Seeking for the Land of Freedom: Commencement Season

I saw a desert and I saw a woman coming out of it. And she came to the bank of a dark river; and the bank was steep and high. And on it an old man met her, who had a long white beard; and a stick that curled was in his hand, and on it was written Reason. And he asked her what she wanted; and she said, “I am woman; and I am seeking for the land of Freedom.”

~from “Three Dreams in a Desert” by Olive Schreiner[1]

vicissitudes-001-jason-decaires-taylor-sculpture

~Vicissitudes Underwater Sculpture, Jason deCaires Taylor[2]

It is commencement season, and as it always happens around this time of year, I expend a great deal of my energy ushering students off into the world, and trying to find the perfect words to impart wisdom. Like my teaching, I want my words to have lasting impact on how they see themselves, how they see the world, and how they see themselves in relationship to the world. As a religionist this particular emphasis on seeing beyond the insular self is especially important.

Typically, my remarks in the cards, congratulatory notes, and public recognitions have everything to do with affirming the work and lives of graduates and their significance to our future. This year though, I am continually riddled with angst. As I have previously described, that angst is disconcerting. Alarming. It is more than existential.

Hours ago, the decision of St. Louis (MO) Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce not to charge a white, off-duty police officer in the fatal shooting of African American teenager VonDerrit Myers Jr. is yet another example of why my angst is utterly palpable. Even as they are not inconsequential, the causes and circumstances of the respective cases have resulted in the same outcome: another black person’s name is added to a disturbing and ever-growing litany of names. I am certainly not alone in this wrestling. These days @deray McKesson and others keep the black twitterverse humming with their insight and sharp commentary on the daily racialized acts of violence that unfold, which is combined with an uncanny knack for being in just the right place at the right time to visually capture the pulse of this season of protest. Recent posts by my AAIHS colleagues Noelle Trent, Chernoh Sessay Jr., and Kami Fletcher speak to the disconcerting nature of this moment. We are reminded of the importance of making living history real in our classrooms. We are wrestling with the ways history is unfolding in front of our very eyes.

So to where do we turn for solace in this tumultuous moment of unrest and violence? Janelle Hobson has offered a timely and impressive list of black feminist intersectional texts to “fuel the rage and bring the healing.”[3] The fueling rage feels much easier to tap into than the healing. Exacerbated by a time of the year when I am asked—and need—to offer hope, has made the idea of healing feel just beyond my grasp.

During the most challenging times in my life, I look to the work of the theologian and mystic Howard Thurman (1889-1991) for solace. On the occasion that Thurman is considered “well-known” it is for three things: his approach to nonviolence emerging from the time he spent with Mahatma Gandhi; his influence on Martin Luther King, Jr. through his groundbreaking text, Jesus and the Disinherited[4]; and his life as minister of the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples in San Francisco.

My relationship to Thurman is an intimate one. During my days in seminary, an entire course devoted to Thurman’s life and legacy was a transformative moment in my theological development. I worked extensively as a researcher on the first volume the Howard Thurman Papers Project, which was published in 2009.[5] So, as I often do when I find myself grappling with trying times, I returned to Thurman’s work to provide me with inspiration that I might transfer to my graduating students.

And yet in this commencement season, it is not Thurman’s prolific musings that offer me consolation. It is the words and stories of South African writer Olive Schreiner (1855-1920) that have given me solace. Through her work—made available to me by Thurman—I am reminded of the fact that even when highlighted by death, the quest for Freedom is never a battle fought alone.

This message of community is one on which my graduating students have harped. They have screamed and laughed in community. They have lamented in utter despair, have wept, and have stood with mouths agape as their own choice for community has, at times, left them empty. They, quite simply, have struggled in every real sense with what it means to come from one community, to end up in another, and to try to leave it better than it was when they arrived. Beyond Reason, they choose community. And, as is the irony of being the teacher, the students have schooled me by reminding me that when all else fails, we are not alone in our struggle.

So my message to students this year has taken on a different tone than has been standard—that of urgency: I urge them to struggle together. I urge them to seek autonomy, even as the stakes increase, and even as their bodies seem not to matter, but to seek in solidarity with others. I urge them to see, as Schreiner has encouraged, that despite the uncertainty that the future holds, they are standing on the shoulders—and even the bodies—that have laid down bridges so that they may cross. I urge them to pick up their staffs, to keep walking, and to always seek for the land of Freedom.

And she said, ‘Over that bridge which shall be built with our bodies, who will pass?’

He said, ‘The entire human race.’

And the woman grasped her staff.

And I saw her turn down that dark path to the river.[6]

Congratulations to the class of 2015.

 

[1] In A Track to the Water’s Edge: The Olive Schreiner Reader, edited by Howard Thurman (New York: Harper and Row, 1973), 53.

[2] http://www.underwatersculpture.com/sculptures/viccisitudes/

[3] Hobson, “Intersectional Readings that Fuel the Rage and Bring the Healing.” http://aaihs.org/intersectional-readings-that-fuel-the-rage-and-bring-the-healing/. May 3, 2015.

[4] New York: Beacon Press, reprint edition, 1996.

[5] The Papers of Howard Washington Thurman: Volume 1: My People Need Me, June 1918-March 1936, edited by Walter E. Fluker (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2009).

[6] A Track to the Water’s Edge, 56.

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Rhon Manigault-Bryant

LeRhonda S. Manigault-Bryant is Associate Professor of Africana Studies at Williams College. She is the author of Talking to the Dead: Religion, Music, and Lived Memory among Gullah/Geechee Women (Duke University Press), and co-author of Womanist and Black Feminist Responses to Tyler Perry’s Productions (Palgrave Macmillan) with Tamura A. Lomax and Carol B. Duncan. You can find her adding colorful commentary to the digital universe via Twitter @DoctorRMB.