Skip to main content

Allison Dorsey - Last Collection

Allison Dorsey

Audio Transcript

Good evening. Thank you all for coming and thank you to the Class of 2013 for inviting me to deliver the final Collection speech of your undergraduate career. I will begin my remarks this evening with the work of activist, novelist, and poet Marge Piercy.

To Be of Use

The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half submerged balls.

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.

I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who stand in the line and haul in their places,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real. [i]

Marge Piercy's poem captures the meaning of life: to be of use. Each of you sits here this evening, having undergone your first honing on the whetstone of Swarthmore, ready for your initial use in the wider world. It is my hope that my remarks will act as inspiration and, anticipating the opportunities that will come, perhaps some direction about how best to apply your newly sharpened intellect and moral reasoning.

I have long embraced Booker T. Washington's adage "that success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has overcome while trying to succeed." [ii] This means that as daughter of the working class, a proud military brat, and first generation college student, who went on to pursue and earn the Ph.D., I recognize the positive outcome of my life to date, though I also recognize I am perhaps not the typical Swarthmore faculty member and while honored, I remain surprised by being invited to speak to you this evening. Accordingly, I pondered what wisdom I might have to share with students graduating from Swarthmore College. I have only the insights, direction and wisdom to be gleaned from my field and from the study of the past, specifically the American past. And perhaps by acknowledging this moment's relation to our common past, we can gain a sense of direction. I clearly recall a conversation I had with one of our distinguished alums Michael Dukakis '55 who, after he asked what department I was in, said "That's good, teach these students some history. There are so many important lessons to be learned from the study of the past." Okay. So, here we go.

16 April of this year marked the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Letter from a Birmingham Jail.

This anniversary has long been anticipated by activists and scholars alike and as a result there have been numerous essays, editorials and a few monographs on the subject. It seems somehow fitting as a historian who spends a bit of time thinking and teaching about the modern civil rights movement in which Dr. King played a part, that I take a minute to reflect on this anniversary, to pause and consider how different and how similar our time is from that moment a half a century ago.

So much has changed. Dr. King could not have imagined how close to science fiction the world in which we live has become: limbs made of carbon fiber-reinforced polymer blades, cochlear implants and court battles about patents on human gene therapy; cell phones, the internet, and drones; twitter, personal robots, and IEDs; Just how would one explain reality TV, Facebook or flash mobs to someone who last experienced the world in the late 1960s?

There have been other changes: some small (Swarthmore which had no tenured black faculty in 1963 now counts a handful of full professors among its ranks) some more grand (A woman has been elected the head of state in nations around the world and a man of African descent sits in the White House as President of the United States.) Yet despite all of these changes, the nearly miraculous and the profoundly malicious, many of the circumstances that sparked the Civil Rights Movement in Dr. King's lifetime remain in our own.

In 1963 Dr. King addressed those who asked "Why we [the Negro] cannot wait?" He told the city fathers of Birmingham that it was difficult to wait on justice "when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society." [iii] Four years later writing in Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community, King identified the elimination of poverty as a precondition of the ideal community. He boldly asserted that "The curse of poverty has no justification in our age... The time has come for us to civilize ourselves by the total, direct and immediate abolition of poverty." [iv]

Just how far have we come in the years since he wrote those words? As of 2011, 15% of Americans, roughly 46.2 million people, lived in poverty. [19.2 million Non-Hispanic whites 13.2 million Hispanics, 10.9 million blacks, and 2.0 million Asians] In that same year, 50.1 million Americans lived in food insecure homes. It became harder, in 2011, for workers to secure basic goods and services (food, housing and transportation) as their salaries fell .4%. But last year, in 2012, CEO salaries were 354 times higher than salaries of average workers. [v] Jobs returning to the economy in the past two years have been in service and sales, part time, without benefits and with little opportunity for upward mobility. Based solely on the numbers, it would seem we have fallen a bit short of the goal of an "ideal community" as too many Americans continue to struggle with grinding poverty and have fewer opportunities to escape their circumstances.

Dr. King both acknowledged and condemned state sponsored violence in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail. Waiting on justice he argued was no longer an option "...when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters;" Police brutality and its cousin racial profiling continue to deny justice for many in American society in 2013. The popularity of "stop and frisk" policies in NYC and other municipalities acts as a barrier between Black, Hispanic, Asian and Queer communities and law enforcement. If, as reported by Columbia Law Professor Jeffery Fagan, only 12% of the 4.4 million stop and frisk encounters in NYC resulted in arrest, then the vast majority (88%) of the individuals subjected to humiliating and often dangerous searches are innocent of criminal activity. [vi] Add to this deadly mix, an overburdened and not unbiased judicial system, and a seemingly ever expanding network of high tech correctional institutions and it becomes clear that the inhumane penitentiaries and prison farms young SNCC workers experienced in the South, have not faded but rather blossomed like some noxious weed across the nation.

The civil rights struggle for justice included the battle, fifty years ago, for equal access to citizenship rights, including voting rights. It seems appropriate in the 21st century, to recall the historical use of "felony disfranchisement" laws. Felony disfranchisement, a process that deprives convicted felons of their voting rights, has its origins in ancient times, but in 19th century America was most often used to deny freed black male citizens their hard won enfranchisement in the aftermath of emancipation, in the North before and in the South after the American Civil War. Contemporarily some 5.6 million Americans do not have the right to vote as a result of felony disfranchisement laws. Sadly, felons (both those currently incarcerated and those who have already served their time) are not the only Americans affected by these laws. The presidential elections of this millennium have been marked by numerous voter "irregularities" - everything from inappropriate use of provisional ballots, to limited polling places, relocated polling places and "robocalls" misinforming perspective voters that their polling place had changed. Purging of voter registration records whereby names that "sound like" or "appear similar" to names of felons are removed from the list of eligible voters has resulted in American citizens who are not involved in the judicial system being denied their constitutional right to vote. [vii] Fifty years after Dr. King's epistle from Birmingham, the United States continues to struggle with state sponsored violence and political exclusion.

I am unwilling to offer a litany of the brutal violent events of recent months and years. Suffice it to say that the daily loss of potential embodied in the murder of the nation's children and young adults is breathtaking. News of each fresh horror feels to me like stepping into the void of space. When oxygen returns to my lungs I find I can only use my voice to echo Fannie Lou Hamer: "Is this America? Is this the land of the free and the home of the brave?"

It seems that we have not in 2013 - a half a century after King's famous letter - risen as he had hoped, from "the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood." The price for our failure is the paid in the lives of our children lost on the streets of Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, Miami, Philadelphia, daily, as well as in the made-for-media-exploitation gore fest of Sandy Hook, Connecticut.

While we have made some progress since King's time in a number of ways, homophobia, like other forms of violence, remains too much a part of American society.  I choose to think that had Dr. King lived into the new millennium, he like Mildred Jeter Loving would have learned and grown and come to recognize homophobia for the social evil that it is. Mildred Jeter Loving was the black half of the "interracial couple" for whom the 1967 Loving v. Virginia case which struck down racial restrictions on marriage in the United States, was named. Before her death, Mrs. Loving lent her support to the struggle for marriage equality in America. And yes, I am aware that marriage equality will no more address all of the abuses of homophobia, any more than the 1964 Civil Rights Act addressed all of American racism, but it is a start. And had Dr. King, been allowed to reach the age of 60 or 70 or 80, been granted his human right to grow in wisdom as well as in years, I believe he would have encouraged movement activists and others to acknowledge all of who Bayard Rustin was in any room and on any stage.

Fifty years ago, the Civil Rights Movement was a response to the economic exploitation and resulting poverty, political exclusion, and injustice as well as violent racial and sexual oppression experienced by black people in America. Too many of these conditions remain for all people in 2013.

All of this means there is much work yet to be done as we currently stand much closer to the Chaos than to Community of Dr. King's 1967 query of the nation's future direction. Sadly, I do not have a ready blueprint for you, no detailed action plan with procedures and protocol and an easily executed strategy. Nevertheless, I am asking you to be of use, to live your lives with purpose and to change the world - in other words, a normal Swarthmore College assignment.

I want each of you to be mindful of a few things as you take on this new assignment. I want you to embrace service in your lives beyond the "thousand points of light," model, beyond short term tours of duty in "the inner city," and to find service in forms other than 501c3s and holiday food drives. I want you to understand service as part of relationship in which the people you work with are understood to be fully human, not an "experience" to have or an asset to be used. I want you to reimagine a life of service that is not about padding your resume, not about filling time between Swarthmore and graduate school and not about patting yourself on the back. I want you to engage a life of service that has at the core the pursuit of justice and a commitment to community.

Understand that community does not mean some imagined utopia where everyone loves each other perfectly and there is no strife. I do not know of such a place. To my knowledge, utopia has never existed in human history. But, the historical study of community does offer alternative, more realistic visions of how we might move forward. Successful high functioning communities have a few things in common, among them, shared values and a sense of a linked fate among community members. Two of the values essential for living in community are a determination to care for the most vulnerable in any grouping and a rich appreciation of the common good. The most vulnerable includes those identified in Matthew 25:40-45 as "the least of these." Female leaders in the Civil Rights Movement, including Septima Clark and Flo Kennedy, frequently argued that only by placing the "least of these" the most marginalized, the youngest, oldest, weakest, most needy at the center of our world view do we stand a chance of changing the order of things such that the world we live in manifests our commitment to equality and justice.

Understanding and valuing the common good requires each of us to challenge the accepted narrative that we are all only "individuals," singular, striving, and purely self-interested. We are all so much more than individuals - we are parts of families, of ethnic, racial, national and regional groups, of spiritual groups, political groups and as you have been here at Swarthmore, of groups focused on educational transformation. There is a competing truth in the world; we are individuals but we are also always interdependent and interconnected. In a moment when poverty is growing, homelessness has reached a new high, and violence touches all of us, it is time to worry less about "our own" group and learn to embrace the "we" of our lives. On a planet where all life, from artic mammals to the men and women who live on archipelagos in the Pacific, faces the peril of rising sea level, monster storms and other environmental challenges, we must refocus attention on our shared vulnerabilities, our shared strengths, our shared humanity and our linked fate. The pursuit of the common good requires each of us to put our interconnected self above the atomized individual self.

Living in community in service to the common good will require that each of you learn to acknowledge and learn to accept and celebrate difference. It is long past time to retire those old goals of "colorblindness," and "assimilation" along with our dangerous use of stereotype and racial trope in lazy, short cut efforts to address our discomfort and make sense of those who are different. It means learning to embrace Audre Lorde's understanding of "the creative function of difference in our lives." Lorde argued in her often quoted but rarely read essay The Master's Tools, "Difference must be not merely tolerated, but seen as a fund of necessary polarities between which our creativity can spark like a dialectic." [viii] I want each of you to recall these words when you walk into any social space, any spiritual place, any educational space, and any work space that is devoid of difference. I want you to be mindful of Audre Lorde's vision whether you are watching television, at the movie theatre or taking in the opera. Learn to see the absence of diversity; learn to understand that absence as a failing and a weakness of social organization and a loss of creative potential. Lastly, learn to resist and to challenge that absence, to demand inclusion - not because you are doing any one a "favor" but because it is the better choice. Difference is to be recognized and embraced rather than the thing to be beaten back, beaten down and transformed into something less. The path as Audre Lorde outlined it leads us away from criticism, judgment, and rejection and toward understanding and mutual respect, and if we are lucky, to something more. If each of you works very hard and practices the art of displacing your own ego, you will experience an understanding of the world rooted in empathy rather than sympathy (whose dark twin is pity) or "tolerance." [More on that in a moment.]

Living a life of use and seeking the common good also means accepting the hard reality that such a life is most often an uphill climb, a struggle or as the women of SNCC were wont to say a life "In Struggle." Dr. King reminded us in his famous letter that,""An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust." He continued "We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed." So those of you who are committed to overturning unjust laws and joining liberation struggles with others who are involved in demanding their freedom, should be prepared to be at it for a while, at least as long as Ella Baker, or Virginia Durr or Dorothy Height. Remember social justice work is not social service work - there may be no personal accolades, no grateful and adoring crowds of the unlettered and marginalized who see you as their savior. Social justice work means you will be working side by side, as equals, with the people whose fight you join. As Martha Prescod Norman Noonan noted in Hands on the Freedom Plow, training for SNCC activists emphasized that

"we were not to think of ourselves as knowledgeable or as leaders because of our college education. We were there to assist in a struggle rooted in community, and community people were to determine the nature and direction of their movement. We were to listen, learn and take our lead and direction from them."[ix]

And I must add SNCC workers most often formed deep human relationships with people in those communities, sometimes life-long relationships. They did not treat those communities as social science laboratories with live human subjects but rather as sites of caring and commitment.

Should you take up this hard work of social justice, you will undoubtedly be tempted to drop back from the front lines because of fatigue and various "life events." I encourage all of you to learn to pace yourselves. Learn to practice radical self-care. Re-learn the value of sleep. Commit to eating good healthy food and to embracing exercise - which is as important to the body as air. And of course, each of you must always find time for joy and gratitude and gardens because these things restore us, and help keep us resilient. Truth is, if you are undisciplined about caring for yourself, you cannot care for anyone else and are likely to do more harm than good.

At the same time it is important that you remember the less advantaged and the oppressed get no such break in the face of life's challenges. The key is to understand the opportunity being presented by your own "life events." When that first precious child comes into your life - take the opportunity to stop and reflect and understand that each mother's son is as precious as your own, every father's child the world over deserves all the love and safety and opportunity you seek to grant your own offspring. In just that moment's pause and reflection, grace can descend and help us connect, help us resist the retreat into our separate spheres, into our unique silos, to resist the "this is mine and worthy of care" moment. Reflection and grace help us recognize that every child is "ours," and that all children are deserving of the best of care. This way leads toward empathy and the pursuit of social justice. So yes, take a break if need be, restore and renew, and then get up, get back to work, and get back to being of use.

I must take a minute to return to the topic of tolerance. All of you are, save for a few more formalities, accomplished graduates of Swarthmore College. Yet it is worth noting that you have not all had the same experience of this place. Some of you have found yourselves marked and mapped as outsiders and others. You have experienced the shock of having individuals and groups tell you who they believe you are, with the expectation that you will then be that version of yourself, perform their stereotype of your otherness. You have lived with the endless "flipping of the script," or hijacking of the narrative in which your intellectually rooted critiques of systemic oppression have been reduced to conversations about emotions and alleged feelings of guilt endlessly shared by some of your peers. You have witnessed the prideful corrosive arrogance of the "tolerant" and experienced the dishonor and dismissal of the "tolerated." Dr. King, in that 50-year-old letter from Birmingham, hinted at the existence of such attitudes among "moderates" when he said "Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection."

I urge you to put these experiences in context, to recognize them not as merely youthful transgressions or benign missteps but rather as attempts to assert power and control in the midst of the liberating project of education.  It is important to identify and understand these experiences, equally important to give yourself a bit of time to reflect and recover and vitally important that you understand when you see them again, and that you must not let them sway you from your chosen path. Swarthmore College has prepared you to be an engineer or dancer or historian or all three. The experience has also prepared you, despite subtle attempts to derail, straightforward attempts to detract and/or aggressive attempts to dominate, to name yourself, to claim your own power and to build solidarity with others who are committed to justice. You must take those lessons from this place along with your diploma. They are essential lessons for one who plans to live a life being of use.

I'll leave you with the encouragement Dr. King offered those who fought for civil rights fifty years ago. This final quote is a paraphrase as I've made a few modifications to his text from Letter from a Birmingham Jail, though the heart of the lesson remains intact.

"Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of [women and] men willing to be coworkers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity."

There, you have your assignment. I've offered a few instructive details, now it is time to get to work - go change the world, go live in community, go be of use. Congratulations on your graduation, thank you and good night.


[i] Marge Piercy, To Be of Use: Poems by Marge Piercy. Doubleday 1973.

[ii] Booker T. Washington, Up from Slavery, in Three Negro Classics, (New York, Avon Books 1999), 50.

[iii] Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project.

[iv] Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? (New York: Harper & Row, 1967)

Thomas Gabe, CRS Report for Congress Prepared for Members and Committees of Congress Poverty in the United States: 2011, September 27, 2012.

[vi] NYPD stop-and-frisk policy yielded 4.4 million detentions but few results: study

[vii] The Sentencing Project: Research Advocacy and Reform.

[viii]Audre Lorde, The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House
In Sister Outsider, The Crossing Press Feminist Series (1984)111.

[ix] Martha Prescod Norman Noonan, Captured by the Movement, in Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC (Champaign, Illinois, University of Illinois Press, 2010.) 488.

Listen: Allison Dorsey Gives Last Collection

Audio Player Controls
0:00 / 0:00