Scripps College Commencement 2019


Charlayne Hunter-Gault

May 29, 2018

Greetings Class of 2018 and to all who help you be that! Or as they say in South Africa:

All Protocols observed!

I am so very honored to be here for so many reasons, not least to remember with you your departed classmate, Tatissa Zunguze., now an Ancestor. And like all Ancestors, I know she is shining her light on each of you and I hope me today and always. For again, as the South Africans say: Long Live!

The same could be said of Ellen Browning Scripps, for she left quite a legacy…not least in journalism. If she had been featured in the comics instead of Brenda Starr when I was about five and got the comic section everyday after my Grandmother finished reading the paper, she and not Brenda would have been my inspiration to become a journalist!

And it is so wonderful to see that Ancestor’s gifts keep on giving. So, Ellen Browning Scripps, Long Live!

Now, let me hasten to say what Ellen Browning Scripps surely knew: journalists must have a capacity to get excited about almost anything–and I have had some assignments in my life that really tested that. But I have had far more that confirmed my choice of profession, lo those many years ago and my excitement about being here today is not being tested. it’s real.

I also have to say– your letter of invitation, penned by Kaya Mark, your Senior Class representative— so eloquently stated what Scripps students are passionate about, not least your engagement in and passion for… in her words “…making a difference in the world through conscious, meaningful change.” After reading that I was actually tempted to just get up here and read excerpts from it, thank you for your commitment, quote a line or two from the letter including the one that speaks of your determination not to limit your horizons, then congratulate you and then do a DROP-THE-MIKE -THING and sit down!

But then, there is another part of the letter that cried out to me –the part where Kaya said so many of you have “struggled to view the world in a positive light, given the political and social challenges of the past year. “

And believe me, given my various identities as a journalist, a woman of color, a woman with Sisters of all colors, a wife, a Mother and an American citizen, I totally understand. Sometimes I have also struggled — in all of those identities, because in one— the journalist— I try not to take public positions because my job is to inform people so that they can make up their own minds. But sometimes all my identities collide, so I want to share with you that struggle, especially to try and understand the mindset that sanctions turning back the clock on so many of the hard won gains of the generation I know best—the 60’s Civil Rights Movement generation that led us closer to a more just and equitable society and a more perfect union.

And among the many developments that has also troubled me to no end is the toxic tribalism that is tearing at the moral fabric of our nation. It went underground for a long time, now it has surfaced with a scary certitude, a disturbing example of that old saying: We’ve been here before. Or What goes around comes around. And yet… I still have hope that we SHALL overcome.

Still, I sometimes even remind myself of my Sainted Grandmother, who was a big wrestling fan, and once I had to shout at her when she was approaching the television set with a vase in her hand, poised to throw it at one of the offenders.

My voice is increasingly that vase!

And that’s most especially when some vile Tweet is put up on the screen that attempts to undermine my profession, calling us “enemies of the people” or that attacks some of my professional colleagues, sometimes in VERY PERSONAL and sometimes very dangerous ways. For example, my friend, the journalist April Ryan, a veteran White House correspondent who has covered three presidents during her 20-Plus years there and this year, for the first time, she has been verbally attacked by two different press secretaries and received death threats after asking if the current president has thought about leaving office after the FBI raided the office of his personal attorney.

And I most certainly threw my vase…I mean my voice at all of that!

But I eventually calm down long enough to do what I’ve been doing all my life to strengthen my resolve to keep on keepin’ on on behalf of the people I am committed to serve, especially, but not exclusively giving voice to the voiceless. And so, what I do as I have always done when values I hold dear are challenged: I prepare to do righteous battle by polishing my armor. An armor created long before I became a journalist, made of the enduring elements of our history.

Now I had a journalism professor who used to say, somewhat enigmatically: “We learn from history that we do not learn from history.”

But I believe we do, which is why I want to briefly share with you how prepared I am and always have been to do righteous journalistic battle, especially in times past and, to go back to Biblical history and Esther, the strong woman of her time, whose words “in such a time as this” is as relevant today as it was in her day. I do that in the hope of adding a tiny bit of polish to your already well -polished armor.

So what is my armor, and how was it created?

Well, for that, briefly walk back with me to 1961, when I entered the University of Georgia under court order, by a white Republican Judge, no less, who understood the law that called for adherence to the 1954 Brown decision that outlawed so called separate but equal, but was anything but. Remember his name. Bootle. It’s coming around again.

When students opposed to the order gathered at the entrance to the University shouting ugly racist epithets, one in particular that is now referred to as the N word in polite circles, excluding rap. I found myself looking around for that person, for I had an entirely different identity, thanks to the armor I wore, created by people in an era when they were forced to live under separate and o unequal laws. But when they couldn’t give us first class citizenship, they gave us a first class sense of ourselves. For example, every year, the all – Black school I attended held a fundraiser to help make up for the deficits created by the people in power, including text books with pages torn . Needless to say— none of the people in power looked like any of us.

Now the reward to the family raising the most money, was that their child would be crowned King or Queen. Well, when I was in about the fourth or fifth grade, my family had raised the most money and I was crowned Queen. Well, the notion that I was a Queen took up residence in my head, which, while it was ON my head made me insufferable to my classmates for a few days, after which their teasing got me to take it off my head. But it remained IN my head, as well as my heart and soul . So all those years later, when the students kept shouting the N word, I kept looking around for who that was, because I knew it wasn’t me. For I was then, as I had been since elementary school, a Queen. Mental Armor!!!

Now the other layers of my armor were created by the history that was taught in our home, in our schools and in our Churches …a history that included women like Phillis Wheatley, a woman who found a beautiful poetic voice despite her not so beautiful status as a slave and NO KANYE, it was NOT a choice— not for her or for Harriet Tubman, who led so many of her people to freedom at great risk to herself. Or Ida B . Wells a crusading journalist not unlike Ellen Browning Scripps . Wells campaigned against the lynching of Black women in the late 1800s and her words, like Esther’s are as relevant today as then, for she said:

“The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth on them.”

To me: That’s the mission of Servants of the People .

I could go on about the armor-crafting inspiration that has guided my journey to the horizons– words you will no doubt recognize that I borrowed from the incomparable Zora Neal Hurston, also Long Live! For even now, years after her Ancestordom, she is getting good reviews for Barracoon, the story of one of the last US survivors of the Transatlantic slave trade! So important to help those who don’t understand the lingering burden of that history and why it lives in so of us today, and which, alas, is not being taught in far too many of our schools. But Some of you will become parents, if you are not already, or will have friends who have children. And teaching them about how to react to bullying and not participate in it is important, but when they are seeing and hearing prominent adults publicly bully, using vile, cruel, sexist and disrespectful words, it’s as important as ever, “in such a time as this to create a layer of amor for them that is enscribed with words like respect, kindness, good manners, and passion com And nowadays, you can’t start too early creating that layer of their armor !

But I know you would not have chosen this institution had it not held out the promise of adding layers to your armor, created by those who loved and nurtured you to that moment of choice..

And I, as I said earlier, I am here today to add a little polish to your already well -crafted armor—”for such a time as this.” To be sure, you are graduating in what can clearly be described as The Year of the Woman . I mean, as I anticipated this day, I started clipping articles about women in newspapers and magazines… some about how women are changing the world, others about women in breakthrough roles, women demanding their rightful place …even for the frist time, one Woman–a Senator– allowed to breast feed her infant on the Senate floor! Some women have achieved their rightful place in the world…but there are also those who must fight on, not least for equal pay for equal work… for demanding justice in cases of disrespectful men and sexual predators, for Black women who often get a double discrimination whammy…like the fact African American women are the victims of wide disparities in health, including having one of the highest rates of death during pregnancy or complications from delivery that white women, although they, too, make up the shameful fact that more women in the US are dying of complications related to pregnancy than in any other developed country and the incidence is rising.

Anyway, as the stacks of paper grew taller and spread out in sequence on the floor of the office in our apartment that my husband and I share, I finally realized I had hardly left any space for the civic awards and golf trophies he has amassed . But then, I comforted myself with the thought that after 48 years together, he gets me ! . And so, it got worse as I watched the Oscars and collected every article about how the Real Oscars went to the women who spoke up and spoke out about the woeful lack of gender parity in Hollywood, with inspiring and sometimes challenging words. And the woman who got the first Oscar nomination for a woman for cinematography — Mudbound’s Rachel Morrison, who was also the cinematographer for Black Panther.

I was so inspired by those women and those at the Golden Globes, so the day after the Golden Globes, I flew immediately to Los Angeles and interviewed for the PBS Newshour Tracee Ellis Ross, one of the principals in #Times Up . And she pointed out in the interview that the #Time’sUp Legal Defense Fund had raised $16 million in just two weeks to help support men, [yes men!], women and everyone and anyone who has been affected by sexual violence who need support and legal help.

And she went on to say: “I think that one of the things that we all are discovering is that abuse and discrimination, and sexual violence is supported by a system of imbalance, and that it is STRUCTURAL and not PERSONAL, although particular experiences are personal, that the structure that makes space for that allows that kind of behavior to exist is something that needs to be changed.”

But, as Tracee also said, this is not “a magic” moment…and for such a time as this she said: it’s “going to require everybody getting involved.and staying involved.”

Now of all the inspiring words she used that day, for me what was the most important was her emphasis on staying involved. For while this IS a magic moment, in which concerned people of all colors races, religions and genders are rising up and speaking out.. not least the amazing student- led movement that started after the deadly shootings at Florida’s Parkland High School and one old Civil Rights Movement veteran told me he saw similarities to that struggle and their Movement and wished them well .

I was very close to many of the leaders and foot soldiers of that Civil Rights Movement of the 60’s, and some of the sacrifices they made, including when the young women were put in cells with women who had committed crimes as severe as murder. And as you would recall, some who joined the Movement were themselves murdered.

And by the way, it helps to remember Whites and well as Blacks died for our freedom, which is one of the reasons I continue to urge against racial generalities, like saying White people this… or Black people that.… But, that aside, here’s something I I know for sure: women were the backbone of Civil Rights Movement! Black women and White women, together.

And the walls of segregation came tumbling down, allowing so many of us to reach heights never before possible. . But my dear friend and attorney back then, Vernon Jordan likes to say: When walls come tumbllng down, what is left still to cleanup is the rubble . And now, far too many are still struggling with the rubble…that is, some of the same issues…not only with racism and sexism, but and with …what’s the new word used in the academy that I’m trying to get my mouth around— Intersectionalty?

And I really want to add something that might seem like a bit of a stretch… but most recently, the advent of cultural fears among many whites, sparked, many experts argue, by the prospect of today’s racial minorities soon becoming this country’s majorities in the next 20 some years…

And yet, what makes me hopeful is among others things, the people I have met and interviewed for my PBS NewsHour series, Race Matters, people who have solutions racism, applicable to the other bad isms. One is the Reverend William Barber, initiator of the Moral Mondays Movement and the resurrection of Dr. King’s Poor People’s Campaign. In one of my Race Matters interviews, he told me of an enduring observation from Dr. Martin Luther King who early own presciently said the only transformative force that could really, fully transform America would be for poor whites and blacks and brown people and working people to come together.” A dream Reverend Barber is having some success with, even as far too many of all races and colors are living lives of seemingly bottomless desperation.

Now when I look at the history of the fight for equality for women, especially in my lifetime…I remember how important it was, but also how divided their movements were. Most Black women felt the women’s movement was all about White women and their specific issues and not about them and their specific issues. And each separately made some strides. But when the landscape of equal rights for women of all races is observed, it reveals a situation in which they all have a long way to go to reach the parity they deserve with men, as many of the articles on the desk and floor of my office detail. This at a time when the current president has appointed more federal judges in his first term than any president in history and what’s more: they are young, mostly white males, all conservative and if confirmed by the Senate, appointed for life, which means they are likely to be sitting throughout your lifetime.

And this is when in my identity as a citizen, I reflect back on Judge Bootle —a white male Republican and a Southerner to boot, who was committed to abiding by the law of the land. And, as a citizen who benefitted from that decision, I am hoping these justices will preserve the gains made that have led to a more inclusive and diverse union.          And I am hopeful, but also confident you will be vigilant and, if necessary engaged in helping protect the gains so many fought and died for… Gains that added Voting Rights and Civil Rights to our Constitution, some now under threat. Engaged as in whatever way is available to you..

And so, my young sisters, let me reiterate what you clearly already know and what my conversations with your leadership here has confirmed: you are prepared to take on whatever challenges you encounter, both at home and, as you indicated, abroad. And do not underestimate the impact of what happens here in the rest of the world. Just look at how the women’s voices in America have inspired women in societies that have been dominated by domineering men for centuries…sometimes at great risks to themselves .

And here, again, I raise my vase voice when I hear pronouncements from some of our leaders that tear at the fabric of that garment. For I can tell you from my travels all over the world, up to now, that is, people everywhere have been inspired by what this country has stood for, not least the women who bear the brunt of extreme poverty.

And I have seen first hand what they are talking about…in war torn Sudan, for instance, I reported for NPR the exchange between Graca Machel and the women forced to flee their homes and were now living in a tented encampment. When they told Ms Machel that rations were so scarce they had to go into the nearby enemy infested forest to forage for food, Ms Machel asked why didn’t their men go? AND one of the women said: “Why the men would be killed; we would only be raped.”

Later, I interviewed Ms Machel for Essence magazine and asked what could women in America do to help and she said, that it would be great if some women physicians came over to attend to the women who had either been abused or who have had no attention to women’s normal needs. Failing that, she said, they could just write letters letting them know there were other women in the world who were aware of their plight and simply that they cared.

And from what I have also learned about this class, there are those among you ready to take up the crusading baton of help and hope on distant shores.

This and all other issues confronting our nation and our world require us all to be good citizens, regardless of our professional identities, and not just raise our vases, but our voices. To that end, I invite you to take a page out of my book and prepare yourself to continue making good choices by asking questions and by finding the places you believe are providing you with good information that will help you continue to be good citizens. For example, as much as my former employer The New York Times is blasted by some, I have long found Op Ed columnist Nick Kristoff’s pieces on women in the world to be spot on, his most recent on what he calls the “long-stalled International Violence Against Women Act, requiring the US to tackle gender violence around the world and “work with other countries to reduce it.” (You see he is a columnist and can be open about his opinion.)

And he writes: “When millions of girls and women are brutalized, we’re all diminished.”

Now in asking you all to put as one of your priorities seeking good information, not least by asking good questions, I’m not asking you to be my competition…not as journalists…although I know some of you who shall remain nameless are heading that way. I am asking you to join me, each in your own way in continuing to be good citizens, eschewing, among other things, the rubble of disinformation—what is . And I urge you to continue to be aware of is REALLY IS FAKE AND NOT NEWS.

What I can tell you that even being in the information business for lo these many years, I have to work hard to keep myself informed amid the increasing amount of breaking news and the often cruel, cacophonous reactions to it . Not to mention…dare I say Tweets?! Now I’m not against Tweets. I Tweet. I’m against those that are posted with fake names, that incite, and are uncivil and are the only source of news.

But getting good information is downright hard work! I remember what former Secretary of State Madeline Albright, one of your former speakers on this dais, who once said during a panel I was moderating and after a criticism someone thought was inconsistent with our democratic values. And she said: “Don’t you know— Democracy is messy. And it’s hard work.”

And that is why you have the kind of armor that you do: to do righteous battle even when it’s exhausting, remembering always the promise of democracy, however messy it gets.

That also will help you, I hope, engage with others who don’t hold the same views as you do, be they political,social or even personal. that has become increasingly difficult”in such a time as this.” But here’s what Northeastern University Psychology Professor Linda Tropp told me in one of my Race Matters conversations about the need to persevere when people have tried and failed to break down barriers. She said: it’s like “trying to learn to play tennis, you don’t know how to hold the racket right. Or When you’re first learning a language, you’re not automatically fluent…those skills take time to cultivate.

As a long time tennis player, I can relate. That’s hard, too. And you will find, as I have, that being a woman or a conscious man will challenge you and sometimes you may get a little weary. But as Roxane Gay put it so well … when you do get weary:

“Take the time you need. There is no shame in that so long as you remember to extend your empathy as far as you can when your emotional stores have replenished.”

So, in closing, let me just say that although at 76, I am considered an Elder, I try to stay WOKE! So what’s going to KEEP ME WOKE, is the good noise you make from this day forward…noise that may result in blowback, but your well-polished armor will have your back. So reaching back to words from my Civil Rights Days, let me encourage you from this day forward to “keep on keepin’ on”, moving as you have to this day ALWAYS FORWARD!

Once again, Heartiest, Heartfelt Congratulations!

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