Undergraduate Commencement Speech at UMass Amherst Delivered by Charlayne Hunter-Gault
AMHERST, Mass. - The following is a transcript of Hunter-Gault''s speech to the Class of 1998:
"I greet you this morning with one of the salutations from South Africa''s 11 official language groups: Sanibona! And if you feel so inclined, you may answer me with "Yebo! Sawubona.
"And if you care at all about how I feel, you could add: Njani?
"Let me now offer my congratulations to the members of the class of 1998 and to all of those who helped you get here. I would linger on this a bit longer, given what it usually takes to get to this moment — especially during the last few days of finals and final bills! But I have been told by E-mail and otherwise to keep this short and sweet, pithy and brief And after the two weeks I''ve just had in war torn and starving Southern Sudan, I am more than happy to try and oblige. I need some sleep!
"I am also more than happy, indeed downright excited to have this opportunity to join you as a member of the class of 1998 and to share my excitement about the world you are about to move into...a world that I would hope you are looking forward to navigating with confidence and joy. . .
"I want to depart from the all too pervasive journalistic tendency to titillate you with tales that make your skin crawl and hair stand on end or that feed what is believed to be a lust for lust. instead, I want to borrow an old line to describe these new times, and talk about them as days of "miracles and wonder".
"Now some of you are already thinking, "But she just said she spent the last seven days in war torn, strife-ridden Southern Sudan. Where is the miracle, where is the wonder in that?" And indeed, there is not much there at the moment to celebrate. A 15 year Civil War has taken a devastating toll on the people and the land. The war combined with a recent famine has claimed many lives and may yet claim many more. Many of them are babies whose mother''s cannot sustain them because the mother''s only food is the leaves from trees and grass. I was recently at a therapeutic feeding center set up by the UN in a near barren area that was once a village until it was destroyed by war. Once there, the babies get on a program of intensive feeding, which almost always snatches them from the jaws of death. They improve rapidly.
"As I stood in the middle of the spare outdoor compound, I noticed at least three mother''s sitting on blankets on the earthen floor, nursing two babies at a time. When I asked the nurse about this, she informed me that they were twins. Was it just an odd coincidence that there were three sets of twins here, I asked. The nurse said no, there were many twins in the Dinka culture. What was there about Dinkas that led them to have so many twins, I wanted to know. The nurse smiled an almost beatific smile and said softly: "We lose so many of our people, I guess it''s God''s way of helping us get them back."
"Hers was the face of hope. These are the days of miracle and wonder. A short time before that, I had been in Rwanda, where genocidal slaughter of more than a half million of the minority Tutsis has left many horrors, not least thousands of children living in households headed by other children — some as young as 11. I met some of these children at a church service. Like I, some were visitors and were asked to introduce themselves to the congregation. Rwandans are basically interior people, not given to venting their emotions. They rarely talk about the genocide. But a few of them alluded to it, if only obliquely. Now and then, one would sing a hymn that they said was of particular comfort. I had not planned to speak, but the lady pastor insisted that the visitor from a long way off say something.
"I was almost overwhelmed by the moment, wondering as I headed to (the front of the tiny theatre serving as a church) what on earth would I say that would have any meaning for young people who had suffered in such a unique way. And so I said just that. And I told them that there was no way that I could begin to understand their pain since I had never experienced what they had. just lived through. But then I shared with them a little of the history of the American South, telling them about the system that was designed to keep a whole race of people subjugated — physically, and spiritually. I told them that many died . And I briefly shared with them the kind of armour that the values of the people of my village created that helped sustain me as long as need be, but also gave me what I needed to join the multitude of students who one day rose Up against that system and destroyed it.
"And as I told them a little about the Civil Rights Movement in America and the successes it had, I told them a little about the values that fuel] those success. That even as I resisted my grandmother''s entreaties to learn the 23rd Psalm—I would rather have been out climbing trees, learn it I did. Thus when I entered the University of Georgia as it''s first black woman student and was confronted with a rioting mob throwing bricks though my window and threatening to kill me, I was wrapped in the armour my grandmother passed down...Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil...Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me all the day long.
"Even now, I told them, when confronted with a society that still finds it difficult to yield its privilege and keep its promise, I keep on moving to take my place, wrapped in the armour hammered into perfection by my extended family — everyone in the whole little village I grew up in...my disenfranchised black neighbors, my ill-equipped teachers in the segregated schools and in the churches. When they, the people of my village couldn''t give us first class citizenship, they labored to give us a first class sense of ourselves. . And then I told the young Tutsis about the victory song we used to sing during our protest marches.. And I invited them to sing along with me. Most spoke no English, but there was a translator for my words. And as I sang, "Aint gonna let nobody turn me ''round," I could see them singing the same words...and that emboldened me on a risky venture. I then sang, "Ain''t gonna let no genocide turn me ''roun'' and kind of held my breath until I heard them sing, "Ain''t gonna let no genocide turn me ''roun." And they sang it with gusto.
"A few minutes later, a young girl rose and told the story of losing her mother, and father in the genocide and of seeing her two brothers slaughtered before her eyes. She told of her struggle to care for her younger siblings alone and of her efforts to continue going to school. Neither struggle was being won. She was having problems providing for the children and money promised to help her continue school had not come. She paused for a moment and I thought she was too overcome with sadness to continue, but instead she started talking again, this time saying that she had been inspired by all that she had heard that morning and that she had a new determination and a new song. And she began singing, "Aint gonna let nobody turn me ''roun''."
"The face of hope in these days of miracle and wonder.
"Likewise in South Africa.
"It was that "miracle and wonder" that called me to South Africa last year for an extended stay. And I have not been disappointed. There is a miracle underway, notwithstanding the struggle by which it is unfolding. To witness the process of transformation of a whole country and its efforts to put the past behind them is truly to be a witness to history.
"It is with "miracle and wonder" that young South Africans are joining young people everywhere in daring to dream and prepare for a future vastly different from the past.
"A past that South Africans are revealing to themselves and the world in one of the most amazing truth-telling processes the world has seen. It is painful and it is flawed, but it is succeeding in ways that I am not even sure it''s creators imagined. For even as some Afrikaners condemn the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for being biased in favor of the blacks, they also acknowledge that they it was from the testimony before the Commission that they learned for the first time some of the horrible violations of human rights that were being done to their opponents in their name.
''"That is the face of hope that is helping fuel the hope of the African Renaissance that everyone''s talking about these days. It is already being realized in the wave of democracy sweeping the continent and in a new generation of African leaders who are insisting on taking control of their own destinies. Thanks in part to President Clinton''s historic trip to the continent, some of that got through, but I have my doubts about how long what I call the "new news" will be reported. It''s Afro-pessimism that sells. ...
"Which is not to say there is no bad news, but even when I have to report "bad news," I try to do it in a "new news" way, providing context and background that often provides a completely different interpretation of the thing that I''m reporting. This is the kind of news reporting that most media decision makers have written off in their bottom- line quest for ratings. But it is the news that intelligent people like yourselves will no doubt want to know so that you can make better judgments about the world that is now your neighbor, thanks to globalization. It is the "new news" of peoples of the world and their cultures, which do not come into our living rooms nightly, just as, conversely, the worst examples of ours go into theirs. But it we are to embrace rather than shrink from globalization, as President Clinton recently urged, then we must have access to information that helps us see and appreciate that which we have not yet learned to see, including both the positive and negative sides of globalization as an economic force. It is quickly shaping the new world order.
"My own "journey to the horizons in search of people" to borrow from Zora Neal Hurston has been such a magnificent journey of discovery. If T were younger, and know what I know now, I think I might have wanted to grow up to be Margaret Mead instead of Brenda Star. And so I implore you who have already been exposed through this magnificent cathedral of learning to the best thought and phi]osophy the world has offered down through the ages to go into the world]d in search of your new neighbors and find out why it is important to the world]d that you meet them and they meet you, to borrow again from Hurston. You have the gifts of your knowledge, culture and values] to share and so do they. And I am convinced that if you join with the peoples of the world]d against the debasement of all our cultures, whatever other gifts you give to the world, this one will rank as one of the most important.. For I am also convinced that culture could become to the 21 st century what that great native of this state,WEB Dubois accurately predicted would be the problem of the 20th — the color line. The rainbow face is the face of hope in days of miracle and wonder.
"But if we embrace rather than fear or fight the culture of others, in addition to the educators, communicators ,economists, nurses, scientists and all the professions hat you now represent, you will also become architects of a new 21st century world that we will all want to live in. In that regard and in closing, let me end as I began, with a lesson from South Africa. This time it comes not from the Zulu but the Xhosa people, who have a value called Ubuntu. South African Journalist Alistair Sparks, in his book, "The Mind of South Africa" explains that it broadly means that each individual''s humanity is ideally expressed though his relationship with other people. Archbishop Desmond Tutu put it this way: "People are people through other people."
"With that, may I say once again how happy I am to be one of your people. I hope to see you in the world during these days of miracle and wonder. Ngibonga kakhulu!
"Thank you very much."