Charlayne Hunter-Gault

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.

Footnote 1)

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.  ” [Footnote 2 ]

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.”  [Footnote  ibid]

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.” [Footnote: ibid]

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.”   [Footnote 3]   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, Mrs 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. ” [Footnote 4]

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 Madelyn 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.  [Footnote 5]

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.”  [Footnote 6]

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!