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Graduating in the Age of Coronavirus and Police Brutality

May 30, 2020: Remarks at Wellesley's Virtual Graduation Ceremony,
Harambee House

By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe

Dear Class of 2020,

It's a pleasure to celebrate your graduation with you tonight although it is tinged with sadness. It's a pleasure because it is an occasion for which you have worked for over the last four years, sadness because you are unable to celebrate it how you had hoped to do.

Yesterday my second eldest grandson graduated from his high school in much the same way you are graduating from college. He did it virtually. Since I couldn't be there my daughter told me to call him and offer him a few words of encouragement. He was feeling a bit distraught at having to celebrate his graduation with just a few people around him physically and without the trappings of the usual graduation ceremony.

Like so many black men I reached back to my mother's treasury of wisdom with which she used to comfort us when things went bad for her or some unfortunate incident occurred, she would always say, "Every disappointment is a blessing in disguise."

I am sure you are wondering what, at this tragic time, could be seen as a blessing and how could one speak of a blessing when one looks at these bleak times. I guess I am speaking of the blessings of insight.

For example, we see how much the virus has devastated people in the black community. Experts have said that black people have suffered disproportionately because of our underlying health conditions. Some epidemiologists have even said that black people might have a genetic disposition toward contracting this disease.

Whatever the cause, the pandemic has shown us in stark terms what it means to be black and poor in America. It has demonstrated to us that we must take care of our health no matter how bad things get. It has also showed us that we must look more carefully at our economic well-being and why we must get into the political system to change our economic realities. As long as we stay outside the political system we give other people the power to control our destiny and thereby keep us at the bottom of the economic ladder. This crisis had shown us that we must pay greater attention to our economic and physical health.

Over the past week I have been watching the civil unrest as it unfolds across the country after George Floyd's murder. This public response seems to have activated another virus that lies at the heart of American society: the savage disregard for black lives and the constant danger that we find ourselves in constantly. My daughter and her husband have given my grandsons "the talk," but nothing in my grandchildren's experiences has prepared them for this graphic assault upon their humanity.

We have all seen the video of Floyd's murder at the hands of a white police officer. None of us will ever forget his urgent appeal to the officers, "I can't breathe," nor his anguished cry for his mama. African men, it seems, always call upon their mothers when they are in difficulty and have no one else to appeal to.

The second lesson this present moment teaches us is that black lives are devalued too much in this country.

This devaluation is compounded when the president calls us "thugs" and declares "when the looting starts, the shooting starts." He has since ordered up the military to supplement the police force and the national guard in Minneapolis.

The military may bring back "law and order" to these communities but it cannot solve the problems of racism and racial discrimination that lie at the heart of the nation. Frederick Douglass reminded us that "the mission of the Civil War was the liberation of the slaves, as well as the salvation of the union." He observed that the abolition of slavery did not "merely emancipate the Negro, but liberated the whites" as well.

This unresolved problem is remains at the heart of the nation. It also suggests that the liberation of black people remains the necessary condition for the liberation of white people. Unless blacks are free, no other member of the body politic can be free. The union cannot be perfected without the liberation of black people in this country.

Douglass also reminded us: "No man who lives at all lives unto himself. He either helps or hinders all who are in any wise connected with him. I never rise to speak before an American audience without something of the feeling that my failure or success will bring blame or benefit to my whole race."

This is a tall order but as you go out into the world you must be cognizant of your obligation to those who have nurtured you all of your life and to the larger family of which you are an integral part. You should not ignore this obligation.

The rise of the pandemic and the events of the last few days should remind us that our lives are interconnected with one another and that we rise or fall, as a people, in terms of how we well we conduct ourselves and the undying belief that we are always our brothers' and sisters' keepers.

In the end, all we should seek wisdom and understanding as we traverse the world. Yours may be the only class that may be able to say, "We graduated during the time of the pandemic." Although you are disappointed and saddened because you do not have the graduation that previous seniors had, you should count your own unique blessings. In doing so, I ask you to remember the advice contained in Proverbs 4:

Get wisdom, get understanding: forget it not; neither decline from the words of my mouth.

Forsake her not, and she shall preserve thee: love her, and she shall keep thee.

Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom: and with all thy getting get understanding.

Exalt her, and she shall promote thee: she shall bring thee honor, when thou dost embrace her.

I hope you enjoy your graduation. Embrace its challenges and go forward with faith in your ability to overcome whatever travails may come your way. This is the blessing that your own unique graduation should bestow upon you. May it strengthen you to face the trials that await you and may you walk the good walk and lead a blessed and fruitful life.

Selwyn R. Cudjoe, Professor

Africana Studies

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