President Pasquerella, Chair of the Board of Trustees Barbara Baumann, Dean Stephens, colleagues on the program, officers, members, family and friends of the class of 2016: I am honored to stand here and offer farewell remarks on the eve of your Commencement. To my sisters and brothers in the class of 2016, thank you for inviting me to speak. It means a lot to me. I will remember this night as a highlight of my work at MHC. I want to dedicate my remarks to my mother, who is my first and best teacher, and to my former teacher in graduate school, Cornel West, who exemplifies the values and ideas I want to talk about tonight.
Here’s the main idea: “love, study, struggle.”
For those of you who will receive your degrees tomorrow, the invitation to love, study, and struggle is not novel advice. It is kind of what you have done throughout your lives. You got into MHC probably because of your love of study and your willingness to struggle with ideas, creative fire, and diverse stories of human experience.
Love, Study, Struggle.
American historian Robin Kelley wrote these three simple words on a scrap of paper which he taped inside the top drawer of his desk drawer at the beginning of a distinguished scholarly career so that, he writes, “it serves as a daily reminder of what I am supposed to be doing. Black study and resistance must begin with love.” Love-as-agency, love-as-the-motivation for making revolution. “It meant envisioning a society where everyone is embraced, where there is no oppression, where every life is valued.” To Kelley these three words reminded him that the ultimate hope of history is we will make more justice, more mercy, more love, and less human suffering. I stand to ask you do the same thing by making love, study, struggle a mantra of your life’s work, of your daily practice, of your posture toward mindful living. I want to challenge you to love in a way that goes to the root of human compassion and understanding so that through your work more of us can live undivided lives, lives of greater wholeness. And, of course, I urge you to love, study, and struggle for pay. Allow me to offer a reason why.
I believe that 100 years from now, when our descendants look back on our time, they will focus a good deal of attention on the emergence of the era of global neoliberal capitalism that dates from the social and economic ruptures of the post-World War II era. They will see that in our time, once again, the world became small, linked by various networks of economic, biological, artistic, political, and informational pursuit. A human society that in the modern age developed as nations competing and often warring with each other for military, scientific and economic autonomy and supremacy became, in the time of global neoliberal capitalism, something approaching one world. A world still complicated as ever by old and brute ideas, but one now linked, porous, with amazing systems and technologies that allow us to move capital—human, physical, financial—over large distances and in very little time.
I suspect that what will interest them more than the emblematic extravagances of the one percent, more than silly campaigns of brand entertainers and pioneer politicians; more than the clutching ideas of isolationists, fundamentalists, ethno-racists, homophobes, and climate deniers; more than the hubris of entrepreneurial technologists and scientists who soldier on in the fantasy of a value-free laboratory while environmental stress builds around them; more than the cautious status quo experts who make token noises about reforming a society so deeply divided between those who have so much but work so little, and those who toil all their lives yet have so little. What will interest them more than these and other equally important societal shifts and tremors will be the attention we paid to suffering at the bottom of society.
Here I don’t mean the bottom 99 percent, which is a pretty big, class-inflected bottom in itself. I mean the bottom of that bottom—those of our brothers and sisters whose lives have been wasted, wiped out, warehoused, wearied by unending poverty and illness in the midst of equally unending plenty. I mean those we have thrown away, those who endure living death sentences of profound poverty, disease, unfreedom, and insecurity.
If there is one legacy of Mount Holyoke alums that I’ve learned in my nearly 30 years here, it is that Mount Holyoke alums run to the places where there is human need and they roll up their sleeves. Mount Holyoke alums step up (and never step back) when it is time to stand against injustice. In their best moments Mount Holyoke alums listen with compassion and understanding, and speak with—not to, not for—those who have less voice. And they do it for pay.
If we ever needed a class of Mount Holyoke alums to go out into this world, we sure do need one now. Let me give a brief illustration of how we got from a world of promise with some peril that was the world up to now, to a world of peril with some promise, that is the coming one (and as you can sense I am suggesting that the era of global neoliberal capitalism may be part of a transition to something else that is neither neoliberal or capitalist).
The black power/civil rights movement of the ’50s and ’60s brought down barriers that had maintained a racial and economic caste system in the US in the decades after emancipation. At the very moment of opening of an integrated society, when the agency, freedom, and mobility of people of African descent gained broad support in law and in custom, at that very moment emerged the counterrevolution that we now call neoliberalism, with its all out assault on the idea of good government that enhances wellbeing. Neoliberalism, its emphasis on hyperpersonal responsibility even when you have nothing, its preoccupation with finding blame in those who are said either to not be doing enough to “help themselves,” or who victimize other people in their “rage and hurt,” or who they think complain all the time about the “isms” that keep them down but do little to find other paths for themselves or those they claim they care about.
We have now Generation X and millennials who face a Hobson’s choice between the biopolitical ethic of self-making and self-deserving and personal branding for those who are society’s winners, and the necropolitical ethic of chronic want, powerlessness early death, untreated disease, and nonstop violence for those deemed society’s disadvantaged.
At that crossroad moment in the US that was the late ’60s, the fight against injustice hesitated, as if the achievement of rights—civil or human—was sufficient to realize social justice. We stopped wanting to fight against the forces that were positioning those at the bottom of the bottom. Too many of us retreated into our homes, our careers, our rule- and free-market-based sense of fairness. We turned away from, not toward, each other.
A friend of mine put it well: “From the late ’60s onward, the bottom of the bottom got called the underclass; they were seen as beneath class. Working class was bifurcated into the middle class and the underclass. Class as a concept vanished from the social map. The bottom of the bottom were redefined by what they do to themselves or others, or what is done to them (buy, sell, and use drugs, shoot guns and kill people or get killed by cops, get thrown in jail, etc.) or by what they feel (hurt, rage, despair, trauma, self-pity, etc.) but not by their class position, even though they were still in a death-grip, class-based economy. Today, they are defined neither by their work nor by their lack of work.”
Few of us even remember that the 1960s war on poverty—which was a war on the ecological causes and conditions of deprivation—became a war on crime and drugs, a war on people who were involved in or simply lived near the illicit drugs market.
There is a saying in the restorative justice community that when human suffering is ignored, when there is no recognition of injustice or compassion and understanding in response to harm, the hurt, fear, sadness, and anger associated with that suffering goes down into the basement of our souls and begins lifting weights. And so it is that today we have so much rage, so much religious certainty, so much violence, so much wild gunfighting, so much suffering, so much debt and economic insecurity, and mass incarceration, broken families, disposable futures, dangerous streets and communities, so much rural and urban resource deserts—so much devalued human life. And that brings us to another crossroad moment such as the present.
You graduate at a time when we are beginning to accept that global neoliberal capitalism is unsustainable, individually and socially. The oddest realization is catching on: We need each other. We are our neighbor’s keeper—and not our neighbor’s rival—after all. And for us to meet each other’s needs, we need new relationships, new economies, new democratic institutions, new conversations about accountability, new investments in public life, a new infrastructure of social obligations to one another.
You have already demonstrated that you possess the moral genius to craft new ways of being in the world by your activism, your ruthless questioning of claims, your social media and grassroots organizing, and by the robes you wear tonight. It was you who taught me that I should never enter conversations without introducing myself by name and by my preferred gender pronouns.
We need that same moral genius, now more than ever. To love, study, and struggle as a practice means to work to reduce human suffering everywhere, every day, and to do it for pay. To love, study, and struggle is to find meaning and beauty in rituals like those Alice Walker referred to when reflecting on how so many black mothers of yesteryear fed their artistic and spiritual selves, cultivated creative intellectual practices, and left legacies to their loved ones using the only materials they could afford, or using the only medium their position in society allowed them to use: their gardens, their hands; sewing together new garments from the tattered fragments of older ones, making comforting meals out of a few simple ingredients. Walker shows us that the moral genius of love, study, and struggle comes from power of simple attention, listening, and active loving to make something new out of the ordinary elements of our environment. We need you to build on Walker by making this simple self-sustaining work more collective, more focused on enhancing the full freedoms and human capabilities of us all, especially those at the bottom.
If you love, study, and struggle, against the me, me tendencies of the past and in favor of the inchoate rumblings of the less fortunate, then, long after you’re gone, when the history of our time is written, people will notice, one by one, here and there, that there was a person who brought profound compassion and understanding to the work of serving others and reshaping society in the decisive early decades of the twenty-first century when we transitioned from global neoliberal capitalism to a more just world.
Oh, and once again, it appears she was a graduate of Mount Holyoke (in 2016), that small women’s college in South Hadley that does so much, with so little, and against such enormous odds. And she did it for pay. Go well. I honor and salute you with profound respect on this night: love, study, struggle.