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Patricia J. Williams Commencement Address
Thank you so much. Thank you, Diana. Thank you, students. Thank you, my friends and fellow trustee members. Thank you, faculty. I thank particularly the committee of students that selected me and greeted me so very warmly last night, and this morning delivered me this green feather boa, by police escort no less, just before the procession. It is such an honor to be here. I tremendously wish to address you today.
I realized actually only last night that my class color was green as well and that somewhere in my possession I still have a small green beanie, with ’73 written across the top, made of felt with a small elliptical bill, sort of like Hughie, Dewey and Louie’s. I was trying to find it to wear today, but as someone observed, it’s the thought that counts, and in this case the thought of the beanie is much, much better than the thought of me actually wearing the beanie.
Anyway I am really so grateful for the gift of the opportunity to speak to you today. It is such a particular delight to be here because I missed my own graduation from Wellesley, Class of 1973. I had an opportunity to travel with friends, so I threw my love beads and Afro-pick, all the novels of Hermann Hesse, and an extra pair of bell bottoms into my macrame satchel and took off, for Copenhagen, I think. Copenhagen was “in” in those those days. The word “in” was in in those days.
It was a different era. It was the era of Woodstock and Watergate and Kent State and the Vietnam War and as I recall, the Beatles were still together. There were no sororities at Wellesley, no ROTC, which I gather there is today. It was a time when tradition was being challenged, and indeed there were a lot of traditions that needed to be challenged—first and foremost were those beanies! My little challenge was not going to graduation, and I suppose it was a small thing as personal declarations of independence go, but it disappointed my parents. In fact, when my diploma was mailed to our house, I recall my father taking it hostage, grumbling something about how he’d earned it. I don’t recall his giving it back until I invited my parents to my law school graduation and all was forgiven.
My parents are not here today, but I am lucky that they are both still with us and doing relatively well, if just a bit too frail to travel—my father’s 90 and my mother is 87. So I’m very lucky. They are here in spirit and their spirit is strong. I feel them here, their pride, then and now. Being here now is the complete fulfillment of what my parents wished for me, for the graduate I was then and now, a little over 30 years ago to this moment. This moment embodies my parents’ dreams, and I thank you for allowing me to put a little kick in their golden years by coming full circle this way.
But of course, more importantly this moment is the fulfillment of your dreams. It is a moment to celebrate your accomplishments, the culmination of your hard work. Perhaps this is something that can only be truly appreciated in hindsight, for I don’t think I appreciated it when I was in your position. But it is a good moment, let me assure you, to really wallow in all the love of your families, to take stock of the generosity and encouragement and support and pride from your parents and siblings and the extended family gathered here. This is a passage. But it is toward a new level of independence. Here is the point at which you really and truly enter adulthood.
And the exuberant power of this moment is your grounding for the future, a source to draw upon. At the commencement dinner last night, one of my fellow trustees was saying that she loves graduation because she’s not otherwise around young people very much of the time and your energy is so contagious. And I was saying that I love graduation because I AM around young people all the time, but they’re all seventh graders, and when I come to graduation, it gives me hope. I feel this lovely sense of culmination and possibility, and as the mother and parent I have become, and although my child is only 12, the sense of generation is what keeps us all alive and hopeful and participatory in making this the best world we know how.
And so, as your official graduation fairy, I have three little wishes or blessings or visions for you:
one that is shaped by thoughts of my parents; one that is shaped by my own thoughts, the lessons learned in my own life that I offer you for what they’re worth; and the third one that is shaped by thoughts of this rare and gracious community that is Wellesley College, shaped by my impressions of you, this exciting group of young people, and the shape of the future you shall mold.
First, as for my parents. I think that the most sustaining gift they gave me and that I want to pass on to you is a sense of the long view. They have lived long lives and filled my head with stories that go back the better part of a century.
My father has more of an engineering bent of mind, and he filled me with technological memories: all the way from the world of steamboats and automobiles that had to be cranked, to teaching me how to fix my computer. From wire recordings to digital recordings; from Morse code and tube radios to Tivo; from Underwood typewriters to data key punch to instant messaging. He inspires me through miraculous inventions in recent human history, and I cannot imagine what miracles lie in store for you.
My mother gives me more family history and social memory. She lived through the influenza outbreak when she was very young. She lived through the Harlem Renaissance. She had pneumonia before antibiotics. She lived through the Depression, the advent of the New Deal, of the rise of fascism and World War II, of McCarthyism, and Civil Rights—all the way through September 11 to the present moment. She is a woman who, alive and well at this very moment, knew, spoke to, grew up around people who had been born into slavery.
So that’s all—the long view. So much change in the course of a lifespan. It gives me courage somehow, and I offer it to you as that: a cultivated respect for the long view, for history, for memory, that will sustain you, it will inform you, it will allow you to move gracefully and optimistically through time rather than always trying to look backward or resist change or look for guarantees or stop motion, or resist what is inevitable—the simple march of time, the change of circumstances.
Secondly, a wish from me from the span of my life, from my Wellesley graduation until yours. It fills me with a sense of not just how much has changed, but of how much work went into that change and how much participation in the world around you makes a difference. How resolve can really work a revolution. The graduation speaker for my year, 1973, was New York Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, a woman of opinion, tenacity, and utter fearlessness. Perhaps it is hard to remember what she represented: a black person and a woman person who had political power. And there had been virtually none of those in our history to that moment. Her subject was the necessity for the passage of an Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution.
In her campaign for the ERA, Chisholm reported that among all employed women, only, and I quote here, “670 are medical and health care workers, college teachers or other professional workers; 570 of American women are managers, officials or proprietors.”
That was startling to me, as I read this now, it almost sounded wrong—until I remembered that when I started teaching in 1980, there were only six women of color teaching in any American law school, in any capacity, including the historically black ones, and even at that almost invisible level, lots of people were saying that that was a revolution. So when I was your age, women were legally paid less than men for doing the same work; they received longer prison sentences for the same crimes—by act of law; they could be barred from working overtime when men were not (they were too delicate); women jurors were routinely struck as too inherently sympathetic or not logical. In law school, I remember that killing a woman in the heat of passion was justification for homicide, but not the reverse.
For a long time, after I graduated from law school, there was really only bad news about the Equal Rights Amendment. I was easy to be pessimistic. Indeed, ultimately it did not pass. But through the coordinated efforts of women all across America, at the local and national level, in ever-growing numbers and within the public and private sector, statutes were passed. Things did change. It is not nirvana today, not heaven yet. But it has changed. Women are only 1.8 percent of the Fortune 500’s CEOs.
So things have changed AND there has been backsliding on all aspects of civil rights AND you have your work cut out for you.
But you know that—you are bombarded daily with news of global crisis and ecological devastation and weak job markets and political corruption. You are bombarded with this sense of a world moving at breathless pace. This sense that nothing we are seeing has EVER happened before. The sense that contemporary demagogues are the worst who ever declaimed, today’s religious zealots more insistently zealous than any in history, today’s heathens more heathenish, today’s plagues more deadly, today’s puritans more hypocritical, our libertines more seductive, our children more brash, our elders more long-lived, but arterio-sclerotic.
A word of advice: Don’t let the news of the day paralyze you as though these were the worst of times. They may not be the best of times, but the planet earth has seen it all before and your calm, well-educated engagement is part of what will steer our fate. As old structures crumble, you may have to invent your own jobs, and you will do that by identifying the chasms of need that are created by those societal shifts. You will surprise yourselves.
Another word of advice: You know right now that you among the most privileged people on the planet. Know too that this is a fragile sense sometimes, and that there are people who will do their best to assure you that you are not important or powerful. Do not allow yourselves to be sidetracked by the barrage of backlash against everything and from all directions that seems to fill the air these days. Do not be disempowered by a season of great meanspiritedness.
Have faith in yourselves. Be kind to yourselves. Draw on the thoughtfulness and relative peace that you have had in your times here. It is a community I did not fully appreciate again until I left this place; but that community is also something which you will always have access to in one way or another, so don’t forget about each other.
Everytime spring comes, I think of that cover of The New Yorker, my favorite of all New Yorker covers, the one that appears every February. It is of a monacled gentleman who is employing his eyeglass to make a very thorough inspection, if somewhat more intellectual-than-necessary inspection, of a butterfly. And I am struck by the sense of contrast with that image by another cover in The New Yorker magazine, one that appeared only a few weeks ago—and that was of a dour rather doughy bespectacled businessman seated on a park bench, the little white earbuds of his iPod stoppering his ears, his face blank, his eyes glazed over and inscrutable. All around his impassive bulk, spring was bursting. A delirious robin was singing its heart out on the blossom-laden bough just above his head, but he remained transfixed, locked in his own dialed-up, downloaded interior world. Don’t be like that man. Snatch out those earbuds, hear the music, smell the coffee, pick up your monacle, and look at the butterflies. Don’t be unaware of what’s around you.
Shirley Chisholm wouldn’t have been here on this podium if it hadn’t been for the work of the civil rights movement. I wouldn’t be here if it hadn’t been for the work of the Shirley Chisholms. And we would not be here now enjoying the progress of the last 30 years of so-called piggy-back movements of civil rights—not just women’s rights, but elderly, Americans with disabilities, gay and lesbian, Latina and Asian rights, immigrants’ rights—and now we have to merge into a whole new range of anti-immigration, anti-Semitic, anti-Arab, profiling, to new and intimate degrees of identity stealing.
We would not be configured as we are now however, if it weren’t for these generations engaged before us—those who saw the strength in even the most distractive moments, their participation and their resolve. I think this notion of generation, this notion of generation in which I have some faith, of time unfolding in ways that are both random, yet within our control, is something we should hang on to.
We must always prepare ourselves for glorious serendipity. I was visiting Atlanta recently and I visited Margaret Mitchell's house. In the basement there is a 1939 photo of the premiere of Gone With The Wind. In that photo, Vivian Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara and Clark Gable as Rhett, all of the characters, the white characters, in the cast of Gone With The Wind are standing on the steps of the model of Tara and then seated, literally subservient at their feet, are all the cast that played slaves. And what’s interesting about this photo is that at Vivian Leigh’s right foot, sitting cross-legged, is a ten-year-old Martin Luther King. Now, this has to be one of the more weird historic conjunctions I’ve ever come across in my life, and I don’t know how well known it is. I started to write a little bit about it. But it was fascinating to me how much that photograph I think encapsulated something like a seed of possibility.
Certainly I think Gone With The Wind is one of most regressive bits of happy slave propaganda ever perpetuated. However, looking at that photo, looking at the link over time of who those people represented in that photograph became, Margaret Mitchell was the daughter of a Catholic suffragette. Although this clearly was not her strong point at one point in her life, later she made the link with the civil rights movement. Much less known about her is the fact that she actually worked very hard in civil rights in the city of Atlanta, worked very hard to integrate the police department in Atlanta and provided scholarships for African-American medical students.
When I look at that photo, I see a young Martin Luther King waiting for his cue in the wings, and when I look out at you, I see a picture frozen at a political moment of great precariousness, perhaps all of us feel that, but I look at you, all of you, about to walk out from the wings onto a real stage and it gives me great gladness.
My final wish for you is that you go your way again with optimism and resilience. It has taken that surely for you to have gotten this far, yes, perhaps with too many all-nighters, but now is the time you will begin to figure out how to use your Wellesley education, how to let it out, and employ it in creative lifelong ways. You’ve been pumped full of information and options. Now this is the turning point, when all of your life’s effort, in addition to your sainted parents pumping you up and perhaps paying out—now is the time in life when you can exhale and really enjoy career or work or graduate school. Whatever you do next will be entirely your own, so embark upon this next phase with patience and as much lightheartedness as you can possibly summon.
Day before yesterday, I found myself in a taxi inching up the Henry Hudson Parkway in a cab through absolutely terrible traffic, a major bottleneck, caused by that avalanche you may have heard about, of several tons of earth that had spewed onto the roadway when a wall collapsed. There was only a single lane open. The cabdriver was cursing New York, cursing New York roads, cursing New York drivers, and cursing the road-hogging tendencies of all cabbies other than himself.
“Well,” I interjected, “really it’s remarkable that they’ve cleared even one lane given how immense the avalanche. We’re lucky to be moving at all.” He stopped cursing for a minute and he looked at me in the rear view mirror, sighed loudly, and inquired, “Excuse me, miss, but you, you are a lady of the eternally filled plate?”
I had no idea what he was talking about. The eternally filled plate? I wondered what had brought this on. Was it some less-than-subtle reference to my middle-aged girth? Was it some weird fetishistic proposition? Some mystical invocation of the economies of abundance?
“Uh, well...I like a good lamb chop as much as the next person,” I volunteered cautiously. “Lamb chops,” he said enthusiastically. “Yes, that is what I mean.” Then gesturing at the creeping traffic, he said, “I see a big empty plate. You, miss, see a beautiful platter of lamb chops.” And with that the light dawned. Yes indeed, I saw the cup—and it was, just as he had said, half full. And indeed when traffic started moving only seconds later, you could say that my cup runneth over, with mead and with birdsong and lamb chops.
Now to tell you the truth it isn’t very often that anyone calls me an optimist. It’s a part of myself I keep under wraps lest it spoil my reputation. I believe in realistic pessimism and situational grumpiness and, as Rachel said, wise trouble. But the encounter with the cabbie was one that moves me to irrational cheerfulness every time I think about it.
And perhaps that’s the most succinct of the injunctions I can offer you: a good dose of irrational cheerfulness as the root of all resilience. I will end with that.
Go forth and live happily and well, as might true ladies, or real women, of the eternally full plate.