Congratulations to the Class of 2019!
What a remarkable pleasure and honor it is for me to address you. I am Edmund Fong, Chair of the Division of Ethnic Studies, in the School for Cultural and Social Transformation, and can you believe the School is now celebrating three years of existence? It really has been a whirlwind experience. So many changes have occurred and we have grown so much.
Earlier this spring we celebrated 50 years of Ethnic Studies as a field and we had students, staff, faculty, friends and fellow travelers across the generations come together to share their memories of how they came to Ethnic Studies and what it has meant to them. What struck me across the many voices that day was how Ethnic Studies had been shaped by an ethics of care for cultivating a space beyond the given and the customary – where we each might grasp the limits and constraints of the world and ask: when and where do I enter? And in our presence towards one another: how might we imagine otherwise?
The School for Cultural and Social Transformation is itself a product of that ethics of care. We would not be here without you and nothing marks our journey more than celebrating the passage of our students, especially our early classes, who have been with us from the beginning of the School’s creation and have helped us build the community we would like to be.
Perhaps I might share a personal memory. You see, when I was asked to give this address, I immediately recalled another moment– one that captured for me the nature of what kind of community we could build tethered together. It was November 10, 2016. Yes, just two days before, the unthinkable had occurred and we had gathered together on a clear and brisk night in downtown SLC to find solidarity out of incredulity, to share in our frustration and anxiety. Amid signs like “We shall overcomb” or “Not my President,” the few hundred of us gathered together came as strangers to each other, hoping to find catharsis, I think, in a way not possible with simply our friends and family, nor simply through mass media. The rally itself followed predictable lines – there were the usual defiant speeches, the customary chants – perhaps one notable distinctive element was the large number of children and strollers present. After the opening speakers, we marched up Capitol Hill and we paused midway up State St. for another round of remarks and then something magical happened.
It began when a section of the crowd began clearing some space. Apparently, there had been a marriage proposal between a lesbian couple. As I strained to hear and see the couple, the crowd began chanting “She said yes!” “She said Yes!” “She said YES!” slowly rolling across all of us on that hill under the stars on that clear brisk night. We had been taken away somewhere else in that moment, we were no longer simply bound in reaction against something else, we had become what felt like a living, desiring, breathing community. We paused again when it was announced that a ten-year old child named Jack was missing and we all looked around until the child was reunited with his parents. As we searched, a former student of mine from years ago, spotted me and came over to say hi. As we embraced, and he told me he got a lot out of my class. So much for humble pleasures. The rally fragmented a short while after we reached the top, but midway up that hill I had experienced something that I will likely never forget.
That ephemeral moment and that community however briefly achieved calls forth one of my favorite passages from Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. As many of you know, the book is a trenchant and somber critique of race in America, specifically in societal investments in brutalizing black bodies. Written as a letter to Coates’ own son, Samori, and harboring no illusions to what he calls “the Dream,” Coates’ book eloquently illuminates American fantasies that render black people invisible, disposable, plunderable.
Now, the searing irony of the book, however, is that Coates’ seemingly instructs his son not to Dream. How can this be so? But the passage I often read to my classes offers an alternative vision – one not premised on “the Dream” but a vision of community there all along, forged in struggle, tethered to a chosen community and an insurgent inheritance. I’d like to read that passage:
“That was a moment, a joyous moment, beyond the Dream–a moment imbued by a power more gorgeous than any voting rights bill. This power, this black power, originates in a view of the American galaxy taken from a dark and essential planet…which is to say, the view taken in struggle. And black power births a kind of understanding that illuminates all the galaxies in their truest colors. Even the Dreamers–lost in their great reverie–feel it, for it is Billie they reach for in sadness, and Mobb Deep is what they holler in boldness, and Isley they hum in love, and Dre they yell in revelry, and Aretha is the last sound they hear before dying. We have made something down here. We have taken the one-drop rules of Dreamers and flipped them. They made us into a race. We made ourselves into a people. Here at The Mecca, under pain of selection, we have made a home…as do all of us who have voyaged through death, to life upon these shores.”
Class of 2019 – I hope we have been able to build a home for you under pains but no less pleasures of selection. I hope we have offered the possibility for understanding all worlds in their truest colors and the ability to flip them and transform them otherwise. I hope you have been able to voyage with us as we seek to build something upon these shores.
In turn, we face towards you, Class of 2019, to guide and inspire us. When you soar so we will sing – however impossibly high the notes may be. And when you struggle, we will embrace you so you may rekindle your resolve and your desire. And if you are lost, we will be here to gather you, all the pieces you are, gather them so you might find the right order.
Congratulations Class of 2019, you have helped us make something down here.