SUNY Geneseo New Student Convocation Address (August 24, 2018)

Hello and WELCOME!

When Dr. Battles invited me to address you today, I immediately said, yes, I would be thrilled, and I meant it. I am honored to be a part of your Geneseo origin story.

I knew I had been offered a unique and important opportunity, although it came with great risk, and for me, taking risks always brings anxiety and self-doubt.

Could I actually do this?
What if I fail to connect with my audience?

Several sleepless nights and restless days researching, reading, and drafting versions of this speech later, I had what Oprah calls an Aha moment, but what I call a “grace moment,” a Divine intervention in a moment of crisis. And when I receive a grace moment, I pay attention. You should too.

This particular grace moment came to me through a whisper from the past.

Now, don’t get freaked out, it’s okay, I’m an historian, we live with the dead. We talk to them all the time.

This whisper led me to the poem included in your program.

by Phillis Wheatley

Since we don’t have time to read the whole thing, I’ll guide you through 4 short passages. Read it through on your own later and if it has piqued your interest, consider taking an Early American literature or history course and if Wheatley is not on the syllabus let your professor know you would be interested in reading texts written by and about more marginalized voices.

Why am I sharing this stage with Phillis today? I’m an historian with a special interest in recovering the lives of Black Women in Early America and Phillis has long been a personal heroine of mine, I also believe her words speak directly to today’s college student.

So, who was she?

There is much and more I could say about Phillis, that she was born in the Senegambia region of West Africa, that she was (in her own words) while still a “babe beloved, snatched” from her Father’s arms and “brought to America” in a slave ship; just a little over a decade before she penned this poem. That she was, during her too short life, perhaps the most famous American woman in the world (of any race, class, or status). That she met Ben Franklin, travelled to England and had audiences with members of the Royal Court, wrote a poem about General George Washington and then discussed it with him at his winter quarters during the Revolution, that she was, “Thomas Jefferson’s kryptonite,” a literal and physical symbol of the injustice of slavery and the hypocrisy of those who proclaimed the “inalienable right to life and liberty for all,” — even while buying, selling, and profiting from the labor of other human beings.

So just what did Wheatley, a 19-year-old enslaved woman, have say to an audience of elite white men in late 18th century New England, and what does she have to say to you, to us, today?

Today’s student centered educational theory posits that there are the specific things students need to do in order to succeed in college (and also in life).

Put in the Time, and Effort,

Practice the new skills you have learned,

Seek, Receive, and Provide Feedback to others,

and Reflect upon what you have learned.

These are not new ideas, I contend that Phillis Wheatley said more or less the same thing to “the Students at Cambridge,” in 1773.

Phillis begins her poem with these words…

WHILE an intrinsic ardor prompts to write,
The muses promise to assist my pen;

“An intrinsic ardor” ??? What does that mean?”

I believe Phillis is telling us that we each–even those of us not born to the privileged and the powerful, experience joy when we allow ourselves to become enraptured by knowledge work, and that University students (then and now) are uniquely privileged to have access to resources and instructors that support and assist them while they develop intellectually through study, training, practice, feedback, and reflection.

Next, let’s take a closer look at the first 3 lines of the 2nd stanza. They speak directly to the integrative character of the Liberal Arts College experience.

Phillis writes,

Students, to you ’tis giv’n to scan the heights
Above, to traverse the ethereal space,
And mark the systems of revolving worlds.

If she were here today, Phillis would tell you to put away your phones and look up, look outward, engage with your professors and with one another, engage with the content you are studying, “traverse — the ethereal space,” — make the known and imagined universe of ideas your own, capture them in your own words, integrate what you read and hear into all aspects of your life. Make connections across the things you are learning.

At the beginning of the third stanza Phillis instructs students to make the most of this precious gift, this time to study and grow, this seat at the table reserved for you, please keep in mind, not everyone gets this opportunity. Moreover, while a college student’s days and nights sometimes seem too long, your actual time here is very short. She writes,

Improve your privileges while they stay,
Ye pupils, and each hour redeem, that bears
Or good or bad report of you to heav’n.

Phyllis and I, and the faculty, staff, and administration of this college want you to know that the work you do here at Geneseo has meaning for your present and future selves and for the communities you are a valued member of; here at Geneseo and beyond the boundaries of this campus.

Know too, that in order to fully realize the promise of this critical time in your life, we expect you to BE PRESENT, be persistent, and believe you can succeed.

Over the next few years, there will be many good days; there will surely also be some days when the challenges you face as students and as newly independent adults will seem overwhelming. Know that you can face and triumph over these challenges.

Phillis speaks to this as well, Near the end of the poem, she warns…

Let sin, that baneful evil to the soul,
By you be shun’d, nor once remit your guard;
Suppress the deadly serpent in its egg.

Now Phillis was a poet writing in the conventions of her era. Her slave-owners, the Wheatleys, were Evangelicals, she had to speak (and write) piously to be heard (or read). I’m convinced she was also a subtle master of “code switching” and since it is not my intention to proselytize, I’ll do the code-switch here and offer a modern, secular interpretation of this passage, more fitting to the struggles students face today.

Wheatley advises students to “nor once remit your guard.” Protect yourselves. You must resist the pull of fear, self-doubt, self-imposed isolation.

Suppress the deadly serpent in its egg,” don’t let it grow. Get outside of yourself. Participate in the campus community. Visit your professors during office hours, speak up in class, ask and answer questions, Take intellectual risks. Attend a lecture or campus event; even if you don’t get extra-credit for attending. Join clubs, Volunteer, make new friends, have fun. For while “The struggle is real” struggles give us opportunities to make connections.

Your time here is a gift, a precious opportunity, don’t waste it. So, of course, Do the Readings, Go to class, Stay Awake in class, Stay WOKE outside of class.

Engage and connect with new ideas and people different than yourself, be open to new experiences, and always — be kind (to yourself and others).

The frontispiece to the published collection that contains this poem is a contemporary drawing of Phillis by a fellow enslaved African named Scipio Moorhead. In the illustration Phyllis wears a bonnet and an apron, she sits at a desk with an open book, inkwell, and writing paper before her, poised as if to write, captured in a moment of contemplation.

Her right hand holds a pen, her left elbow rests on the desk while her left hand cradles her face. She gazes into the distance. This image of Phyllis reminds us of the importance of stopping in the midst of our labors to reflect, to deliberately connect the head and the heart.

Today we call this mindfulness.

As I wind up my remarks, I invite you all to join me in a moment of mindfulness. In the spirit of Phillis Wheatley.

Please close your eyes and take a deep breath,

In your mind’s eye picture a seed, any seed. In order to become what it is meant to be the seed must be planted in fertile soil, not too deep, not too shallow, with just the right amount of moisture and nutrients.

As it sets its roots and sends up its sprout, the seed must be brave, because while reaching up for sunlight is perfectly natural and necessary, emerging into the world-above-ground has many risks.

You are the seeds, and this is your soil, so take risks, and remember and heed Phillis Wheatley’s admonition, don’t waste your opportunity,

Be Present, Be Awake, and (please open your eyes now) Be Woke.

Thank you.

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