A Sound Eye, A Body Full of Light
August 16, 2015: Opening Convocation Address at Morehouse College, Mary Schmidt Campbell, Ph.D.
Good Morning. And thank you, Dr. Wilson.
Two years ago, I had the great pleasure of meeting Dr. John Sylvanus Wilson when he was first appointed president of Morehouse College. Dr. Wilson was visiting his Morehouse classmate, Spike Lee, who teaches at the Tisch School. Spike was so excited about the new president of his alma mater that he brought him to my office. From the moment I shook Dr. Wilson’s hand and started talking to him I could feel the energy, excitement and sense of urgency he would bring to Morehouse.
At that first meeting, Spike recalled that when the two of them graduated from Morehouse, their friends were all asking each other, “What are you going do?” According to Spike, he answered, “I’m going to be an independent film director” and Dr. Wilson answered, "I’m going to be the president of Morehouse College." That’s what I call a man with vision—a Morehouse man.
Dr. Wilson, I am so honored to be here this morning serving Spelman College and serving in partnership with you.
My Spelman sisters my Morehouse brothers:
Spelman and Morehouse enjoy a unique and singular relationship in higher education. We are the only Black sister/brother institution in the country. This morning, I thought that I would use the opportunity to consider what that relationship means, not only for us, but for our country and the world in the 21st century.
The title of my talk this morning is “A Sound Eye, A Body Full of Light.” I base my title on a piece of scripture suggested to me by my daughter-in-law, Diana Dismus Campbell, a 1991 Spelman alumna. Diana is married to my son, Garikai Campbell, who is also the Provost at Morehouse College. Their youngest son, my grandson George, is here this morning. He’s with my husband of almost 47 years, Dr. George Campbell, the love of my life and president emeritus of The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art.
The verse that Diana suggested is from the New Testament, World English Bible—Matthew 6:22.
The lamp of the body is the eye.
If, therefore, your eye is sound,
your whole body will be full of light.
The eye, the way we see, is our portal to the world. The way we see dictates the way we tell our stories. Our stories are the way we understand ourselves and the way we are understood in the world.
Spelman and Morehouse Share Multiple Stories
- We tell our story as one of the nation’s over 100 historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs).
- We tell our stories as members of the United Negro College Fund, UNCF a fundraising collective that serves over 40 private HBCUs
- We tell our stories as same-sex colleges; Spelman is the soil in which the Black woman grows; Morehouse the soil of the Black man.
- We are both liberal arts colleges, committed to opening, challenging and honing the minds of our Black women and men.
- We are institutions that respect and honor our past and its traditions
- We are institutions that respect and honor each other
Our institutional histories chart the path of this country’s struggle to become closer to its true self.
Consider, for a moment, our beginnings.
In the middle of the Civil War, at Gettysburg, Lincoln called for a “new birth of freedom” for the country. Historically, our Black colleges and universities have been the bedrock of that “new birth of freedom.”
What would become Morehouse College was founded two years after the Civil War came to an end, to educate freed Black men.
What would become Spelman College was founded less than 20 years after the Civil War’s end, to educate freed Black women.
We saw that in the chaotic years after the Civil War, our institutions were an ark that would keep us afloat in turbulent waters as we awaited the arrival of a new day.
Our narrative in those days was an emancipation narrative. Freed as slaves, in the years following Reconstruction, we aspired to become full citizens.
In the early decades of the 20th century, we shed our identities as freed slaves and called ourselves New Negroes.
Though the phrase had been current for many years, it was the renowned Howard University philosopher, Alain Locke who made it popular. In his classic essay, “Enter the New Negro,” in the March, 1925 issue of "Survey Graphic," he described this shift in identity as a “reorientation of view.” We shed, in Locke’s words, the “old chrysalis” of our former self. We saw ourselves in a new way, empowered by the possibility of imagination and self-definition. We saw ourselves as bold and audacious women and men.
It was during that era that Morehouse and Spelman, also, underwent a “re-orientation of view.” In the early years of the 20th century, our schools became degree granting institutions of higher education, training grounds for some of our country’s greatest Black leaders and professionals.
In the years following World War II, a burgeoning Civil Rights Movement in the South stood its ground for radical political and social change. Resistance to change swelled into a raging storm all over the country. Resistance to change battered our colleges. But Spelman and Morehouse students, faculty and staff were like an unyielding levee against the force of that resistance. They marched they rode Freedom buses, they sat at lunch counters, they braved arrest.
Morehouse and Spelman faculty, students and staff were among those who stared down resistance to change with sound eyes.
In their struggle during the Civil Rights era, women and men of Spelman looked out for each other, took care of each other, and struggled together for a greater good. In the years of the Civil Rights Movement, our country saw the light of our campuses—as it did during Reconstruction and the New Negro Movement – as a beacon that lit the way to our country’s better self.
How Do We See Ourselves Now?
How Does our Country See Us Now?
This is a question I ask myself as I assume the position of 10th President of Spelman College. I am sure it is the same question that Dr. Wilson asked when he first came to Morehouse College.
Michael Lomax, a Morehouse alumnus and the president and CEO of the United Negro College Fund, recently gave a speech about the continuing value of Black colleges and universities. Shortly after the massacre this summer at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, Lomax cited the grace and forgiveness displayed by church members towards the perpetrator of the crime. He noted that six of the slain church members were the product of Black colleges. The tragedy, for Lomax, “made manifest the roles and values of the Black community’s two most enduring institutions, the church and the college.” For him, that illustrated that our colleges are a “values” proposition. By that, Lomax means that they produce men and women of “highest caliber, achievement and valor.”
Another story about the value of a particular Black college comes from the writer Ta Nehisi-Coates. In his recently published book, "Between the World and Me," he refers to the heritage of his alma mater, Howard University, as “The Mecca.”
He describes sitting in Howard University’s communal green space – The Yard – and, in his words, “witnessing the vast, expansiveness of the Black Diaspora.” Coates writes with passion and gratitude for the opportunity The Mecca afforded him to immerse himself in a multitude of fractious, warring points of view about being Black. His learning became a process of stripping away old assumptions and he came to realize that the point of his education was to instill in him a “kind of discomfort.”
Lomax sees a value proposition; Coates sees “The Mecca” that disrupts his intellectual status quo.
This morning, I will tell you what I see.
I see on the Spelman and Morehouse campuses women and men whose intelligence, drive and imaginations know no bounds. I see men and women who are not content to be just the first Black or the only Black, or the best Black. That is not enough for you.
You hunger to be the best: the winner, the gold medalist, Serena Williams, grand slam, global champions in whatever field you have chosen
- You are the young minds that will tackle the big questions.
- You will be the daring global entrepreneur.
- You will master big data, place it in the hands of historians, sociologists, psychologists, and cross new frontiers of knowledge.
- You will pioneer discoveries in climate change or sustainability.
- A filmmaker, you will discover new ways of compressing moving images to distribute your work worldwide.
- You will analyze global public health and alter policies that ravage our people all over the world.
- You will map the galaxies and probe the depths of the oceans.
Men and women of Morehouse and Spelman, our colleges are a value proposition. Our colleges are a site where we contest our Black identities. Our colleges are also a site where we claim the right to be our country’s most gifted thought leaders, scientists, economists, artists, physicians, jurists, environmentalists and social activists.
Rebuilding Our Communities
Speaking of social activists, I want to say something about the neighborhood in which we reside. Dr. Campbell and I go walking almost every day. We have to stay within the confines of our campus, because the surrounding neighborhood is in such distress. Atlanta is not exceptional. In many of our cities, our communities have fallen on hard times. I know. I grew up in one of those neighborhoods in Philadelphia and lived and worked in one for years in New York. I know how disheartening and how confining it can feel.
But, I know, too, what’s possible. I know that Dr. Wilson, along with the other presidents of the Atlanta University Center, sees the possibility of our community. Some of your classmates, faculty and staff have already been hard at work with community-based organizations to repair and rebuild our surrounding neighborhoods.
Some of you will choose to be part of that rebuilding as well. The rehabilitation of the communities that surround our campuses will come, brick by brick, project by project. Like the Civil Rights Movement, it will take us, women and men, working together, looking out for each other, working together with love and respect for each other to effect the transformation this neighborhood deserves.
In the meantime, you – women and men of Spelman and Morehouse – are a magnet. Fortune 500 CEOs, leading researchers, scholars and world-class artists, despite the blight, flock to our campuses.
They know the facts.
Spelman and Morehouse are among the top producers of Black women and men in STEM fields. They know your character and your heart. They know your desire to be the best. They know you see the world with a bold, audacious eye. Our country has always struggled to be its best self, and, as it struggles, it will look to you, women of Spelman College, and men of Morehouse College. They will look to you and the whole body of our magnificent colleges, full of your dazzling radiant light to show us the way forward.