I wrote this in May, four days before my graduation from Brown University, and delivered it at the Africana Studies Department graduation ceremony. Months after realizing that life in a white supremacist institution will destroy you. After countless days of knowing it will kill you, as white supremacist institutions are apt to do. And over the year, the white supremacist will make you feel even more worthless than the worthlessness you felt about yourself before entering. Take this as a reminder to never forget where you come from, to never lose yourself in the terms of the institution, because your survival is contradictory to its existence.
The irony is… I’m still here.
MAY 22, 2016: I’m thinking about graduation and I don’t quite know what to say, so I guess I’ll start with where I’m standing, at Brown, on this land. Here we are.
Thinking about the physical site of Brown makes me unhappy. We cannot let the grandeur and beauty and celebration of this weekend obscure, from us, this place’s true form. Brown is a site of historic trauma and violence. Brown was built quite literally upon the backs of enslaved Black people. Built on Native land with no plans of justly repatriating that land to the Narragansett people who brought it into existence. It was built from the displacement of Black, brown, and poor communities, and shady investments in industries that destroy the lives of folks from these communities everyday. Brown is a site of pain and extreme violence; I cannot emphasize that enough. And Brown put me through the wringer, because places like Brown were not built for Black poor girls like me; they were not made to nurture us, never intended to feed our souls. Places like Brown don’t care if we see our way through. But here I am, we made it, persisted and survived, despite this scarred land we are on, in spite of this institution. And I have worked my behind off for this diploma—honestly, shout out to my own damn self—but this diploma will never be a complete measure of our worth.
Africana is the first space at Brown to grow out of opposition to the violence of this institution. I’m standing here, thinking about what got me through the thick and thick of it. And how and why I was even drawn to this department in the first place, and I can only think to thank Black women. I stand here on the shoulders of giants. Black women, visible and invisible, known and unknown to me, who raise their voices everyday, put out their hands and hold my spine in place. I walk in the grace of the light that billions upon billions of these women’s footsteps carved out. Leading me by the hand, the legacies of these women have shown me the power inside of myself. And the single most important thing I take away with this Africana diploma are the words of the Black women who gave us life before we knew it.
One central question that we discussed frequently as Africana concentrators was: What are the conditions of freedom? Angela Davis let it be known that freedom is constant struggle, and Black women gave birth to that struggle. Black women brought freedom into this world, nurtured freedom even when as the world was no friend to them, they held it up on their shoulders with the whole world, and loved freedom in the face its betrayal, they held onto freedom and fashioned new images of it beyond the imaginations of everyone else. Images of it that fit them. Black women made freedom their own, even as the world told them that they were destined to be the most disrespected, the most unprotected, the most neglected.
Marsha P. Johnson told us that we should pay it mind. And she was right.
Harriet Tubman never lost a passenger. She never left anyone behind. She showed us the way.
June Jordan let it be known that love is life-force and decades later Charity Hicks, a water warrior, implored us to wage love.
Assata Shakur let it be known that we have nothing to lose but our chains.
Toni Morrison hit the nail on the head when she said that out of the desolation of our realities, we invented ourselves.
Nina Simone sang our freedom with no fear.
Zora Neale Hurston wrote us recipes to expel our fears: Take one broom of anger, and drive it off.
Maya Angelou set the record straight that “there is a kind strength that is almost frightening in Black women.”
Audre, praise the Lorde, said it all. But my personal favorite, when she let me know that the Black mothers are whispering in our dreams, that if we can feel, we can one day be free.
Octavia Butler let us know that we could write ourselves in and that our futures are limitless.
Not too long ago I stood in this building and said to someone “all my life I’ve had to fight,” invoking the words of Alice Walker by way of Sophia from The Color Purple.
But those are just the words that were recorded, written down, and remembered. And that makes me sad, because my most important lessons, my first formative forays into getting free are not written in a history book; they will not be recorded in an archive, or uplifted in a scholarly journal. That is an experience that so many of us share. The everyday warriors who taught me how to think about freedom are here with me physically and spiritually. My mother and my sister taught me to weave miracles from duct tape, taught me how to spin gold from broken records and conjure love from the darkness and that the most powerful words that a black woman can ever say are no. no. hell no. These women taught me how to breathe. The course that’s been most foundational to my time as an Africana Studies concentrator has been life as Black woman learned through the resilience and beauty of Black women around me. Our work is cut out for us, leaving here today with these diplomas, we must always give reverence to the lessons, and most importantly, the words of our most sacrificed communities. We have a duty to uphold and center the narratives that have not been written into the history of our oppressions, because in this resilience lie so many of the keys to our freedom.
CHERISE MORRIS B.MA’18 also believes the rainbow is not enuf.