest.” Americans and others around the world felt and embraced, if only for a moment, the idea that the life of a Black mother’s son had meaning, had value and that we should demand justice for his murder.
I encourage all of you to work on growing your own empathetic imagination. To begin, as Kendrick Lamar says, “Be humble, sit down,” ideally, with a book to learned something about all the things you assume you know about other people and other cultures and other traditions because you read an article on xyz people in that one class two years ago. Ask not what you can do to help others as part of what will make you feel better, instead ask and act only after growing your knowledge base and building human connection with others, after asking them what is needed in their lives and how you can help address that need. Slow down, learn to see and listen and develop a sense of empathy about the lives of others. A better democracy requires we care not just about our own families but the families of others whether or not they look like our own, have a different point of origin or speak another language. A better future requires we understand the ways all our futures are intertwined. Getting to that understanding begins with empathetic connection. So, let your actions be motivated by an empathetic vibration rather than a sense of superiority rooted in sympathy or worse yet pity for those you suspect or are convinced are “less” than yourself.
At times, you, as an individual will not be able to fix a problem. The fearful problems that confront you may be too great. Your task then is to bear witness. To see, share the pain of human suffering and to tell the tale. Elie Wiesel called on us to bear witness to the Holocaust of World War II, James Baldwin demanded we bear witness to the brutal murders of those working for civil rights in America. Black Americans have borne witness both to the abuses of the past and our will to survive since the end of slavery. In this moment, when political opportunists are working to sanitize the story of the nation’s past and deny the nation’s youth the opportunity to learn about the bad and the ugly of America’s history along with the good, bearing witness is more vital than ever.
Knowledge of the past is essential, a necessary tool to disrupt false narratives about who we are, how we got here and the possibilities of a democratic future. Make no mistake, new legislation designed to “prohibit” teaching which allegedly “causes someone to feel guilty or ashamed about the past collective actions of their race or sex” is designed to deflect focus and disrupt the possibility of children developing empathy for human beings who have experienced harm at the hands of others. Such laws are designed to challenge the memories held by people who experienced the harm of those past actions. These attempts at gaslighting, in the spirit of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, fail to understand the power and the endurance of memory and storytelling in the Black cultural tradition. As Toni Morrison noted, “memory weighs heavily in what I write, in how I begin and what I find to be significant.”
The stories of those who bore witness to the past is the first draft of history, and the early steps toward progressive change often begin with listening to such voices. The 2022 passage of the Emmett Till Federal Antilynching Act, is ultimately the consequence of Ida B. Well’s 1895 Red Record in which she bore witness and documented violence towards and lynching of Black men and women. Bearing witness, which may contemporarily involve a cell phone camera more often has required only the refusal to look away and to record in memory the horrors before us and to breathe life into the struggle against injustice by speaking, by telling the story. The process of change enabled by bearing witness is not fast or sure. Please note, the Emmett Till Federal Antilynching Act came some hundred twenty-two years after the first attempt to secure such legislation and after members of the House of Representatives tried some two hundred times to criminalize lynching at the federal level. While Ida B. was committed to seeing the crime of lynching end, the current legislation was passed one hundred and twenty-seven years after her work was first published and ninety-one years after her death. Her work, her witnessing, informed the work of every legislator and activist who pushed for a federal antilynching law in each era. Her voice challenged the false justifications for public murder of Black men, women and children and reverberated down through the years.
Bearing witness is part of the work of making progressive change. Change that shifts power and access from the comfortable, privileged and entitled to the vulnerable and marginalized will take more than your lifetime to achieve though this should not, must not encourage you to fall into despair or worse to lose interest. That a thing is hard and time consuming, that the positive results may come not tomorrow or the next year or the next decade, does not make the task unworthy of doing. As Sherrilyn Ifill has said, “I don’t know of anything in the history of Black people in this country … in which it ended ‘and then they gave up.’ That’s just not what we do. I know we work for the future of our children and our grandchildren and their children.” I urge all of you to learn to add your voice to that of others who are acknowledging and objecting to violence and to harm. Know that your voice, like that of Ida B. Wells can be part of a wave of sound that will reverberate and create small fissures, tiny fractures in the structures of society, new openings for progressive change to take root.
To conclude, let me circle back to being enamored with all things Star Trek. Long before Nikki Giovanni wrote Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea (We’re going to Mars), indeed even before Mae Jemison became the first black woman in space in 1992, I had traveled to the stars with Uhura aboard the Starship Enterprise. Still, there was no way to know I would be in my sixth decade of life before the Star Trek series yielded a full time Black female starship captain, but my patience has been rewarded with Captain Michael Burnham in Star Trek Discovery. The phrase Choose to Live (uttered first in an episode of Star Trek Picard) captured my imagination when I heard it during Covid lockdown. It seemed important and necessary to Choose to Live when the world was in crisis and struggling with separation and despair. Choose to Live spoke to the need to prioritize safety and isolation though we craved closeness. Choose to Live was especially challenging when my mother passed in September 2020 3,000 miles from my embrace. And Choose to Live spoke of promise for the future when grandson Quinn was born a week later, also 3,000 miles away. Recently, the full meaning of the phrase was explained in detail (in Season 4, Episode 3 of Discovery,) “The path you are on has come to an end. Choose to Live.” Gabriel Burnham, Captain Burnham’s sword wielding mother offered further instruction: “Be willing to look inside yourself with absolute candor” and in response chose your next path, be willing to devote yourself with integrity only to those people and causes you believe worthy.
Choose to Live is the last best piece of advice I can offer the Swarthmore College graduates of 2022. The path you have been on these past four (or five) years has indeed come to an end. You must now Choose to Live, moving out into the world equipped with the things you have learned. Most of those things, practical, ideological or philosophical, have positively enriched your life. But, I submit if you “look inside yourself with absolute candor,” you may find some lessons you have learned are less positive, less useful and should be jettisoned.
I offer three brief examples of learned lessons best set aside.
1) Self-censorship and the myth of “cancel culture.” Faced with disagreement in discussion, some of you have learned to remain silent in the classroom only to rant and vent online after the fact. A few have honed skills at personally attacking peers for having the audacity to disagree with your point of view. Sadly, some have not developed the art of argument and intellectual exchange. You have learned instead to center yourself in all things and mistakenly presumed hurt feelings about not having all of your ideas endorsed by classmates or specific professors is the great injustice of the 21st century. I invite you to “Look inside yourself with absolute candor,” and consider the possibility that there are greater concerns in the world than your bruised ego. As a historian, I know historical knowledge requires understanding change over time, context and contingency among other things. I think it is fair to say most knowledge requires expanding one’s vision beyond the reflection in the mirror.
2) The practice of misandry as part of liberatory ideology. bell hooks was extraordinarily kind to me in my first year of teaching as a visiting professor at Oberlin College. The gift of her book, Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black, and generosity with her time were transformative. Reading hooks helped me grow the feminism I had first committed to as a pre-teen. It has been a bit of a shock then to hear some contemporary students equate a raw ugly misandry with the life affirming feminism generated by hooks, Patricia Hill Collins and Kimberle Crenshaw among others. In a moment when women the world over, including America, find their legal and social status slipping back toward that of chattel in political scenarios best befitting a Margaret Atwood novel, it is important all understand that contempt for one half of the human species by the other half is always dangerous and untenable. Brothers, fathers, uncles and sons hold up the other half of the sky and must be partners in healing humanity and the planet. Yes, critique, even condemn patriarchy. Yes, argue there is much for men to learn, and equally important, much more to be done to stop violence against women and girls and redistribute power and access across genders. But all this work must be done from the high ground of love for our shared humanity. “Look inside yourself with absolute candor,” and consider all those you cherish, those whose life work has opened the path of freedom for others. I honor and cherish the work of Frederick Douglass and Tunis Campbell as much as that of Mary McLeod Bethune and Fannie Lou Hamer – men and women who devoted their lives to the cause of freedom for Black people in America.
3) Anti-racism and anti-blackness can share the playing field. Some of you, while students at Swarthmore College, learned for the first time, about the history of systemic racism in America. Many recoiled in horror and struggled with the knowledge that past generations of ordinary “Americans” had built systems that exploited others as part of everyday life. Eager to absolve those individuals in the distant and recent past, some have argued the problem is not racism, but Black people. “Perhaps,” as one young man argued in a 2017 public forum on campus, “White people would treat Black people better if Black people were different, if they weren’t always so critical of white people.” See what he did there? In that student’s mind, the problem was not racism, not white supremacy, but the fact that Black people bear witness to racism, point out its harms and that we demand racism end in order to achieve justice. “Look inside yourself with absolute candor” and ponder what it means if you are more discomforted by those who call out the injury than you are by those who do the harm. Twenty-first century Americans must cease justifying discrimination, exploitation and violence by arguing, like so many previous generations, that Black people are “the problem.” It is long since time Americans confront the reality of the role white supremacy has played in our history and the ways it has morphed and changed over time and continues to distort and damage our democracy.
Thank you for listening. It has been an honor and on occasion a great joy to join you in the classroom these past 25 years. I wish you lives filled with empathy and a passionate pursuit of justice. Because of course, there is no freedom without justice. Freedom!
Remarks as submitted to Swarthmore College