Congratulations Class of 2004!
At the beginning of this luncheon Mina Pleasant-Bey offered a wonderful invocation in which she repeated the word “Grateful!” It’s my turn to express gratitude: how grateful we are — the faculty, staff, and alumnae present today — for the fact that this Red Class has shared so much of your life and energy with us!
I will surely miss this class. I will miss Ayanna’s grace and style, and Kate’s passionate pursuit of all things red. I will miss the sight of Mina streaking across the playing field; I will miss Maya’s keen insights into the myriad forms of human behavior she sees. I will remember fondly the red hot passion of the first time you stood at the top of the Well and screamed your lungs out as the Red Class of 2004. I will cherish the valentines, the photographs, the cards, and yes, the emails you sent me so continuously about so many things, large and small.
I will miss you as students, but that small sorrow is soon replaced by the great joy I will have as I get to know you as friends and colleagues, true peers among the vast group of friends you will come to know in our Alumnae Association. (In her address as class advisor, Dr. Carlota Ocampo remarked on the quality of friendship you enjoy with each other and your teachers. It’s one of the little known secret benefits of a life in higher education that we who are faculty and staff get to enlarge our circle of friends endlessly through the students and alumnae we come to know in our work.)
In case you haven’t thought about it yet, this great Red Class of 2004 holds an important place in Trinity’s history. You are the first class in the second century of Trinity graduates. You reach back across time to that most famous Class of ’04, the pioneer women who entered Trinity as the very first group of students in 1900, who declared Red to be their class color, who established so many of our traditions, who marched forth proudly in 1904 to establish the Trinity College Alumnae Association. You are their sisters in Red.
Over the 100 years since that first group of Trinity graduates ventured forth to show the world what it truly meant to be Trinity Women, our alumnae and alumni have repeatedly demonstrated the consistent qualities of courage, conviction and passion in addressing the great issues of each generation. Earlier this year, we honored two of our alumnae greats, Nancy Pelosi and Kathleen Sebelius, and this weekend we will honor another great alumna, Ann Kendrick. Each inhabits a very different part of our country, each has a remarkably unique and challenging set of life circumstances. Yet from the heady halls of the highest venues of decision-making in this nation, where Nancy Pelosi is sometimes nearly alone in raising her voice on behalf of justice, to the dusty cabbage fields of Apopka, Florida, where Ann Kendrick has labored to alleviate poverty and improve working conditions for migrant workers, to the plains of Kansas where Governor Sebelius has taken on much of the middle American conventional wisdom in everything from how insurance companies operate to the rights of undocumented immigrants to obtain a higher education, in her own way each one of these women is changing the world one piece at a time, fulfilling the promise of her Trinity education.
You will fulfill the promise of your Trinity education in myriad ways, but the challenges this class must confront going forth from this weekend are singularly extraordinary. I want to reflect on some of these challenges, and this will be serious for a few minutes. I do this not to dampen the joy of your day, but rather, out of respect for the deep seriousness of purpose that I know this class will continue to manifest as alumnae, even as you have done so as students.
Earlier this week, the nation observed the 50th anniversary of one of the most important legal decisions ever made in any society. Brown v. Board of Education throws a bright line across the horizon between one social contract and another, between an ancient world built integrally around the framework of racial oppression and injustice, and the modern world whose laws and social constructs presume that discrimination is unjust and illegal, that segregation or denial of opportunity of any kind cannot be sustained in a free society.
Unfortunately, the critically important teachable moment of Brown’s anniversary was obscured by other events — the banal and overwrought preoccupation with certain television shows, America’s favorite escape from the unfathomable horrors of war, terrorism, torture and abuse in Iraq and elsewhere on the landscape of what we blithely call ‘civilization.’
Yet, in a way that is both ironic and profound, the moral icon that Brown became over time, a status that is far larger than what the Supreme Court decision actually said or did, stands firmly as a counterbalance to the moral depravity of Abu Ghraib and Falluja and Nick Berg’s execution.
What’s happening in Iraq is the consequence of human hatred, one person for another person, one people for another people. Baghdad is but the latest stage on which the tragedy of human oppression has played its course. As is true in all tragic drama, no one escapes some degree of culpability, neither the oppressor nor the liberator, and sometimes the roles morph into each other. Such is the true evidence of the presence of evil.
Racially segregated schools in the United States were and are also true evidence of the presence of evil, the sin of racism. (Dr. Ocampo quoted Archbishop Desmond Tutu on this point in her earlier remarks). The contempt of one group of human beings for another played out for hundreds of years in this nation in the form of slavery. The iconic image from the Abu Ghraib prison last week of a soldier holding a prisoner on a leash rightfully sent a shudder down the spine to the ancient soul of America, because we are not so many generations removed from such depraved conduct on our own soil.
Fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education established a precedent, however flawed, for remediating the grave injustices begun in slavery and prolonged in Jim Crow laws, inequality in educational opportunity continues to be the shame of American cities. Schools in urban centers remain sharply segregated and hugely under-funded, in spite of five decades of attempts to solve the problems. The law cannot prevail over the sociology of ‘white flight’ — a more polite term for the still-chronic evil of racism. Not everyone agrees that forced integration was a solution to this evil, and the last half century of experience with mandated legal solutions led to some serious rethinking of the problem. Indeed, some commentators today, including prominent African American thinkers, question whether Brown was a good decision, or whether, in fact, the Supreme Court should have stayed out of the school integration business, given the sad results for most urban schools today.
But Brown never was simply an educational decision. Brown became a driver of social transformation at many levels of our culture, reaching into places of employment and public accommodations and voting booths and the collective mind of public policymakers.
The reshaping of American society in the half century since Brown has, in many ways, made us a more open, more tolerant, more racially and culturally respectful people. At the same time, however, in the last few years as the children of Brown and the subsequent cultural revolution have become adults, we have seen alarming signs of a newly intolerant strain in our society. Radio waves are full of talk shows spewing venom about people who do not look like the speakers. ‘Shock jocks’ can offer all forms of hateful opinions about other human beings, but the speech that will get them banned from the airwaves is more likely to be about gross anatomy than gross behavior. The governor of Maryland said last week that multiculturalism is just so much ‘bunk.’ The nation is driven into red states and blue states, and underneath that superficial television map is a more profound concern about regression into intolerance, prejudice and oppression.
We may tend to think that this pernicious climate has evolved since September 11, with the new and real concerns about domestic security. But the red and blue states existed well before we ever thought the unthinkable, even back when our worst nightmare was a president canoodling with a young woman not his wife. Remember? Those seem like hopelessly naive days.
Unfortunately, the War on Terrorism and its progeny, the War in Iraq, brought our longstanding national division over race and cultural difference into the sharpest focus in many decades. People who look like they might be suspects in this war are rounded-up and herded into holding cells, shipped to Gitmo, denied basic legal protections, treated as outside the Geneva Conventions that our own nation helped to create at another time after another brutal war. People who are not suspects are afraid that they might be caught in this dragnet, perhaps by forgetting to take their nail clippers out of their carry on bag, or perhaps by the misfortune of having a name or accent that sounds un-American, or perhaps by appearing to be Muslim or Middle Eastern or foreign in some way, or perhaps by speaking or writing something publicly that sounds critical of the government.
Am I exaggerating? Sadly, no. The Patriot Act gives our government broad powers that sweep aside freedoms we once took for granted, including the freedom to live and speak and walk around freely, without being a suspect if you haven’t done anything wrong. This law lets the FBI search your home without a warrant, listen in on your phone conversations, and take you into custody, all without probable cause, just for appearing to be suspicious, whatever that might be. George Orwell would recognize what’s happening quite clearly. And the most frightening part is not that the law was quickly enacted in response to September 11, but rather, two years later, that many, many citizens of our great nation actually believe the law does not go far enough, and too many lawmakers are too eager to oblige them.
Brown v. Board of Education was actually decided at a time in America when citizens were also under suspicion. A Senator named Joe McCarthy was conducting hearings into what he believed was un-American behavior, communist affiliations, disloyalty to the government. McCarthy’s witch hunt and blacklists led to widespread fear, repression of free speech and creative endeavors, and had a broad chilling effect for years on the willingness of many Americans to speak out against government wrongdoing. But even as McCarthyism took its toll in the form of cultural conformity in many places, elsewhere the voices of freedom and justice were just emerging, the young voice of Linda Brown in her new school, the brave voice of Rosa Parks at the front of the bus, the clear voice of Martin Luther King and the chorus of freedom riders.
The legacy of Brown in this nation is the massive paradigm shift in our cultural habits, attitudes, beliefs, conventions and institutions that the Supreme Court unwittingly triggered in 1954, and that the Civil Rights Movement propelled. The Civil Rights Movement defied the conformity of the 50′s and early 60′s through acts of nonviolent protest that were organized and led by people of deep religious conviction whose faith was unshakeable even in the face of violent opposition. But the Movement persisted and triumphed, and its moral code became ingrained in our postmodern lives. It is this set of social beliefs and values and sensibilities and moral imperatives, forged in the crucible of political and social protest and transformation in the last half century, that have been so deeply offended by the images from Abu Ghraib, that are so profoundly endangered by a government that believes we can win the war by rolling back the clock. And it is precisely those values and imperatives that we must call upon today to redeem this nation from the horrors we have perpetrated in the name of freedom.
What does all of this serious talk have to do with this bright, eager, talented, accomplished group of Trinity Seniors we hail today as the great Red Class of 2004?
You have the Trinity Gift. I do not know a single one of you who takes what is said unquestioningly. You all have discovered your voices here…. and you have reminded us of those voices, loudly, on many occasions.
You are powerful women. You are blessed with strong voices, great minds, passionate souls. You care deeply about justice. You desire freedom and peace and justice for yourselves, your families, your children and neighbors.
You know that this education here at Trinity is not for frivolous people. This is not a college where students can spend four years drinking, playing, drinking some more, and then somehow claim a degree. You know you have sweated out those 128 credits.
You did not do all of that so that you could walk away on Sunday and coast the rest of your lives.
No. You know, and I know, that the hardest part is yet to come. The hardest part is living up to the expectations of Trinity throughout your lives.
Those expectations have been formed and forged through the vision, courage, hard work and dedication of literally thousands of women who line the pathways of our history before you, and the good men who are side-by-side with them: the Sisters of Notre Dame, the faculty, the alumnae, the benefactors, the families and friends. Thousands of people contributed countless measures of time and talent to sustain Trinity to this day, so that you could receive this gift. Your obligation now is to go forward to use this gift in ways that manifest its values and imperatives to our world, just as your sisters in the first Red Class of ’04 led the way for all of us.
The philosopher Edmund Burke is credited with saying that, “The only thing necessary for evil to prevail is for good people to do nothing.” You are the good people of Trinity. You must not let evil prevail. You have the power to stand for justice and equity, to raise your powerful voices against the forces of oppression and assaults on human dignity, in our city, in our nation, and around the world. May you have the strength, wisdom and charity of heart to do so each day, with the power of the knowledge you gained here, the clarity of the voice you discovered here, and the passion of the moral being you developed here.
May the blessings of the Trinity go with you. Congratulations, 2004!