Words for the class of 2015

W. E. B. Du Bois photograph from the Harvard College Class of 1890   Class Book, 1890 Credit: Harvard University Archives, call # HUD 290.04 pf
W. E. B. Du Bois photograph from the Harvard College Class of 1890
Class Book, 1890 Credit: Harvard University Archives, call # HUD 290.04 pf

[I read this at the start of the Ethnic Studies commencement, at Aldrich House, on Sunday, May 24].

There are no students here any longer. All that work is done.

It took a while to get to this point. These talented and imaginative young people didn’t succeed all by themselves – it takes family, friends, communities to make this day happen. So I want to begin by asking the graduates and the faculty to applaud those who are here today for their support, their help, and their faith along the long road to the present.

In keeping with past practice, every concentrator will have a chance, after their receipt of the diploma, to offer thanks and appreciation to everyone and everything that made this possible. I think we’d all be grateful, as well, if each graduating concentrator – after sharing their own thoughts – called up a friend or family member to say a few words about what this means to the larger community from whence they came.

As the tradition goes, speak in whatever language makes you comfortable.

I start with these nods to tradition because what we do here is dialogic, reciprocal, like that pageant after you passed through the gates just a few hours ago. At the start of the day, faculty, alumni, students, and family marched slowly through each other, with each group cheering on generations of people connected to Brown in ritual sequence, emphasizing our links to each other. You generally leave this place, and we generally stay, but all of us are transformed, mutually reconstituted in a shared enterprise that stretches backwards and forwards. Thank you, then, for what you have taught us. And thank you, in turn, for listening. Remember, in the days and weeks and years that follow, that we are always formed in relation, and that the work we do together can and will continue.

The wandering, circulatory march down the hill is a reminder that you are leaving Brown only to return at some other date. Every time you come for this weekend, you’ll get a chance to walk down that hill again, to embrace your friends, and to high-five your teachers.

Please come back. And keep in touch. And know that our conversations don’t have to end.

Tellingly, you don’t get your diplomas at the wrought-iron gates and you don’t walk across the stage to get them either – you get them here, in your concentration, where this dialogic relationship to faculty and staff is at its strongest, where you go deep into a specific subject area, alongside those peers and friends who’ve chosen to do the same.

This group here right now – fourteen amazing students. This is what it is all about.

In 1890, W.E.B. Du Bois delivered a student commencement address at Harvard. Du Bois, you may know, had already graduated from Fisk, and had hoped to pursue a graduate degree, but the lords of Cambridge had decreed that the “Negro college” of Nashville was too inferior, and so they’d forced him to matriculate as a junior, to re-complete his last two years of undergraduate education. To afford Harvard, Du Bois had worked odd jobs, borrowed from family friends, and used winnings from a series of writing and speaking competitions. After two years of humiliating repetition and financial strain, he was chosen as the student commencement speaker – one of six, the only student of color for miles in every direction.

Titling his speech, “Jefferson Davis as a Representative of Civilization,” the young man – your age, with your ambition, your nervous energies, your failures and your strengths, literally facing down the world’s most powerful thinkers – took on a very popular topic: the celebration of Jefferson Davis in American politics. Reviled as a traitor in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, by the late 1880s Davis’s reputation had undergone a miraculous recovery, and the former president of the breakaway Confederate States had been redefined as the quintessential American. The once-victorious North had been slowly ceding ground on civil rights and racial equality, and new monuments to Davis’s supposed heroism and valor were being erected across the South. Now celebrated as a strong man in a moment of profound national crisis, Davis was a big target.

And Du Bois went right after him, branding Lincoln’s rival as the “typical Teutonic hero,” and a representative “Strong Man.” Sardonically noting the man’s “cadaverous” frame, his “thin nervous lips and flashing eye,” his trampling of constitutional precedent, and his refusal to surrender, Du Bois’s rebuke to Davis’s restored reputation was withering: “Judged by the whole standard of Teutonic civilization,” he concluded, “there is something noble in the figure of Jefferson Davis; and judged by every canon of human justice, there is [also] something fundamentally incomplete about that standard.” The problem, he submitted, lay with the idea of civilization itself.

That strong man image, Du Bois reminded his listeners that day, was built on a foundation of global suffering. The outsized representation of the Great Man, shaking the foundations of the world, required the simultaneous construction of something lesser, something purportedly “submissive.” Looking towards the global South – at not just the retreat from equality in the former Confederacy, but also at the colonization of Africa, the domination of Latin America, the acquisition of territory in Asia and across the Pacific – Du Bois asked his audience that day – white men, who later marveled at his ability to speak precisely, but who listened to him not at all – to acknowledge that the nation’s celebration of Jefferson Davis had been staged on uneven ground, and at the expense of the conquest and subjugation of the world’s poor and marginalized peoples. And he presented them with a choice: to continue the subjugation of what he called “the darker races of the worlds,” or to live up to their professed faith in the ideals of equality, fairness, and justice.

History tells us that most of them chose the former, that Du Bois’s extraordinary speech was a flashpoint of illumination, but not a catalyst of transformation. He lived his entire life in a segregated United States, choosing, towards the end, to leave it altogether, to expatriate to postcolonial Ghana, where he hoped for a deeper, more meaningful emancipation from racism. For a more level ground on which to walk and breathe and live.

Hearing the name of W.E.B. Du Bois, you likely imagined him as an older man, as a still black and white photo, as a part of our canon. He is a name on an old book at the library, or wallpaper for your own thoughts and ideas. Think of him, instead, as someone who was once just like you. Nervous and excited and unsure. Brilliant and driven. Ready to see the world. Ready to change the world. And completely unsure, on some level, that he could do either.

In the photograph we have of him that day, he is sitting on a dais, joined by the five other student commencement speakers. He sits off to the side and looks away from them – away, even, from the photographer. To my eye, his face is a stony, solemn mask. He seems alone.


But you are not. If nothing else has changed in this world, you should know that this one amazing, unnoticed, and extraordinary thing is different: you have each other.

Remember, for as long as you can, that your connection isn’t just to Brown, but also to the scholarly – and political – inquiry we can trace back to Du Bois, to another twenty-two year old, just like you, standing up, speaking truth to power.

Remember, once more, that you received your degree here, with these folks, and not on the main green.

And look around.

This – all of this – is your family.

They will sustain you, guide you, shed light on the path you need to take, and help you make wise choices. They will respond to emails in the early morning and texts late at night. They will phone people on your behalf, and put their shoulder on doors that refuse to open. They will hold your hand and embrace you, whether you ask for it or not. They will fight in the shadows for you. They will bleed for you.

And you will do the same for them.

You have no idea where you are going in life. And you cannot make it anywhere without each other.

This is why we end, here, in Ethnic Studies, and not on the Main Green. It is why we gather together intimately, for a chance to look each other in the eye, in what is likely the very last moment we will all gather together, to put a hand on our neighbor’s shoulder, to say, earnestly and with great sentiment, that this day – and this moment, and the words that are sure to follow – will matter forever to us, just as it mattered to those who came before, and just as it will matter to those who come next, who will gather at this exact spot in a year’s time.

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