Following is the
baccalaureate speech delivered by Assistant Professor of History
and African and African American Studies Holly Hanson for the
2002 commencement weekend.
Honored guests, most
loved parents, Class of 2002. Thank you for giving me the privilege
of speaking to you this evening.
That you are graduating
now is wonderful, because our world needs what you have to offer.
It needs your skills, your insight, your passion. Tonight I want
to offer you a tool for engaging the world. It is simple.
There is no 'they.'
There are no people who are fundamentally different from us in
ways that matter. There is no 'they,' there is only us, all of
us. To divide humanity into 'us' and 'them' naturalizes injustice.
the United Nations, twenty percent of the world's people control
eighty six percent of its wealth, which means eighty percent of
the people have access to fourteen percent of the world's wealth.
We accomodate this appalling reality with categories of 'us' and
'them': developed and developing, first world and third world,
modern and traditional. We are rich because we're knowledgeable,
wealth-producing, and progressive. They are poor because they
are uninformed, not entrepreneurial, and bound by tradition.
It sounds natural,
it seems inevitable, but the world has not always been this way.
The overabundance of wealth and economic hyperactivity in some
regions and the lack of material resources and economic stagnation
in other regions are aspects of one process of technological innovation,
production and exchange which has involved all the parts of the
planet over the past five hundred years. The distribution of the
world's wealth has a history, and part of that history has been
profound transformation of social structures and political institutions
everywhere. Latin American silver, shipped to Europe and to Asia
from the 16th century to the 19th, created wealth in the world,
but Andean institutions ceased to function, and the region was
impoverished. The plantation labor complex which depended on enslaved
African workers, created tremendous wealth from the 17th to the
19th centuries, but Africa lost its people and its social and
political institutions got distorted and almost destroyed. Industrialization
in Europe created tremendous wealth for a few, but the colonies
and ex-colonies that provided raw materials and consumed finished
goods paid the costs without experiencing the benefits.
All of us, and
our parents and grandparents and ancestors for about fifteen generations,
made the world we have. There are no people on the planet who
are centuries behind, who have been left out of some process of
progress which the rest of us have enjoyed. There is no 'they'
that need to catch up to us who are superior, no others who have
not been involved in building the world we have. The rich world
and the poor world are the same world. The developed and the developing
world are the same world, they came into being together, they
have made each other. There is no 'they' just us, all of us, burdened
with a world that embodies grotesque, unbearable injustice.
I want you to
be unwilling to live with 'us' and 'them' because these categories
Dividing the world
into 'us' and 'them' also obscures our responsibility. It is a
way of thinking that lets us off the hook. 'They' cause the problem.
'They', the neo-colonial multi-nationals. 'They', the ignorant,
over-populating third world masses. The fat cat international
institutions. The airy-headed eco-feminist intellectuals. It is
all their fault. And, if it's their fault, we're innocent. But
there is no 'they', there is only us, all of us, together. All
of us hold the world in its current patterns and structures in
the way we act and the way we think and the way we engage each
We are the cells
and the sinews and the bone of the tightly integrated, coherent
organism which is the world, and all our actions have an effect
far beyond ourselves. We have power as consumers, and if we choose
to, we can use that power to create equitable working conditions
for the producers of the goods we consume. We have tremendous
power as citizens of a democratic society, and if we choose to
use it, we can wield that power to elect leaders who are committed
to overcoming global inequality. We can only take these actions
if we refuse to divide 'us' and 'them', if we recognize ourselves
as part of a fundamentally connected humanity, if we embrace the
power we have to shape the world.
There is no 'they',
there's only us, all of us, together. We are blessed with the
strength to ask ourselves hard questions, to sacrifice what is
comfortable, to create patterns of production and social structures
more equitable than the ones we have inherited. We can do this.
Class of 2002, you can do this. We have tremendous confidence
that you will engage the world with a passion for justice, with
insight and intelligence and determination.
Come back and
tell us what you are doing.