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President Chopp's Charge to Lorene Cary

Lorene Cary and Rebecca Chopp

Lorene Cary, you are a critically acclaimed novelist, essayist, teacher, and activist. A senior lecturer in creative writing at the University of Pennsylvania, you have been a member of the School Reform Commission in Philadelphia. Your stories and essays explore issues of race and gender, often centering on the lives of black women and their struggles and triumphs from antebellum slavery to contemporary times. You have brought your art and vision to multiple communities, and you are a tireless advocate for education and social justice.

Growing up in a working-class Philadelphia neighborhood, you began writing stories at a young age. In 1972, you entered the elite Saint Paul's School in New Hampshire on a scholarship, only the second African-American female student in the school's history. You were determined to succeed in this environment without losing sight of your roots. Later, in 1991, you wrote about your experience at St. Paul's in Black Ice, which The Washington Post called "a precious gift to us all," and which won the American Library Association Notable Book Award.

After St. Paul's you studied at the University of Pennsylvania, earning both a B.A. and an M.A. in English. Later you attended the University of Sussex in England on a Thouron Fellowship, earning an M.A. in Victorian literature.

Your writing career began as an apprentice at Time magazine in 1980 where you were an associate editor at TV Guide. Then you were a freelance writer and contributing editor for Newsweek magazine. You contributed essays to Essence, American Visions, Mirabella, Obsidian, and The Philadelphia Inquirer. In 1982, you returned to St. Paul's, this time as a teacher.

In 1995, you published The Price of a Child, a novel about the Underground Railroad, based on the true story of a valiant Philadelphia freedwoman. The African American Review called this an "alluring story of bondage, escape and freedom." It was chosen for the first One Book, One Philadelphia program. 

In 1998 you published a second novel, Pride, which describes the experiences of four contemporary black women who draw upon resources of faith, friendship, and love to overcome various struggles in their lives.

In 2005, you published your first young adult book, Free! Great Escapes from Slavery on the Underground Railroad, a collection of nonfiction Underground Railroad stories, which, in your own words, "allow our 21st-century minds to imagine actively the inner lives of enslaved people, and put ourselves in their places, not with shame, but compassion and respect."

Your book If Sons, Then Heirs, a complex story of family, race, and the challenge of dealing with unfair land laws, was published in 2011.

Your life as a mentor and activist has always kept pace with your work as a writer. In 1998, you founded Art Sanctuary, an African-American arts and letters organization devoted to presenting regional and national talent in the arts to local communities. Art Sanctuary annually hosts an African-American arts festival; it supports black artists and serves 10,000 participants. Its mission, in your words, is "to use the power of black art to transform individuals, unite groups of people, and enrich and draw inspiration from the inner city."

In 2010, the public opening of The President's House on Independence Mall in Philadelphia introduced visitors to five videos shot from your original scripts, depicting the lives of nine enslaved Africans in the household of President George Washington as well as the free black men and women who helped two of them escape to freedom.

In 2011, Mayor Michael Nutter appointed you to the Philadelphia School Reform Commission, saying that you combined "an incredible passion for the well-being of children" along with an abiding concern for parents and teachers.

Your many awards include the Philadelphia Award for your activism, writing, and teaching; the University of Pennsylvania Provost's Award for Distinguished Teaching; and a Pew Fellowship in the Arts.

Lorene Cary, you are an artist and activist, writer and teacher, who sees art as a profound act of liberation that can help to educate and transform individuals and communities. Your work in the schools and communities of Philadelphia has helped to make the city a richer and more rewarding place to live and work. Your craft and vision as an artist and your dedication as an activist are an inspiration to us all.

Upon the recommendation of the faculty, and by the power vested in me by the Board of Managers of Swarthmore College and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, I have the honor to bestow upon you the degree of Doctor of Arts.