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Speeches and Writings

2018 Opening Convocation

August 16, 2018

Mary Schmidt Campbell, Ph.D., President, Spelman College

The Student Government Association

Bria PaigeThe first thing I want to do this morning is to acknowledge the Spelman Student Government president, Bria Paige, C’2019.

Bria Elayne Paige is a senior English major from Jackson, Mississippi. From the moment that Bria stepped onto campus, she has taken on the role of campus leader. She  served as First Year Class Council Vice President; Sophomore Class Council President; and SSGA Secretary of Academic Affairs.  

A member of the “Sweet” Mu Pi Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha, Bria is also a member of the English Club, and the Granddaughter’s Club.  

Academically, she has amassed an impressive stack of awards, honors, and credentials: she is a UNCF Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellow; member of the Ethel Waddell Githii Honors Program; Sigma Tau Delta English Honor Society; Alpha Lambda Delta First Year Honor Society.

As of April, Bria was inducted into the Epsilon of Georgia, Spelman College Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa Honor Society, the oldest and most prestigious honor society in the country. 

In addition to being an excellent student, Bria is a servant leader, serving  in the  college’s writing center and student success center as a peer tutor. 

In June of 2017, Bria was selected as one of four nationwide recipients of Beyoncé Knowles Carter’s Formation Scholarship. In her new role as the 77th SSGA president, she and her dynamic,  leadership team have already been active partners with the Spelman College  administration and they’ve already engaged other student leaders to leave a legacy of love on campus. 

May I ask the executive board of SSGA to please stand as well

Class of 2022, you have been oriented, inducted, tested and placed. Please stand so that we can give you a big official Spelman welcome to your first week of classes.

In addition to our new students, we have 15 spectacular new faculty.  I’d like to ask all of our new faculty to stand.

What I like best about this morning is that we get to congratulate and celebrate publicly the winners of our presidential awards.

President’s Awards for Teaching and Mentoring

We launch the semester by recognizing some of these exceptional teachers and scholars at Spelman by conferring the president’s awards for excellence in teaching, scholarship, service. We also award the Vulcan Materials award for teaching.

Later this morning, our Provost will tell you something about each of these exceptional  awardees, but I do want to acknowledge each of them now:

The Art and Science of Becoming You

All during New Student Orientation, almost every speaker here at Sisters Chapel talked about discovering the authentic you.

"I am Spelman" is the phrase for the Class of 2022.

While I love that phrase, I worry that it sounds so definitive. It suggests that you all know exactly who you are and what you want to accomplish here at Spelman.

How many of you know what major you want to choose?
How many of you are thinking about a few possibilities, but you haven’t quite made up your mind?How many people have no idea?

That’s where I was, when I entered college. I had no clue.  This morning, I want to share with you a few lessons I learned on the way to becoming.  These are lessons from undergraduate school, graduate school and beyond.

At first I thought, I’ll be a lawyer, so political science makes sense. During my freshman year, I realized that I really liked by French so I thought, maybe French literature.

 At the end of my sophomore year, when you have to make a definitive choice, I made up my mind and became an English literature major.

But, at the end of my sophomore year, I saw a flier up on the bulletin board (this is before email). The flier advertised a one-year intensive art history seminar on European modern art.  I barely knew what art history was, but my fellow classmates told me that this teacher was phenomenal.  So. I figured, I’ll learn something about this thing called art history and I’ll enjoy the teacher. 

Our course met once a week from noon to 3. This teacher was very memorable. He would come to class, and spread out three or four packs of cigarettes and smoke the whole time. If the room got too smokey, he would just lift the window. He would get so consumed by the ideas and discussion of whatever topic was at hand   that he would sometimes keep the class going until 5 or 6 o’clock in the evening. 

Most art history classes are taught from slides.  He was passionate about having us see the artwork in the original. Art is alive. Art objects create their own space, their own world and at their best, they pull you into that world. Every other week, he would teach a class in the galleries of a major museum up and down the east coast, in Philadelphia, Baltimore, New York City.

He taught European modern art. But he taught us to see. He taught us to think about what we saw.  He demanded that we speak and write with precision. It was in his class that I learned that the African antiquities plundered during Europe’s colonial era completely disrupted the way the western world thought about the body and its representation.

He was teaching art but he made us read modern poetry,  listen to the music of Duke Ellington and Eric Satie. He made us think about how Einstein’s theory of relativity upended the understanding of the physical universe.

#1 The lesson I learned was not only about art history, it was that teachers matter. 

Teachers can provoke you to think differently about things you thought you already knew. Teachers can transform the way you understand the world.

I did not have the privilege of going to Spelman College as an undergraduate but I can tell you that the faculty you have the great privilege of studying with an outstanding group of faculty. May I ask the Spelman College faculty who are here to stand.

I have a confession, another reason I took this art history course, because I thought it was going to be one of my easy courses for the semester. Wrong. This teacher required us to write a seminar paper every week. We had to present the findings of the paper to the entire class (there were only a half dozen of us).

We were each expected to critique each other’s work.  Every paper had to thoroughly researched and documented. Every paper was evaluated on the facts and evidence presented. Every paper had to include the critical response at the time the object was created and every paper had to compare the art object to works in other disciplines.. With every paper, every week, it was like going to the gym, I could feel my art history muscles developing. I was an English major, but, almost against my will, I was becoming an art historian.

#2 On the way to becoming, I learned that you have to put in the work and the work is hard.

There are people here at Spelman at every turn who can help. Doesn’t matter whether you are a computer science major or a biology major or a religious studies or philosophy major. You have to do the work and the work fueled by the passion will take you where you need to go.

By the time I graduated from undergraduate school, I decided I would be an art historian.

And, I was going to document the history of Black artists.  There was only one problem.  During all the visits to all of those museums, I saw, at best, a handful of  works  by black artists. If you looked around at who was working in those museums, they had no black people, except for the security guards and maintenance people.

When I went to graduate school to study American art history, I soon discovered that there were virtually no books on black artists.  I was determined, when I became a graduate student that would be my goal in life, I would break that cycle.

In many of the fields you will choose, even now, fifty years later, that will still be the case.

There was a beautiful museum in the town where I attended graduate school.  I applied for a job there and was told, you can’t work in a museum, because you have no experience. (How do I get experience if you don’t give me a job?)

#3 On the way to becoming, I learned in no uncertain terms that, education is not only becoming the you that you need to become, it’s about learning to invent the place where you need to be.

A group of black grad students, mostly artists, got together and called ourselves the Black Artists’ Collective and partnered with a faculty member to start an art gallery for black artists.

The Black Artists Collective was the volunteer staff for this gallery. We did everything to make that gallery work. We scrubbed the toilets, swept the floors.  When it came time to hang an exhibit, we got out hammers and nails and hung the art work. As the art historian, I got to write and mimeograph essays about the exhibiting artists. It wasn’t the elegant curatorial studies internships that Dr. Barnwell Brownlee supervises at Spelman College. But make no mistake, we all learned a thing or two

A strange thing happened, every time we opened a show, more and more people came into the gallery.  This  “an unpaid internship” gave me the experience that eventually landed me a job at the local museum. Blessedly, in this day and age, at Spelman, you will have opportunity to have  paid internships or work opportunities in a wide variety of industries and disciplines. Seize that  opportunity. As much as any classroom, it will allow you to shape and define yourself in the context of work.  

That internship led to work and that led to my professional life and my first job in New York City, director of the Studio Museum in Harlem,  I thought, finally, I could do what I loved and get paid. I could be an art historian and a curator. And it’s true I could do that but this job required me to be more. . 

When I came to be the museum in 1977, forty years ago, the “museum” was a loft over  purple discount liquors and a Kentucky Fried Chicken.  NYC was on the verge of bankruptcy, and the whole city felt as though it was about to collapse. It became very clear, very quickly that the “ museum” was a small business and I needed  to become an entrepreneur, a manager and a business woman.  I couldn’t read a balance sheet. I didn’t know a 401 (k) from a 501 © 3. And I knew nothing about fundraising.

Moreover, I was not from New York. I knew two things about Harlem. First, it was the home to the Harlem Renaissance and, although it had fallen into ruin, it had once been the cultural capitals of the world.

I knew about amateur night at the Apollo. Great artists performed at the Apollo. On amateur night, new artist could come to the stage and the audience decided if you were any good.  If you did well, the audience cheered and gave you a standing ovation.  If you did not did do well, and the audience booed, the Sandman would come out.  He was dressed in big shoes, with a clown’s face and a big horn and long hook and he would literally pull you off the stage with the hook.

Coming to the museum in Harlem, I realized that I had a lot to learn.

#4 On my way to becoming, I learned that learning never stops.

When the museum moved from the loft over a liquor store, into a 60,000 square foot building, we undertook massive renovations to turn the building into a real museum. And I had to learn all about construction. My advice from that Studio Museum in Harlem experience is, while you are here, learn to master your discipline but also learn how to learn.

There I was, walking down 125th street in Harlem, one day, still learning how to learn about running this Museum and a man comes up to me, and taps me on my shoulder. He points to the museum. Are you the director of this museum? I was so proud. I said yes.  You renovating this place? I proudly answered again, yes. You going to make us a real museum?  At that point, I was all ready to have him thank me.  And he said, “Well, you better get it right. Cause, if you don’t we coming after you with the hook.”

My educational journey shifted in an instance. I could be successful and write books and curate exhibitions and enjoy all kinds of personal professional success. In the end,  all of this education is not about me.  It is about a community and a people and building the future they need us to build.   

Our provost delivered a lucid and substantive speech to the faculty about the very real dangers of our current political world order. The threats are real and frightening.  But political world orders can change.  I cannot tell you how to vote, but I can tell you that you must vote. That your political  power as black women is real and consequential.

Our provost went on to tell the faculty that to be educating black women at Spelman College was a radical act, given this country’s failure to live up to its promise to educate black people.

The 137 years of Spelman College is a radical act. On generation after another building on the strength and leadership committed to educating black women to become global leader is radical in this country.

That loft over a liquor store is now celebrating its 50th anniversary and is about to  break ground on an 80,000 square foot building designed by Sir David Adjaye. For 50 years, the Studio Museum has been a pilot and anchor in the drive to rebuild and rehabilitate  one of the world’s great cultural capitals.

After fifty years of seeing that flier on the bulletin board, I am still an art historian.  While I am very proud that my biography of a black artist is coming out right after labor day, I am even more proud that Spelman is about to make a major announcement about the establishment of a program to rectify the absence of black people in our nation’s museums.

In the face of all that surrounds us, Spelman’s excellence and longevity as evidence in the faculty we celebrate today,  is a radical act and you, my students, faculty and staff, are the revolutionaries. Students, you are women warriors,  pioneers,  makers and builders of the future we need.  These are difficult times but it is a wonderful time to be a black woman. And I cannot imagine, for the life of me,  a more wonderful and magical place to become the Spelman woman you need to be. Have a great semester and a great academic year.