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2019 Spelman/Morehouse Joint Convocation

August 18, 2019
President Mary Schmidt Campbell, Ph.D.

President Thomas, thank you for that warm introduction. Thank you for inviting us to your “House,” and to most the sacred hall of your house, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Chapel. Before I go any further, please join me in acknowledging someone who has been a towering presence in our community for 65 years: the Spelman College organist, Dr. Joyce Finch Johnson. To our students, whose voices and movement inspired us this morning, thank you for giving voice and physical presence to your faith. Your expressions remind us that our voyage is not only intellectual, but moral and spiritual as well. Dean Guidry and Dean Carter, our thanks go to you for the wise leadership you bring to the spiritual life of our campuses.

Good morning Men of Morehouse. I am going to ask you to stand. My Spelman Sisters, let’s give these Morehouse men a warm round of applause.

Spelman Sisters, please stand. Men of Morehouse, show me how you welcome your Spelman Sisters enthusiastically to your house.

This morning, I would also like to acknowledge some of our Spelman leaders. Our Spelman Student Government President, Nia Page with us this morning, as is Tangela Mitchell, who serves this academic year as Miss Spelman. They were both in my President’s Reading Circle and I have watched them mature into extraordinary leaders. I am joined, also by several members of my senior leadership team. No college president works alone and I am especially fortunate to have on our leadership team a group of stellar men and women who join me in creating Spelman excellence each and every day.

There are a lot of ceremonies at new student orientation, aren’t there? Each one, however, has a purpose. We design every ceremony to make an indelible mark on your conscience. We want to inscribe some value, some idea, some memory that enables you to understand what your choice to come to Spelman or Morehouse means and reminds us what an extraordinary role our colleges can play in the lives of young Black men and women. This morning’s ceremony, the Spelman/Morehouse joint convocation, celebrates the historic relationship our two colleges have enjoyed for over a hundred years.

From our very beginnings, the relationship between our two schools was close.  Both of us had close ties to Friendship Baptist Church. The historic Friendship Baptist Church helped birth both of our colleges. Both of our colleges started as seminaries; Baptist missionaries supported both of our institutions. Our relationship was so close that less than a year after Spelman’s founding, some were suggesting that the two colleges should merge. Our founders, Sophia B. Packard and Harriet Giles, were adamant. They understood that intellectually, spiritually, and emotionally, women, Black women needed a place of their own. Just the other day, I heard President Thomas describe Morehouse as one of the few places in our culture where Black men could just be. 

So here we are at Spelman and Morehouse, spaces you can call your own, places where you can just be. Every one of the four years that I have been at Spelman, I have gained a deeper understanding of why our schools are so important, why having a place of our own, is particularly important at this moment in time.  At this moment in time, storms are raging all around us. These spaces are like the eye of the storm, centers where we can pause, think, reflect, learn what we need, while the world around us rages. These are the spaces, where we can seek refuge from the storms, so that we can prepare ourselves to go out and weather those storms fearlessly and rescue our future and the future of this country.

When I talk about raging storms, I am not speaking of political storms, though we all know how fiercely divisive American politics has become. I am talking about existential and spiritual storms that are setting so many Americans on edge. Climate threats are real; gun violence grows increasingly unnerving; water supplies in major urban areas are unreliable; before mid-century, changing demographics will shift minority populations to the majority. Those shifts are already instigating widespread schemes to gerrymander voting districts and suppress voters of color. Our treatment of certain immigrant groups is shameful.

Recently someone forwarded to me a podcast delivered by a famous white, male columnist for the New York Times. I listened to the podcast as I walked around the Spelman oval yesterday. As I waved and greeted one student after another, I listened to this famous journalist confess that despite his success—he had won all the major journalism awards; he appears on nightly news; he’s written award winning books—he confessed that he had reached a point in life when he was experiencing deep despair. He says on his podcast that he knew many other successful people like himself who felt the same.  Personal success notwithstanding, he felt unrooted, desolate, disconnected and alone. Those are actually his words. As evidence that his despair was not personal but widespread, he cited the statistics for rising rates of depression and suicide, the declining life expectancy in this country and growing opioid addiction. That morning I had been in Sisters Chapel watching the sun come up, as we shared one of the sacred opening ceremonies that all of you have had the privilege to experience. I say privilege, because as I listened to this successful professional, I realized that he probably seldom gets to do what we as a community of Black men and women get to do on a regular basis on our campus and that is celebrate openly, defiantly, and joyfully who we are, what we value and how we keep what needs to last.

This morning, I bring to you a message that I hope will give meaning to this particular ceremony. Of course, like everyone this past week, I am relying on the words of Toni Morrison. I love the work of Toni Morrison. I think I have read most of her novels, and essays and speeches and lectures. I love to watch her on You Tube devastate her adversaries in interviews, with her command of history, facts and language. If ever there was someone who shows us that words are power, it is she. 

Her bio is worth recalling. A graduate of Howard University, she worked in publishing as an editor for nearly 20 years. During that time, she made it her life’s work to discover, support and publish what would become a renaissance of Black women writers. Morrison was nearly 40, when she published "The Bluest Eye." It took her almost a lifetime to become the artist she needed to become.

Read her works and by the way, Spelman students, we are reading Toni Morrison in the President’s Reading Circle this year. Read her works carefully and you will always find her sending coded messages to us, the Black community. This morning, I want to share with you the message she delivers in the novel "Beloved" that I believe teaches us what we need know about our Spelman/Morehouse relationship during these stormy times. My thanks to Dr. Michelle Hite for calling this passage to my attention. The message comes in the form of a sermon delivered by the character, Baby Suggs in "Beloved." Baby Suggs was once a slave whose freedom was bought. She made her way to Ohio, a free state, before emancipation. Before her life takes a terrible turn, she was what was called an “unchurched preacher,” someone who held services outdoors in a clearing. In "Beloved," Morrison lets us hear one of the sermons that Baby Suggs delivers so joyfully and honestly:

“In this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. They don't love your eyes; they'd just as soon pick em out. No more do they love the skin on your back. Yonder they flay it. And O my people they do not love your hands. Those they only use, tie, bind, chop off and leave empty. Love your hands! Love them. Raise them up and kiss them. Touch others with them, pat them together, stroke them on your face 'cause they don't love that either. You got to love it, you! And no, they ain't in love with your mouth. Yonder, out there, they will see it broken and break it again. What you say out of it they will not heed. What you scream from it they do not hear. What you put into it to nourish your body they will snatch away and give you leavins instead. No, they don't love your mouth. You got to love it. This is flesh I'm talking about here. Flesh that needs to be loved. Feet that need to rest and to dance; backs that need support; shoulders that need arms, strong arms I'm telling you. And O my people, out yonder, hear me, they do not love your neck unnoosed and straight. So love your neck; put a hand on it, grace it, stroke it and hold it up. And all your inside parts that they'd just as soon slop for hogs, you got to love them. The dark, dark liver—love it, love it and the beat and beating heart, love that too. More than eyes or feet. More than lungs that have yet to draw free air. More than your life-holding womb and your life-giving private parts, hear me now, love your heart. For this is the prize.” 

In this place that is your own, in this space where you can just be, together, as a community of Black men and women, that is my message: Love your heart. Spend your years here practicing how to love your heart. I know that you will study hard and learn many, many things while you are here. You will learn to think critically. You will learn to write more skillfully, speak more persuasively, master the technologies that will re-orient and recalibrate our world. You will learn to be leaders in your field; you will manage big data, conduct research; you will study in laboratories and archives; travel abroad to hone your artistic skills. You will present papers at conferences. Your projects will compete in national and international competitions. You will walk the halls of major museums and explore their permanent collections. On your way to becoming physicists and physicians, advocates and activists, poets and pre-law majors, you will learn how to take the MCATS and the LSATS and the GMATS and the GRES.  You will rehearse how to interview and how to write a resume and what to wear when you are having lunch with the CEO of this or that company in preparation for this or that job or paid internship.  Learn all of that while you are here and learn it well.

But you will have missed the entire reason for being in this place of your own, this place where you can just be, if you do not learn how to love yourself and each other. This is what I want you to take away from this ceremony. At the end of four years, when all of you leave this place and go out into storm. Your ark, your shelter, your sturdy armor in this storm will be the relationships you build while you are here.

I close my talk this morning with scripture:  First Corinthians: Chapter 13, Verses 1-9. As you think about how you will build relationships among yourselves, I want you to keep these words close to your heart:

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.

If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.

If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, [2] but have not love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.

It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.

Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.

It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails.

Let me hear you say Amen.