"Turning Our Backs" (Note: These are remarks, as prepared, delivered by Eddie S. Glaude Jr., keynote speaker for Colgate’s 194th commencement.)
Thank you Mr. President and Professor Bouk. To the members of the Board of Trustees, the distinguished faculty, and to the extraordinary class of 2015, thank you for this honor and for the opportunity to share with you the joy of this special day. It is a humbling experience for a country boy from Moss Point, Mississippi to find himself amid the stunning beauty of the Chenango Valley on this historic campus. It is a long way from the reality of my mother who cleaned toilets for a living and my father who delivered mail and flowers in the blistering heat of Mississippi summers.
Life is funny that way. Amid its joys and tragedies, every now and again one has a singular experience—something that suggests, at least for the moment and it must be only for the moment, that you are more than a mere speck of dust, that there is something significant about the personality that is uniquely your own, and that you have said or done something that matters. Thank you for that experience today.
But I must admit that I have struggled to find the proper words for this occasion. You have dedicated the last four years to the arduous task of self creation and to preparing yourselves to enter a world that is, without mincing words, quite ugly in its details. So much is at stake, and I have never dared to do this before.
The beauty of the last four years rests, in part, in your willingness to try on different ways of being in the world. You’re not the same person who arrived here four years ago. I remember, during the heady times of my college days, my own narrow sense of what mattered being tossed aside as I met people from around the country and the world, as I encountered challenging ideas in the classroom, and as I tried on new selves and discarded old ones (failing over and over again at it all, but in each instance, as Samuel Beckett noted, “fail[ing] better.”)
Hopefully, you have allowed yourselves to be unsettled over these last four years. Hopefully you have “failed better” and have come to understand that one’s life is, in fact, the canvas upon which we make art. Indeed the art of living involves the kinds of habits and risks that universities like Colgate make possible. It is the power of a true liberal arts education to ruthlessly expose you to ideas that will shift the ground beneath your feet. What might it mean to have encountered James Baldwin and Toni Morrison here? To have read Judith Butler and Jacques Derrida here? To have struggled with W.E.B. Du Bois and Hannah Arendt here? To have worked in labs and thought seriously about the natural world? To have engaged the mysteries of the human mind here? Worldviews have collapsed, positions have shifted, and each of you has become larger, more expansive, because of it.
In this place, the cultivation of the critical sense equips one with the tools to engage in self-reflection. Those tools are a prerequisite for critically engaging the world at large. Over these last four years, whether you have majored in the hard sciences or social sciences, whether you are on your way to graduate school or law school or medical school, or whether you are destined to be on Wall Street, hopefully you have acquired the habits of reading, of questioning, of thinking critically that will shape how you navigate the rough seas of this world. These habits will shape how you respond to the difficult questions of justice and fairness, and how you will respond to the broader concern of democracy in this country.
The beauty and power of the liberal arts rest in its insistence that we begin the lifelong journey of learning with a constant and unflinching examination of who we take ourselves to be. We have to look the fact of this historic creation — the fact of you and me — squarely in the face as we embark on the journey. If we refuse, we remain permanently in the dock, trading in the illusion that our narrow world is the world as it is. (The equivalent of pondering shadows in Plato’s cave) No. This college experience, if it has been a singular one for you, has occasioned moments where you have had to turn your back on the ugliness and narrowness in you. And that has been the only way that you could have reached, as Ralph Waldo Emerson would have us do, for a higher self. In doing so, you made it possible to be better, and to do better.
Now, this work isn’t limited to our individual selves. You have made lifelong friends over the last four years. You have met professors who, I suspect, have touched your souls. They, like Beauford Delaney to James Baldwin, directed your eyes to see beauty in the most unexpected places. In short, you have built community here, loved and cried with others who, in their own unique way, have helped you become the person who sits here today.
And, in many ways, you have remade this place. Colgate University does not belong to administrators, to the Board, to the faculty, or to some abstract idea of tradition. Colgate belongs to you! And your presence here along with your classmates, unprecedented because of the distinctiveness of each and every one of you, occasioned a moment to make this place anew — to shake it at its very foundations in the name of the very principles that make it such a special place. Together, you have challenged Colgate to be better.
Some three hundred among you occupied the Administration Building for one hundred hours. You called attention to what it means to live here under duress, to experience daily insults, and to know that the idea of inclusion, real and genuine inclusion, exists only as an abstract value not a practical reality. Colgate, you maintained, had to fail better. Just as the university challenged you to turn your back on the ugliness and narrowness of a previous self, you challenged Colgate to turn its back on the ugly and narrow dimensions of this wonderful institution.
In so many ways, colleges and universities are training grounds for citizenship. Here you either cultivate the habits of courage or learn the habits of cowardliness and complicity. Over the past year, you have courageously forced this university to look unflinchingly at itself. You have set the conditions for a better university for that fourth grader today who, in a not so distant future, will find herself moving about this campus. And, hopefully, she will not have to ask herself if she belongs here.
But you can’t be naïve about change. Habits are hard to break. Especially when they hide in plain sight. We need only remember that in the spring of 1968 some 500 students occupied the Administration Building. They called attention to a climate of exclusion on campus and blatant racism among their fellows. And here you are, 47 years later, making a similar claim under different conditions. It is one of the hardest lessons to learn, particularly when you are young: that substantive and enduring change doesn’t happen overnight. That your commitments to improving Colgate, our country, or the world can’t be fleeting. Those commitments don’t work like a tweet or a post on Instagram or comments on Yik Yak. They ought to animate the spirit of a life lived over time. Otherwise, the new baby is stillborn and we grieve over what could have been.
Over these last four years, you have engaged in daring acts of self-creation, you have in countless ways challenged Colgate to be better, and now you are preparing to leave these hallowed grounds. A vast world awaits. And it isn’t a pretty one. War and violence, greed and selfishness, profound inequality and deep-seated hatred animate these days. Your fellows are in the streets clamoring for justice and insisting that no life in this country should be valued more than another. How will you orient yourself to the “fierce urgency of now?”
So much of the ugliness of our current moment requires that you and I turn our backs on the habits and practices that distort and undermine democratic life in this country. The question is will you do it? Do you have the courage to stand up and confront the powers that have hijacked the country in the name of greed, hatred, and security? Can you lead a revolution of value? Where we change how we view government, how we value each other, and change what we take to be ultimately meaningful in this country (where material success doesn’t define the fullness of who we are and who we aspire to be)?
Members of the class of 2015, will you do the work to free up your imaginations to dare to believe that this world can be different? All possibilities, even in the darkest of times, reach us through our imaginations. You and I must seize hold of the idea that a different arrangement of things is possible. And you must do so with passionate intelligence, in which you bring the fullness of what you have experienced and learned here at Colgate to bear on the world as it is in the hope of a world as it could be.
We must turn our backs on unintelligent and uninspired action.
We must turn our backs on greed and selfishness, on mean-spiritedness and provincialism.
We must turn our backs on those who believe that war and violence can solve the world’s problems
We must turn our backs on those who believe in disposable populations.
We must turn our backs on racial hatred, on sexism, on homophobia, on all forms of prejudice that deny the dignity and standing of every human being no matter their place of birth, the color of their skin, or who they love.
In short, members of the mighty class of 2015 you must challenge yourselves, you must continue to challenge Colgate, and you must challenge this nation to not only be better, but to do better. It is your inexhaustible voice, to paraphrase William Faulkner, your “spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance” that is the only possible salvation we have now. It is in your hands.
So congratulations and get ready to do the glorious work of transforming this world.